A little while ago, I asked a keen local birding friend why they didn't visit Wheldrake Ings very much, when it is clearly one of the best local birding sites.
Their answer was that the site is quite isolated and wasn't somewhere they wanted to visit on their own as they felt quite vulnerable there. This was quite shocking and saddening to find out. But as a man, this had never really occurred to me. But to her, yes, my friend was female, it was all too real.
That fear of a long one-way walk into a potentially lonely place, not knowing who you might meet. Not knowing who might come into a hide while you are birding. Being a long way from help if anything unwanted happened. Only one way in, one way out.
This was like a big slap in the face to me. I had birded here thousands of times over thirty years (Yes, I am that old!) and my mind was usually focussed on what birds I was hoping to see, what birds I had seen here before and what birds others were seeing elsewhere. I haven't needed to ever be worried about being here. How damn lucky I am. Because I am a man.
The horrific abduction and murder of York woman Sarah Everard sent shock waves throughout the UK and following this there has been much discussion about what women have had to put up with and endure from men in our own loved birding and wildlife community throughout their lives. This is horrifying. The petty reaction to this by some men, some men I have previously respected, has also been pretty horrifying.
I have had some slightly nerve-wracking moments at Wheldrake Ings. On warm spring evenings, when the Whimbrel are gathering before heading up to Iceland and there's a chance of a Garganey or Black Tern dropping in, gangs of youths often hang out in the car park, for a smoke and a drink. Usually, they ignore me, as I hastily jump in my car as dusk approaches and head off. Several times though, I have been approached with lads wanting a look through my bins or have a go with my camera (what most non-birders think my scope is). This can be quite scary and I always wonder if I will have my gear taken off me, or worse. But these events have taken up a tiny amount of time in what is a relaxing and enjoyable place for me to visit on my own. And all I really have to worry about is losing my bins or scope. Those things are replaceable. To feel that if I was female, I might have a feeling of fear in the back of my mind the whole time about even worse possibilities, is really awful and so incredibly unfair. Wheldrake and other places like it should be safe for everybody to visit, not just men like me.
So, what to do about this situation? Clearly not all men are a danger to women. But any man could be a danger to a woman, and that is the key thing that all men must keep in mind when thinking about these issues. And yes, it might only be a minority of men and therefore an even smaller minority of male birders who would ever commit a crime against a woman, but it is the every day sexist 'banter', the routine remarks made to mock, belittle, or let's be honest, bully our female birding counterparts that creates that hostile atmosphere in our community. This is something we can all actively do to step up and stamp out this kind of behaviour when we witness it, in the field or online. Call it out with your mates. We can't change the whole of society, but let's at least make birding and the wildlife community we all love, a safe-space for everybody. It is not good enough for men just to smugly think 'well I would never treat a woman badly, or commit a crime'. We have to be proactive and take responsibility for getting rid of this behaviour, stamping it out in our community. Otherwise, we are complicit.
Additionally, there are some great tips online about how to avoid making women feel uncomfortable while out birding. One big thing is to avoid situations where a woman may perceive that you are following them, even if that is completely unintentional. Wheldrake Ings is a classic place with one path in and one path out, and as I am usually in a rush, I often catch up with people on the path in front of me. It had never really occurred to me that this could be worrying for a solitary woman. But now I know that it could be, I will actively try and avoid this situation, by giving women room, stopping to birdwatch if I could be perceived to be following someone, and so on. If we could all be mindful of this, that would be a good thing.
I am lucky enough to work for an organisation that looks after sites like Wheldrake Ings. I want everybody to be able to enjoy these sites equally, no matter their gender, age, socio-economic status etc. So, I will be seeking input into how we can make sites more welcoming and less scary for people to visit, especially those who feel more vulnerable in these wild places. At some of the sites I work on, we have put in 'backless' hides, more like screens, so people can see if anybody is there already. Traditional garden shed-like hides can be very intimidating to enter. They are dark, creepy places, especially if you are not used to using them. What else could we do? Any thoughts, please do contact me on Twitter @birdingdad.
We all grieve for Sarah Everard and I can not bear to think what her family and friends must be going through. But if us men can make the world a safer place for women then something good will have come from this tragic situation.