Saturday, 5 September 2015

Is biological recording a modern phenomenon?

Paul Seligman makes an interesting point in response to my post yesterday – that non-professional biological recording is in its infancy. I wonder if that is true?

There are two aspects to biological recording:

  1. Data development – i.e. actually going out to collect the data; and
  2. Data management.

Data colletion

If one looks at the major datasets, I think we can say with some confidence that the vast bulk of terrestrial wildlife data has been assembled by what I refer to as 'non-vocational' recorders. We must look back to the vast effort made in producing the first edition of the Atlas of the British Flora (Perring & Walters 1962) to see how this amazing body of work was almost entirely achieved by voluntary effort. It demonstrated the depth of botanical skills across the country, and the commitment of those recorders to biological recording.

This first plant atlas was only the start of the process – it showed that it was possible to look at the biogeography of the British Isles using volunteers. Let it not be said that these were 'amateurs' – many were the leading local taxonomists of their day and would give the professionals a run for their money.

The same holds for our modern understanding of bird populations. True, the network of observatories set up at various stages has employed professional ringers. BUT, the vast bulk of ringing data come from volunteers – people who in their daytime jobs might be postmen or university lecturers. They all posess huge skills and have to pass demanding examinations before being allowed to operate independently.

The Wetland Bird Survey data that are used to monitor the health of many of our most important wetlands and underpin designations as Special Protection Areas have similar non-vocational origins. This vast network of local organisers and counters do so on a pretty much voluntary basis and include all walks of life amongst their ranks. This dataset is of course centrally organised and funded, so the data analysis and dissemination is by professionals.

So, let us move on to entomology. A good example of local recording is the Surrey Atlas series, in which I have had some small measure of involvement (see This project now boasts an amazing range of titles, from bees, wasps and ants to hoverflies, shield bugs and both macro-and micro-moths. The authors are almost entirely non-vocational entomologists. Only one had a professional career in entomolgy (as a lecturer). This series was ground-breaking when it was launched and is now the standard to which others aspire.

We finally arrive at the Hoverfly Recording Scheme. When Stuart Ball and I took the scheme on in 1991 it was moribund. The previous organiser had been professionally engaged and ran the scheme perhaps in some of his paid time. Similarly, in the NCC when we were there, Alan Stubbs had within his remit the time to run field meetings where non-vocational specialists visited different parts of the country at their own expense to investigate the Diptera fauna of that area.

This professional organisational capacity was in decline by 1991 – Alan retired when NCC was split up and the focus on engaging with the non-vocational community ceased. Field meetings would have to be run by volunteers if they were to continue. They struggled on for a few years where enlightened line managers allowed some of us to do this as part of the job for a single year, but it was an ongoing struggle to find somebody to take on the massive task of organising accommodation, underwriting the costs and drawing together the data. Various people took the job on for one or two years, but each realised that it was too big a job for a volunteer. I did the job from 2004 to 2015 but have now resigned from it – it is far too big a job for me to carry on with. So, this traditional data collection process is under threat.

The same holds for running a recording scheme. In 1991 when Stuart and I took on the job of running the HRS there were insufficient funds to digitise the data – so we did it in our evenings and weekends. Over 5 years I transformed 2 cubic metres of record cards into machine-readable data. Stuart, meanwhile turned his attention to other sources of machine-readable data. The result was an atlas in 2000 that actually set a new standard. To the best of my knowledge it was the first of its type within the BRC atlas series – with a combination of both maps and phenology historgrams. Our 2011 atlas also broke new ground by including trend analysis although clearly Butterfly Conservation's Millennium Atlas did the same but was professionally produced using volunteer data.

For the most part, biological recording schemes are run by volunteers some of whom, but by no means all, have primary employment in natural sciences. The contributors come from many walks of life. In the case of the HRS we find that very little data come from professional sources and our most oustanding recorders come from a very wide range of backgrounds. One of the best of whom was until recently a dustman.

This very limited suite of examples I hope illustrates the rich and varied postwar tradition of non-vocational biological recording. It is based on a long-standing local network of clubs and societies such as the Yorkshire Naturalists Union, the London Natural History Society and Kent Field Club that have a long tradition of publishing papers and local atlases. Articles in their journals from the 19th Century often provide important modern context. Their authors were not professionals. Indeed, in Dipterology there are several notable names such as GH Verrall and JE Collin who it is reported looked down on the professional community (Collin was Verrall, nephew). Verrall's main occupation was as an official of the Newmarket race course.

We have a long and envied tradition of non-vocational biological recording that is probably only matched by a number of northern European countries such as The Netherlands, Germany and Scandinavian countries. These days, the vast bulk of our taxonomic expertise is vested in this non-vocational pool.

Data management

Whilst biological recording is substantially the territory of the unpaid non-vocational devotee, data management is the preserve of a professional community. This comprises the staff of Local Records Centres, the Biological Records Centre at Wallingford and the National Biodiversity Network, together with employees of such bodies as the British Trust for Ornithology, Butterfly Conservation and the Country Agencies (Natural England, Scottish Natural Heritage and Natural Resources Wales).

Modern data input facilities such as iRecord are most certainly the preserve of the professionals and to a large extent are dependent upon software specialists.

I shall not dwell heavily on this aspect of recording because it is outside my real knowledge. Suffice it to say that the professional community is almost entirely relient upon the voluntary community for data, whilst the voluntary community to a greater or lesser extent depends upon professional services to provide data dissemination through websites, atlases and other products. There are exceptions such as the HRS, which does a very large amount of its own data management and report production, but we too could not function without BRC for publication of atlases. There is also a developing need for us to seek support in other ways such as software development to support data extraction from the UK Hoverflies Facebook page.

A new paradigm

The big difference between traditional biological recording and today's World is the advent of digital photography and its use in biological recording. In this respect it is an entirely new World Order. Relatively few recording schemes have embraced digital photography in the way the HRS has. In fairness we see considerable engagement from the Tachinidae Scheme – Matt Smith and I cross paths all across the digital highways as we pick up records from soures such as Flickr.

The really big issue is that as digital recording becomes more popular it places a great deal of emphasis on the support services that are required to ensure reliable determinations. In the case of the UK Hoverflies Facebook page there are three members of the Resident Team (Ian Andrews, Joan Childs and Yours Truly). This combined effort almost certainly adds up to 2,000 hours a year – I know my own commitment runs close to 1500 hours a year and I doubt Ian and Joan do any less than 250 hours a year each (and probably a lot more). This is the real difference in biological recording – at one time Ian, Joan and I would be happily doing our field work, peering down the microscope and assembling species lists for recording schemes. Ian and Joan still manage this, but my time as an entomologist is now virtually nil, so the yearly stream of 2,000 hover records and maybe a further 3-5,000 records of other taxa has dwindled to a trickle of perhaps 1,000 records all told!

The paradigm shift that has to be effected is one in which we have developed a new cohort of capable taxonomists and data extracters who can absorb some of this load.

A bigger picture

UK biological records form part of the Global Biological Information Facility (GBIF). If you examine GBIF it is clear that the bulk of the data for Diptera and several other Orders of invertebrates emanate from Northern Europe. Part of that is probably because we are better equipped to capture and disseminate the data. But, the other part is that in most countries biological recording is confined to Universities and techical Institutes. It is highly professionalised with no natural tradition of non-vocational activity.

Our system works and provides an amazing amount of data. These data inform all aspects of wildlife conservation and legislation in the UK. It is a highly under-valued resource. Bearing in mind the incalculable value of the many tens of thousands of contributors, investment in the professional arena is lamentable. In this time of austerity it is demonstrated still further by the shedding of many of the limited number of professional posts. For example all of the Natural History curators in museums in the West Midlands were lost a couple of years back. In doing so, this one act removed the support hierachy for many local non-vocational taxonomists.

For me, the big challenge is how to maintain non-vocational taxonomy in the face of diminishing budgets and increasing expectations that the non-vocational community will fill in the gaps created when paid posts are lost. Would a young Roger Morris now settle on working all hours of his spare time developing skills in the hope of getting a job? – answer – No – why bother when it is clear from the past 30 years that everybody thinks that this can be gained as a free service?

So, rather than looking at non-professional biological recording as being in its infancy, I think we might argue that it is at its zenith. If we are to maintain that position there must be investment in professional development to ensure that there are stimuli for young people who now have far less free time and many more demands made upon them to deliver greater efficiency (i.e unpaid overtime) in their professional lives.


  1. I'm glad my rather blurted out response was a useful stimulus! Roger knows much more than I do on this whole subject, although I was aware of many of the initiatives he mentioned. They are mostly single taxonomic groups each of which have their very well-informed enthusiasts. I was thinking more of general recording by well meaning amateurs with some knowledge of some groups (like me!).

    I perhaps chose my words carelessly on that point. What I think is that the systems for collecting, storing, distributing and analysing the data are still quite basic. To take an 'I have a dream' example, we are some way from a a point where there is a standard way of submitting records for any living thing seen anywhere in the world through one channel, that will then make it available to all who need to see or use it. Over the years that I have been repeating this utopian vision, there has been tremendous progress (maybe I will soon be able to bulk upload UK records via irecord, and Cornell and BTO are beginning to collect global avian data), but there is a way to go.

    Even in our small country, surely one of the most advanced, in this respect, this is a challenge and data flows, and silos of data are a big issue.

    Very simple issues like being able to view a set of records as a single 'trip' (Possible in BirdTrack but not in any data I submit to LRCs), or recording interactions between species, are, I contend, by no means standard or supported in most of the systems. However, the need to do the latter is now recognised, so iSpot allows interactions. So we are moving in the right direction, and various citizen science projects are catching on, but are we really at the zenith? I bet that in 50 years, our age will seem like the Victorian era does to us. Great stuff was done, but it's only the start.

  2. An interesting perspective Paul. I believe that you can upload all data to iRecord and then get downloads from it - maybe worth discussing with someone like Martin Harvey.

    The challenge with iRecord is that it depends upon a very limited pool of taxonomists to do the verification. In most taxonomic groups there is either no verifyer, or the verifyer is so stretched that they cannot take on the job on iRecord too. Hovers falls into that category. I have a backlog of approaching 3,000 records to check. At a rough guess that is probably two to three weeks work, so it will have to wait until I have about 100 hours to spare (my definition of a week's work). It will get done, but it illustrates the scale of the problem designing, building and launching the systems is not really the problem.

    The big issue I think is that all systems depend upon manpower and that is almost entirely voluntary. Very few field natural historians want to end up in front of a computer screen on a lovely sunny day such as today, dealing with the administration of biological recording. I too would love to be in the field but unless I stay at home and try to keep up with the workload it will drown me and I won't be able to cope! I would not recommend anybody to take on a recording scheme in today's World because there are too many demands and expectations placed upon scheme organisers.