Sunday, 10 January 2016

Natural history societies - time for a paradigm shift?

Wherever one goes one hears a similar tale of woe - the local or national society that is ageing, cannot recruit younger members and has great difficulty in attracting members to indoor meetings. Most also find it very difficult to fill key organisational roles, especially the more onerous ones such as Treasurer or Membership Secretary. Yet, all of today's natural historians rely to a greater or lesser extent on the work of those societies.

Without the British Entomological and Natural History Society we would not have modern keys to Hoverflies or to Soldierflies and their allies. Nor would we have various volumes on moths and innumerable keys to many elements of our invertebrate fauna. Close to my heart, we would not have a much wider range of information on Diptera without Dipterists Forum. Likewise, BWARS are central to our current knowledge of aculeate Hymenoptera. At a local scale I would highlight the Croydon Natural History and Scientific Society whose entomology section has been responsible for a wide range of local and national natural history guides. Examples include Jim Porter's wonderful guide to moth larvae, Graham Collins' accounts of Butterflies and Moths of Surrey, Roger Hawkins Shieldbugs and Ladybirds of Surrey and to that matter the early stages of my own contributions. The CNHSS entomology section has a remarkable track record but today its membership is perilously small.

I am just scraping the surface of the long-term contribution of societies to our knowledge of Britain's wildlife. We would not be the world leaders in biological recording without our fantastic voluntary scientific societies. We need to cherish and maintain them if at all possible, but times are changing and there is a growing roll-call of local societies that have ceased to exist or are on the brink of disappearing. If they go, one must wonder what published resources future generations of natural historians will be able to call upon - we must hope they will have new and inspiring products rather than relying on the outputs of this golden generation of biological recording.

This was the substance of a conversation I had the other day with Leicestershire recorders Helen Iken and Steve Woodward. Our conversation touched on various issues and what might be done to resolve the problems of society membership. Is there an alternative solution?

My immediate thought was that we are entering a new paradigm in which relatively few people join societies but will get involved in social media. They might even attend field meetings once they have developed an 'on-line' friendship group. So, do we need the traditional society? The answers are complex but we probably do need a constructive conversation about the direction organisation of natural history societies might take; formal or otherwise.

For most of my life I have joined and participated in the workings of local and national societies - I am a natural 'joiner' and perhaps also a natural 'shaker and mover'. But, were I to be starting again, would I be doing the same today? I can get most of what I need from the internet, and I can probably access all that I want from paper sources by seeking pdfs from the authors.

Why should I pay subs or make any commitment of time to the administration of such groups? Well, I do so because I have a social conscience and because I recognise that many of the facilities from which I have benefitted would not exist without such societies (e.g. the publication on many specialist keys and guides). I also enjoy the companionship and intellectual benefits of such a group. I don't particularly enjoy the committee meetings, deadlines and personal feeling that if nobody else will run with something then perhaps I should . The latter has been my downfall in several ways (not least at my old job where I sometimes wish I had just kept my head down and not bothered making an effort).

So, here I am again putting my head above the parapet! Will I never learn?

In conversation with Helen and Steve I mused that perhaps it was time to try to set up an on-line society for a somewhat larger geographical area? My ideas are not terribly refined but it seems to me that one could develop a model in which there was a central pool of organisers for a much larger area who met using Skype or some such electronic medium. Dispensing with time-consuming committee meetings would be a great advance.

General interest might be developed using Facebook. There might be training events, and perhaps a Journal and/or Bulletin, published strictly in electronic format as pdfs. There could also be field meetings for different disciplines or perhaps even inter-disciplinary events. There might even be 'projects'. The obvious idea might be to create a geographic unit around the concept of the 'East Midlands'. I rather like the project based approach because it would form a bit of focus.

In theory one might start with a 'Facebook' group, but I suspect that one would need something a bit more formal if things progressed to the stage where there were organised meetings. At a minimum there would be a need for public liability insurance - public landowners are increasingly seeking this as a condition of visiting sites. Furthermore, I fear that whilst participants might accept risks, their wider family might not and could sue organisers if something happened.

The perennial question therefore arises - insurance costs money. Web sites also have running costs, even if members design them for free. Running costs are small but somebody has to do the funding. So we already hit the need for some sort of fund-raising. Maybe a voluntary contribution, but we then need a treasurer and some sort of audit.

Maybe this is not an insurmountable problem? One thought might be to develop a 'Biological Recording Union' supported by the relevant Wildlife Trusts and geared towards surveying Trust reserves and maybe towards undertaking regional scale biodiversity audits - along a similar line to the Surrey Atlas Project (see But then one would also want to make sure that the 'Union' had some level of independence from the Trusts so that it did not become a political football.

I offer these musings as 'food for thought'. I am not offering to start such a group but would be willing to lend a hand if others were prepared to get involved. Perhaps one of the Wildlife Trusts would like to take a lead and co-ordinate with others in the East Midlands (recognising that Lincolnshire still has a reasonably robust 'Naturalists Union').

In terms of setting up such a group, perhaps there is a need for a conference of Wildlife Trusts and Natural History Societies in the East Midlands? The aim would not be to push out existing societies, but to try to create something that put people who otherwise would not join societies in contact with such groups, but also to create a forum and events that appealed to those who would not otherwise join traditional societies at all. My instincts are that unless we look for new ways of organising natural history their inexorable decline will continue, much to the detriment of natural history and Britain's wildlife.


  1. I agree Natural History Societies are absolutely vital. The two local societies I have been a member of - Carlisle NHS and Kent Field Club were both very involved with the respective LERCs (which is how I became involved initially, as an LERC employee at the time) and both also do lots of stuff like publish journals, have field meetings, have online members-only groups - and crucially IMO both have been proactive about getting people of all ages on to their Council/committees. I think all these things help keep them relevant and that keeps membership up. I've been on the Council of Carlisle NHS for the past couple of years, and am pleased to report membership is as high as it has ever been in over 100 years of the society - not that it couldn't be even higher, and the society more active, with more people attending field meetings - but I am certainly optimistic about its future for the next 100 years.

    I think traditional societies will carry on being really important in UK Natural History, but like all services in the age of the free internet, they need to be good value, have an attractive "offer" and reach out to their target audience and tell them about that offer to survive and ensure there are enough people at the bottom of the pyramid to sustain amateur natural history research into the future. All socs have to weigh up how much they offer for free to increase interest vs keeping their benefits sufficient that people will want to join - and explaining the costs an NHS incurs is part of that.

    A friend I was chatting to last week (I won't specify who/where but not East Midlands) said she was reluctant to join her local NHS as they aren't particularly active field meeting wise and the winter talks were too much of the "what I've seen on my holidays" variety (not that these can't be good as *part* of an NHS programme). My suggestion to her was to join and see if she could help make it more active - but if the society wasn't receptive, then perhaps setting up a new society could be a way forward. I suggested the "Active Naturalists" that have been setup for Cheshire and Merseyside in the past six years seem a catchy name and model.

    It would be great to see an East Midlands Active Naturalist or another focused society start - hope you generate some interest!

  2. I'm sad to say it but if you want to reach beyond a small inner circle (and for sustainability, we have to), Facebook is the only answer at present. I think your suggestions are bang on.