Monday, 7 March 2016

Is biological recording only about databases?

This last weekend Stuart Ball and I ran a very positive training session at Sussex Biological Records Centre. Our 'Introduction to Hoverflies' course was fully subscribed, with twelve formal participants plus an additional group member listening in on talks. Apart from the general enthusiasm of the group, what struck me was the way in which it was starting to organise itself. Already, they plan to have several field events, and there was also considerable interest in visits to target species of importance that have not been recorded in recent years. All-told, I would regard this as a highly positive outcome and one that shows how LERCs can act as the focus for training and wider survey initiatives.

This took me back to reflecting on the recent debate about Natural England withdrawal of funding for LERCs. The main reasons given by NE seem to focus upon mechanisms of data assembly. LERCs, it seems, are not seen as an efficient mechanism for data collection; and, in the absence of completely open access to data, NE have chosen to focus their attention on national data assembly mechanisms and upon grants to improve open access to LERC data. I fear that they are missing a critical issue that I have previously touched upon: the need for local leadership as a focus for recording activities, and in providing venues and the administration needed to deliver training programmes.

In previous analyses I have broadly accepted the merits of the open access debate, but with some important reservations; not least the need to respect the will of individual recorders who may not want data made accessible to all. However, if all we choose to do is to focus upon the data, we are missing several important tricks.

Where are the leaders?

There are schools of thought that biological recording is threatened by loss of taxonomic skills. I have countered this argument with some alternative thoughts, but one must not overlook the need to maintain mechanisms for skills transfer. County recording initiatives are one such way of developing skills. Younger recorders would join up with the established specialists and learning the trade. Only, today, that may not happen. For example, I heard recently that the YNU was suffering a serious loss of botanical recorders, and had several vacancies for critical organisational roles. If the leadership is absent, recording will also suffer.

We know that leadership in biological recording is essential. If there is an active leadership, organising field trips, providing advice and giving feedback, interest in the subject is maintained, and new participants are attracted. If the impetus is lost, people wander off and do their own thing and new recruits are not attracted. We saw this with the Hoverfly Recording Scheme when it lacked a leader in the late 1980s, and also in the period 1997 to 2004 when we were far less active. Conversely, the UK Hoverflies Facebook page has shown how great activity can be stimulated by the efforts of a leadership team and active feedback to participants.

If the bodies that use data simply say that they want the data but are not interested in the process of data assembly, they must also accept that the data may not be there when they want it. Past initiatives rather contradict that contention, so I don't believe that NE is completely oblivious to the need to develop skills, and to motivate and enthuse recorders. It has helped to fund training courses in the past, but perhaps it has failed to grasp what goes into the training process? Who does it, where does it take place and how is it administered?

Training does not materialise out of thin air; and nor does leadership!

What is involved in organising courses?

As an illustration of the work involved in running courses, I thought the following checklist of jobs might highligh the level of investment needed to deliver a two-day training course. In this case for hoverflies, but I expect a similar package could be constructed for other courses:

1.       Identify a need - somebody thinks it would be a good idea. They need to get it off the ground, so what do they do? If a private individual, they may contact the training provider (in this case the HRS) and suggest a need.
            Without a someone to take on the local organisation, any desire will be killed stone dead as the HRS cannot take on local organisation. So, a local body must be persuaded that it would be a good idea to take on the project. This was what happened when we went to Orkney last summer - I contacted the LERC after suggestions from local recorders. Alternatively, a local body will identify a need and contact us directly - as was the case for the course we ran at Brecon LERC at the start of February and this last weekend at Woods Mill (Sussex LERC). As also happens regularly for the WLT for Beds, Cambs and Northants.

2.       Find a venue capable of accommodating 12 students plus the vast volume of equipment that we carry to run the course. You need a pretty big room that is suitable for such purposes. It must have a good power supply and be well-heated as people can get cold sitting at microscopes for hours. There also needs to be insurance to cover the event - an absolute requirement in some cases and on occasions we have been required to have our own insurance - that costs money (provided by Dipterists Forum).

3.       An organiser is needed to advertise the course and to take bookings. On one occasion this went wrong and we found that we had booked our end of the job, only to find that nobody at the other end had done a thing and had assumed that we would do everything! The course did not run!

4.       Finance is needed. Running a two-day course is expensive. Although we don't charge for our time, we do want to be reimbursed for our costs - fuel, accommodation, subsistence, course materials etc. This can run to several hundreds of pounds (£1000 in the case of Orkney). In fairness, we always subsidise courses because we only charge for fuel but a round trip of 500 miles or more can be a big dent in one's car's life expectancy. Dipterists Forum subsidised the Orkney course to the tune of £500 but in the end, Stuart and I also made a contribution as well as not charging mileage. Somebody has to make a charge, and to make sure that payment is received from participants. These days we won't commit to run a course unless a charge is made. This rule has been introduced because we have found that where no charge is made, one often arrives to find that the prospective group is half the anticipated size. Frankly it is not worth our time if we arrive to find we have four or five students (we think that about 8 is the minimum needed to justify a round trip of 4-600 miles and a total of 50-60 man hours of our time).

5.       Organising equipment, course materials, accommodation etc. That is done by the HRS - we book our accommodation, repair the training material etc. It is not a small job - collecting sufficient replacements for each winter's courses involves several hundreds of specimens. Presentations have to be updated and new course materials prepared. It is no different to a University course and requires the same level of effort to deliver an effective course.

6.        Travel to-and from the venue, arriving in time to set up the microscopes and other materials, and of course pack them all away and return home. Last weekend the outward and return journeys were relatively short, but each took between 3 and 4 hours, so a total of about 15 man hours in travel alone.
7.        Unlocking/locking the venue, managing the event, dealing with H&S issues etc are also an essential part of the process. Who will do this? Can they be relied upon?? Can a volunteer be found? Somebody also has to brief that volunteer!

8.         Dealing with post-course administration, payment of invoices etc. In our case an invoice is issued on behalf of Dipterists Forum, who then reimburse our costs and recoup them from the client. This all takes time - a combination of mine plus the treasurer for DF, and somebody at the host venue too.

Where have we run courses?

The vast majority of places that we have used as venues have been LERCs or Museums. We have also run courses at education centres linked to nature reserves, such as on the Somerset Levels, Yarner Wood and at Studland; but these are a minority. As specialist natural history curators retire or are made redundant, the numbers of museums capable of, or interested in hosting courses has declined.

LERCs are therefore really important and without them we must anticipate a significant decline in our capacity to deliver training. Maybe we will run out of steam before the LERCs all disappear, but where will be the focus for local initiatives thereafter? Relying on a few highly motivated people such as Stuart and me is all very well, but however motivated one is, it is not possible to make a difference without the necessary local facilities and leadership.


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