Described by Michael McCarthy in the Independent as “Britain’s premier wildlife blogger”, Mark Avery talks to Amanda Tuke about being opinionated, offering opportunities to other bloggers and his new project.
When did you first realise the potential of blogging?
Eleven years ago when I was Conservation Director at the RSPB, the Communications team wanted to start some blogs and asked me to write one of them. I had to ask them what a blog was and I wasn’t convinced of their value from what I heard. I was slightly nervous about the time it would take up, whether I would have enough to write about (which I think lots of people worry about when they start), whether it was worth it and whether I would be any good at it. But I decided to give it a go. I left the RSPB two years after I started that blog and I wrote a blog more or less every day for those two years and I’ve done the same for the last nine years too. I’ve posted around 7300 blogs in that time on my site although that does include guest posts.
Had you already started the independent blog when you left the RSPB?
Yes, I set it up so that it was ready to run the moment I stepped out of the RSPB headquarters. I then blogged every day during a seven week road trip across the US [https://markavery.info/archived-blog-posts/usa-road-trip-2011/]. Back from the trip I carried on writing about nature conservation, events and policies as I had been at the RSPB but from an independent viewpoint.
On your ‘About’ page, you list sources of income for the last nine years. Why did you think that was important to do?
I actually took my lead on that from George Monbiot who publishes where he gets all of his money from. It shows I’m independent. I don’t tell you how much income I get for each thing but that’s because the amounts are pitifully small and it would be embarrassing. As well as income from writing books and giving talks, I’ve done small amounts of consultancy for organisations I like, like wildlife NGOs. I have also turned down offers to get paid lots more by people who I thought were on the wrong side of environment issues.
On the 18th May 2020 you posted a really interesting graph of monthly page views since 2011 showing you’d had 7 million page views in total over that time and in recent years often over 100,000 page views each month. Back in 2016 there was a spike mid year with double the amount of page views. What triggered that?
Two things happened in 2016. In June of that year I bumped into Simon Barnes. At that time Simon was both a sports journalist at The Times, a brilliant one actually, and he also contributed wildlife and environment columns. He told me that the newspaper had just made him redundant as part of a downsizing exercise and he also said I was the only person who knew about it. He agreed I could write about it and gave me a quote so I blogged about it. That led to a big spike because it was such a scoop. Also in 2016 I launched a petition to ban driven grouse shooting, and the day after the ‘inglorious’ 12th Aug it reached 100.000 signatures.. Looking back at 2016 there was very heavy readership that summer which has rarely been recaptured since.
You seem to post up to four times a day. How much time do you spend updating your blog and is it something you have to push yourself to do or is it a compulsion?
It’s more a compulsion than having to push myself although sometimes it gets to nine in the evening and I suddenly remember I haven’t got a blog for the next morning. I usually think of something because I’m opinionated and have something to say about a lot of things – the surprising thing is that people want to read them. The amount of time I spend writing my blog varies. A difficult blog probably takes me up to an hour to do but some of that is fiddling with links rather than the thinking and writing part.
Is it a challenge getting a balance when you’ve got a number of projects on the go, for example working on your blog and writing articles and books?
When I’m writing a book, you would probably see that the number of blogs I write drops. The best time for me to write is as soon as I wake up and it would be unusual for me to be still asleep at six in the morning. If I’m writing a book I would dedicate that time to the book so I would write the blog at some other time during the day before. It’s great to be able to schedule blogs, so if I have a slack day I can sometimes write four or five blogs to spread through the week.
Is it accidental or deliberate that if you look across a couple of weeks there is a mix of types of blog posts including opinion pieces, guest blogs and book reviews?
It’s deliberate but it’s also moderated by how things pan out. I hardly ever post blogs which are opinion pieces at the weekends. Tim Melling sends me a guest blog about birds for every Saturday evening and Paul Leyland sends me photographs and words for a Sunday blog about UK insects, both of which save me time. There’s also a guy called Ralph Underhill who almost always sends me a cartoon for Saturday morning. Ralph worked for me at the RSPB and left just after I did. He offered to send me cartoons and until that point I had no idea he did them. I also try to publish a book review, when I have them, on Sunday mornings.
Did you invite submissions of guest blogs originally or did people just start sending you things?
A bit of both actually. I have used my blog to promote other people’s work and I’ve given opportunities to young people and unknown writers to write guest blogs. A young writer from Northern Ireland, Dara McAnulty, has just had his first book published and he wrote a guest blog for me four or so years ago. I get a bit of a kick out of the fact that I helped him a tiny bit.
Would the nature writing competition which you ran recently fit with promoting new writers?
Yes and I think it worked really well. I’d done a couple of writing competitions before, one of them worked really really well and the other one didn’t so I’m glad this one was a success. The topic of nature during Lockdown caught the mood quite well I think. Most of the submissions were quite uplifting. Some I liked weren’t so upbeat but they tended not to get voted for by other people. Running a competition like that on a relatively small blog like mine is a bit like having a party which you think is a great idea and then as it gets closer you wonder if anybody’s going to turn up. I hope that in a small way having something published on my blog is encouraging and helpful to people.
You said in an interview with Inside Ecology that you would like to influence what people think and that’s why you write. Since you’ve become a freelancer what are you most proud of influencing?
I think I have kicked off a movement which will lead to the end of driven grouse shooting in the UK. Not tomorrow but not that far away. It’s clearly not all down to me in any regard but I think I kicked it off and helped it along quite a lot. As one individual, I’m quite proud and surprised actually to have done that.
How do you get that balance between calling it as it is on your blog but also maintaining relationships?
I think I do alienate some people. There are people in the world, many of them are politicians, who spend their time not really telling the truth and pretending everything is okay. I just look at things and think, “That isn’t okay!” I’m somebody who can’t be sacked but who has a real passion for the environment. If somebody like me can’t go “Bloody hell what a load of rubbish that is,” or “If you looked at the science you’d find that isn’t right,” or “Why isn’t somebody doing something about this?” then not many people can.
Whose nature or environment blogs do you follow and would recommend to other people?
Miles King’s blog is very good. He’s studied nature conservation for a long time and he knows about a lot of things particularly agriculture. Ruth Tingay’s Raptor Persecution blog is fantastic if you want to know about people breaking the law and killing raptors. There are quite a lot of blogs I dip in and out of. I read Martin Harper’s blog, he’s the Conservation Director of the RSPB and it’s interesting to get a feel for what the RSPB is thinking about issues even though it’s a bit ‘corporate-speak’. I think there is a serious lack of good blogs from our conservation and environmental NGOs. There are personalities in the conservation world but you’d never guess it from the blogs that appear. I think people should be themselves while doing a job, it doesn’t mean they can say whatever they like but they can be personalities as well as doing the job for which they are paid. Then I think people might trust them more. If the leaders of the conservation world just sound like part of their particular corporate machine, I trust them less than if they sound like the individuals that I know they are.
Since lockdown it feels like everyone is writing about photographing nature, and I just wondered whether because it’s giving people more time to ‘stand and stare’. What do you think bloggers can do to nurture that new interest? My worry is that the moment lockdown ends, then everybody goes back to their normal lives and forgets everything they became interested in.
I worry about that too but I’m not sure that there is a role for bloggers to make sure that the interest in nature is maintained. I hope NGOs are thinking about it and not just in terms of money they can make through recruiting new members but how these people can strengthen the wildlife conservation and environmental movement. If Government is serious, which I doubt, about wanting to do a better job for the natural world then it should be asking how we can use this interest to introduce policies which might have seemed difficult or unpalatable previously. If a bloody big shock like a global pandemic can’t allow us to change direction a bit then what will?
What advice would you give nature and environment bloggers who want to become influencers?
Being opinionated might seem a fault to some people but if you don’t have an opinion, one you can argue fairly convincingly, then you are not going to get very far. You need to have something to say and be able to say it in an interesting, convincing and entertaining way. And I’m afraid you have to work quite hard at it too. I’ve seen scores of bloggers come and go in the time I’ve been blogging and some of them have been quite good for three months and then they’re gone. If you are going to build an audience, I would recommend blogging every day. You have to use social media as well. If you’ve got twelve followers on Twitter and no friends on Facebook, you need to try and sort that out, which takes a bit of work as well. I know it helps because if you look at the stats, when I’m driving up the A1 in the car and can’t tweet about something I’ve written then fewer people read it than if I’m sitting at home and can.
What’s the best thing anyone’s said about you?
A senior NFU person described me as “that bastard blogger” and that’s the one I’m proudest of which I think says something about me. My blog is read by people who agree with me and people who disagree with me very strongly and politicians and journalists and that’s quite good I think. In an influencing world that’s the position you need to get too.
As well as all this blogging, are you writing any books at the moment?
Yes I am actually, good question. There’s a book I’ve written about forty percent of and I’ve been trying to get a publisher interested but none of them have said yes. So during lockdown I thought about this and what I’m going to do is I’m going to publish it myself not as a paper book but simply on the web by subscription starting in January 2021. I’m not going to tell you what the book’s about but it has twelve chapters and I’ll start promoting it in November or December. You’ll be able to pay a tiny amount of money to read the first three chapters and then you’ll be able to decide if you want to pay more to read the next three chapters and we’ll see how that goes. You’re the only person who knows that so that’s your scoop!