The origins of the Country Life Great Bird Race lie in 1980 when David Tomlinson, then assistant editor at Country Life Magazine, joined forces with Peter Smith, David Pearson and Jeremy Sorenson to try and break the UK record for birds seen in one 24 hour period. Smith and Pearson had set and reset the record at various times from 1957 to 1965, first as schoolboys on bicycles no less, bowing out with a record of 126 species and it was perhaps inevitable that they would be enlisted by Tomlinson for a new attempt. This time there was the added incentive of raising money for the RSPB’s Silver Meadows Appeal; this they duly did to the tune of £1200, about £3500 in today’s money. Remarkably, even though they didn’t leave East Suffolk, they broke the record with a tally of 132.
1981 saw a new twist, one that was hoped would attract the kind of media attention needed to encourage donations; a challenge was laid down to the Fauna and Flora Preservation Society to create a team to compete against one from Country Life, and the competitive race was born. The inclusion of Bill Oddie in the ffPS team ensured a healthy amount of coverage and much banter ensued when he started referring to the Country Life team as “The Players” on account of their military style approach. The ffPS team became “The Gentlemen” in contrast and the scene was set for battle and much raising of funds for good causes.
This first competitive year saw the Country Life team claim victory with a total of 146 to the ffPS’s 143. Over £3000 (over £8000 today) was raised for a variety of bird charities and Sir Peter Scott donated a suitably addled, signed Nene Goose egg as a trophy, eventually to be housed in a Victorian egg warmer found by ffPS’s John Burton.
1982’s race saw even more media involvement as the whole race was filmed and this time nearly £5000 was raised (around £12000 today). Once again Country Life won but some controversy over their late finish led to a change in the rules for the following year to see penalties for a late finish.
Over £6000 (£14000 in today’s money) was raised in 1983 and Country Life got their hat-trick of wins with a total of 155, or 151 depending on how you view the credentials of four of the geese they saw.
Released by a major publisher the same year as The Big Bird Race, Bill Oddie and David Tomlinson’s account of the 1983 race inspired a new generation to take up the mantle, and in 2015 The Norfolk Bird Race was created by one such reader, Andrew Whitelee, and yes, he still treasures his Bill Oddie signed copy