Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Do training courses encourage more recording?

Over the last three years Stuart and I have run somewhere between five and eight courses each winter, plus additional courses for the FSC at Preston Montford.

What we failed to do is to maintain any record of the numbers of people we have trained. I did a few quick sums this morning and concluded that during these years, together with the intervening years from 1993 when we first started to run courses, we must have provided training for about 500 people!

Sadly, we don't know who they were and cannot therefore match records received with previous trainees! Thus, we cannot answer with any certainty just what impact our training programme has had on hoverfly recording or submissions to the Recording Scheme. We think it has had a positive impact and we do know of a few people who have become very active recorders as a result. Those that we know of give us hope that we will have a long-term impact on recording effort.

This question has become more than simple academic interest as we see the publication of the WILDGuide which we hope will act as a further stimulus for interest in hoverflies. What impact will it have on recording and in particular on sales of the critical work: Stubbs & Falk? Intuitively, I think it is likely that sales of Stubbs & Falk will drop, at least in the short-term, because lots of people will find that the WILDGuide amply satisfies their need for a guide to hoverflies. Some of those people would probably have bought Stubbs & Falk in the past but will not feel a need for it now. How many new recruits to hoverflies will feel moved to buy the main monograph too?

My suspicion is that relatively few people go much further than identifying a proportion of the common and obvious species by matching their find to a picture. This is clearly illustrated by the decline in the numbers of records of tricky genera submitted to the Recording Scheme over the 30 years since Stubbs & Falk was first published in 1983. Over this time, the proportion of records of tricky genera has fallen by about a third, suggesting that a larger proportion of recorders confine their interests to genera that require relatively little equipment and, in particular, a microscope. I hope the WILDGuide will act as a stimulus!

This issue has gained greater prominence after what is best described as an 'interesting' dialogue with the BENHS who publish Stubbs & Falk. Have we had an impact on their book sales? I  sincerely hope so, as that is really proof that people have gone away from our courses sufficiently inspired to buy the book! If 20% of people we have had contact with have gone that far, this equates to maybe as many as an additional 100 books sold that would not have happened otherwise. My suspicion is that the equation works differently, and that many people bought the book specifically in order to have it for the course.  Others may already have owned a copy but could now use it to better effect.

So, why does this matter? The reality is that many natural history societies are finding it difficult to maintain numbers and see their demographics changing with fewer young people joining. Times have changed and people feel less inclined to join societies. We all work via computers these days and don't make the effort to attend meetings and listen to lectures. It is a great pity because societies offer scope for like-minded people to share their interests. So, does this spell the demise of the Natural History Society? If it does, there is a real risk that there will not be the development of new specialist guidebooks. Societies create the mass that is needed to support publications. Stubbs & Falk would not have happened without the BENHS, and it follows that hoverfly recording in the UK would be much weaker. Also, lots of people might not have gained pleasure from the book and the insight it gives into the natural world. That includes those people who now buy the WILDGuide because I might never have become enthused sufficiently to do what I have done for the past 30 years (21 of which as joint National Recorder).

Publishing costs are rising, and this means that specialist books could become too pricey to attract a big following. I hear through the grapevine that BENHS is proposing a price hike for Stubbs & Falk. It is no real surprise because prices have been stable for goodness knows how long? They have not risen for at least ten years and possibly longer. However, raising prices just as a new competitor arrives on the block strikes me as a little unwise. BENHS have the better part of 1,000 copies of Stubbs & Falk in their warehouse and really need to be shifting them quickly! Stuart and I are already talking about a new book in a new format. It is a few years away, but when it comes out, it will be designed as a companion to the WILDGuide - providing keys and more detailed text for all species. Hopefully the two will work in unison. When it comes out, the existing S&F format will be obsolete.

Meanwhile, we will be developing a supplement to Stubbs & Falk that will be ready by this next winter. It will provide the relevant additions and will explain how they fit into the current keys. We are thinking of producing it as a free pdf for download from the website, and will print small numbers under the Hoverfly Recording Scheme label to meet demand from those who prefer a hard copy. I would be keen to get a feel for the numbers of people who would like a hard copy of the supplement - we aim to make it as cheap as possible - certainly under £10.00.

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