Sunday, 25 December 2016

Developing a County Atlas

A County Atlas project is a very good way of generating local interest in any group of organisms, especially if there is an active group and a dyamic organiser. To my mind, the best model is that of the Surrey Wildlife Trust's County Atlases, which now form quite a remarkable canon of work. As a result, Surrey is probably the best documented county for its invertebrate fauna. A lot of credit should go to Martin Newman, the Chief Executive of the Trust who was responsible for turning into reality the basic model suggested by yours-truly and Graham Collins over lunch one day in Pirbright in spring 1994 (I think).

This series of books has far-surpassed what I think any of us foresaw at the time. I hoped that we might manage to publish the work of several active recorders at the time – David Baldock, Roger Hawkins, Graham Collins and me. But, twenty years later the range of titles far exceeds the original aspirations of Butterflies, Moths, Dragonflies, Hoverflies, Shieldbugs and Orthoptera. There has even been a second edition of Butterflies that provides a chilling oversight of the decline of some of the county's iconic species. These are lasting records that form an important baseline for future generations upon which to base analysis of newer data.

I always hoped that Surrey would be in the vanguard and that its series would stimulate other counties to do something similar. There have been occasional volumes for a few groups in other counties, but to the best of my knowledge no other County Trust has attempted anything on the same scale; yet we have shown that it can be done!

How is it done?

In short, hard work! But the scale of the job depends upon the numbers of recorders. For some insect groups there should be no problem generating sufficient records. There are often good numbers of capable butterfly and dragonfly enthusiasts. Things become a little more difficult to achieve good coverage of moths but, again, there are far more people running moth traps that in the 1980s and 1990s. In theory, the same applies for hoverflies: the numbers of active recorders have grown substantially, but here we see that the available capacity is thinly spread. I dare say a similar situation obtains for bumblebees and some other Hymenoptera. So, for these groups, why not give it a go? Equally, there may be other relatively popular families – Longhorn Beetles, for example.

When Graham and I started on our atlases we set out to cover Surrey at 5km resolution, but over time that refined to tetrad level, which I think is about right. Any coarser resolution makes it difficult to relate species' distribution to solid and drift geology, or to urbanisation. Each weekend, in suitable weather, we would choose an area of Surrey and visit as many squares as possible, often stopping for just sufficient time to achieve the '80%' rule. In other words, you generally assemble 80% of the list relatively quickly, but can spend innumerable hours adding the occasional additional species. That is not terribly efficient, and so it is best to move on and cover several more squares and in doing so you increase the overall species list but make sure that those that are abundant on the day are recorded at the majority of sites. Repeat visits help to fill in the gaps and can be targetted to fill in obvious shortfalls. As I recall, it took about 10 years before we were convinced we had adequate data to produce an atlas. I would guess that about 75% of the data for hoverflies was generated by Graham and me.


When we were active in Surrey, it was much more difficult to distribute provisional maps. Now it can be done electronically and pdfs can be made available quite readily. Once working maps are distributed, people are often encouraged to fill in the gaps in their area. So, the obvious lesson is to produce a set of working maps and make them available to anyone who is interested.

Most people will not travel very far from home, but if they can be encouraged to fill in the squares in a radius of 5km from home you will soon start to see the benefits of developing a network. Then it is up to the project organiser to visit under-recorded areas and fill in the gaps. I used to check out particular geological formations to look for species that I suspected might be found. Obviously, a different assemblage is likely to be found in different situations, but there will also be surprises, so one should not be too presumptive about what might turn up. I also found that when certain species turned up, it was worth visiting similar habitats across the county over the next couple of days, as some species are very short-lived. This seemed to be the case with Brachyopa and with Myolepta as well as some Cheilosia.


The Surrey Atlas Project was structured to attract sponsorship for the first couple of titles, after which we were able to use income from preceding titles to fund later ones. Our design was pretty up-market, but simple soft covers using 'print on demand' models could be a lot cheaper and easier to update. One can design to fit the budget. It striikes me that maybe today there could be support from sources such as Lottery and Aggregates Levy funds. The important point about this part of the project is to try to do a bit more than just a set of maps. Interpretation is the critical issue. For younger readers, this part of the job is a great way of improving your ability as an ecologist if you have aspirations for a career in conservation and ecology.


My big regret about the Surrey Atalas series is that we did not have numbers on the spine. I did suggest this but it was not pursued. Had we had numbers I feel sure there would have been more sales as the series gained popularity and people started to collect the books. In this respect, I think it is important to remember that printing is expensive and that unit costs can be reduced by increasing the volume sold. But, if you print more you must sell more – storage is expensive and it is dead money, so the length of the print run is always a balancing act and marketing techniques are essential to make the project viable.

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