Wednesday, 13 December 2017

What support do Recording Schemes need?

In a thread resulting from one of my earlier posts on the NFBR Facebook page, Steve Whitbread mentioned that the NFBR 2015 conference discussed what support might be given to Recording Schemes? I wonder how many schemes were there?

For me, the issue of external support is a difficult area. Many years ago, I was tasked with shifting the protected species role of English Nature in the Wakefield area to the voluntary sector. It did not go down at all well! Perhaps the biggest gripe was 'we used to do all of this until English Nature established a team of Protected Species Officers and insisted that it was their role and statutory duty' ... 'now you have no money it is conveniently being passed back to us'. I had a lot of sympathy but I was simply the messenger! We quickly found that it was not possible for the local Bat Groups to administer the volume of calls coming in and that we could not escape at least part of the workload!

I left the team about a year later and have no real idea how things panned out, but I really felt it was a bit much to expect volunteers to deal with the huge administrative burden of taking calls, organising a visits by somebody and then reporting back. That was not what the bat workers signed up to do - they loved bats and wanted to do something for them. I expect some dropped out as a result - and understandably so.

As a result of that experience and of dealing with the Humber Wildfowl Refuge - where I had to do the same thing, I realised that it was not a great idea for voluntary bodies to have too many ties to Government bodies, and especially logistical ties. That has made me quite fiercely independent and is one reason why the HRS tries to be as independent as possible - indeed we took on the scheme and did the initial data assembly because BRC did not have the resources to do the digitisation - so the problem goes a very long way back!

Having also been tasked with winding down support for Estuary Partnerships and been referred to as 'the man that wants to close Estuary Partnerships' the message is even starker - if you pump-prime a project that leads to people's jobs and livelihoods, you are setting yourself up for a fall when you cut funding. Somebody has to deal with that issue and I have had more than my fair share in my life! I would not wish it on anybody - it is not a career-maker it is the job given to somebody who will never be looked upon in a favourable light because all they bring to the Board papers is negative news on how nobody is picking up the reigns and taking over funding - it casts very unfavourably on you and undermines your morale!

The voice of experience!

So, when I hear talk of support for Recording Schemes I start to think about good and bad models. Any model that gives schemes the idea that they can just pass a job over to somebody else will lead to dependency and this will weaken rather than strengthen schemes. For the most part, it won't do much for schemes dealing with difficult taxa anyway because their biggest challenge is trying to cope with the vast volumes of data that ensue because the scheme is made accessible to people who don't have the taxonomic skills but do want to contribute. Taxonomic skills are the primary bottleneck in most of the invertebrate schemes I suspect. Synnergistic relationships with bigger schemes like butterflies, moths and dragonflies might be possible because there are probably enough skilled people to deflect some time into building relationships.

BUT, if you are the organiser of a scheme that barely anybody beyond a very small nucleus of specialists can ID, there is not much anybody can do to increase that nucleus without you actually having to take the job on! After all, they cannot do the training - it is you, the scheme organiser who will have to do it. And at a roughly 5% hit rate you will have to run an awful lot of courses to generate new recording skill, let alone people who are willing to take on some of the administrative burden.

So, my plea to anybody thinking about how to support schemes - please remember that in many ways, more support is actually likely to mean more work for the existing scheme organiser  if it focusses on training and capacity-building! In this respect, the HRS does not need more support for capacity-building, it simply needs a few more people to take on the training role. If we had that capacity, there would also be a need to develop additional sets of specimens for use in courses (we have all the talks and a good method of teaching that we can teach to others). There might also be a need for another camera microscope and possibly access to a store of microscopes that could be couriered to the venue. So, it would certainly be worth looking into the logistics of setting up a pool of equipment that might be shared by a group of LERCS so that all the trainer had to do was to arrive with powerpoint presentations, course literature and relevant specimens (ours extend to 5 store boxes for hovers and 5 for general Diptera).

Printing course literature is useful further support - and here we must extend a HUGE thank you to BRC for prining the literature for our more recent Diptera courses (we have a charge for the hoverflies literature to cover replacement printing costs - not something we have called upon from BRC).

What else might be done? Well running a course a long way from home is VERY costly if you self-fund. When we went to Orkney we actually covered a sizeable part of the costs ourselves (DF covered part of it) - it could never have been done otherwise. Likewise when we went to Shetland where the LERC covered the ferry costs. Long-distance courses are expensive so a general fund to cover some of the costs might be helpful. BUT, after our experience in Orkney where we went believing that we had 8 participants, only to find that 3 had dropped out at the last minute, I would say all courses ought to involve an up-front charge to the participants.

Other thoughts include the need to provide capacity to develop teaching collections. Ours have been developed by me at my own expense - they comprise 10 store boxes now and probably 4-5,000 specimens. Just thinking about those costs - store boxes are now about £50 each. Staging pins about £0.5 each and micro-pins £0.2 each. At today's prices, our teaching collection would cost somewhere in the order of  £850-£1000 not including the vast amount of my time compiling and maintaining the collection and of course a lot of my house storing it!

So, maybe NFBR should be thinking a lot more about what actually goes into training people, developing training for trainers and a fund for supporting courses and the assembly of necessary training material. This is a finite resource that, if it ceased, could be accommodated by the schemes - they just stop running courses - which means that the funding bodies see the direct impact of their cuts!

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