Why is biological recording important?

Marsh Fritillary, just emerged, Predannack Cliffs
The Marsh Fritillary, a protected butterfly species in the UK (photo: Amanda Scott)

I am one of the kinds of people that I get really annoyed by.

Well, there’s an admission. Let’s narrow it down a bit. In the world of nature conservation, one of the most important, but often unsung, activities is recording what you see. And then, even more importantly, sending in those records somewhere central. Somewhere that other people, people who are just as concerned about wildlife as you are, can use and act on them. And I, up to now, have not been one of the country’s best recorders, to put it mildly. Hence, my annoyance with…me.

Quite frankly, I get a bit bored by recording. Writing it down, sending it in – it’s so much more fun just being out in nature enjoying everything. It’s a chore to take notes and tell other people about what I’ve seen.

Well, that’s what I used to think. But I am now a convert to recording and to sharing my sightings. Here’s why.

Number one. A record of a sighting that is not shared is no use whatsoever. And yes, I mean that, no use at all. OK, it may have been thrilling that I found a new site for a particular declining species of insect, and I may feel protective of that site for very good reasons, but if I don’t send that sighting to the relevant people what might happen? (NB. the ‘I’ is rhetorical here – I may be not very good at recording, but I’m not that bad!).

Well, firstly, if the site in question is put up for development in the future, the appointed ecological consultant will ask for records from the local biological records centre which will, of course, have no records of the population of the declining species because the person who found them has failed to submit them. The worst case scenario is that development plans for the site will take no account of what might be important populations of a particular threatened species. That will be, and I’m not mincing my words here, at least partly the fault of the person(s) who failed to record what they’d found. Secondly, any national or local scientific surveys of how a particular species is doing will be incomplete, and that may lead to imperfect or even doomed decisions on future landscape-scale management for that species.

Number two. In these days of intensive farming and lower biodiversity we need to record not only rarer species but, in fact, any species. Today’s common species are tomorrow’s rarities. Go back 50 years and skylarks were abundant. Now, they’re not. If we weren’t recording skylark numbers we’d have no idea of how far they’d declined but, thanks to the BTO’s and RSPB’s excellent recording schemes we can calculate what’s happening. It’s depressing, but at least we know what we’re dealing with.

It’s actually not that hard to record. There are apps, there are simple forms and email addresses. No-one is expected to record everything. Just record the groups of species in which you are interested. Every bit of effort helps. If every single person – man, woman, boy and girl – in the UK was to send in just one or two records a year each, I bet that would significantly increase the number of species records overall.

I am going to make two recording-related commitments for the rest of 2015. Firstly, I will record all species of butterfly (common or rare, adults or caterpillars) that I see and send them to the County Butterfly Recorder. Secondly, given my wildlife garden is in its second year, I will record any wildlife I see there, in my own backyard, and send it to the local records centre. I now have a notebook allocated specifically, with a few records already pencilled in (nothing extraordinary, but common species, as I say, are important to record, too).

At least this means I know my records will be contributing to everyone’s understanding of biodiversity, both nationally and locally, in my own patch in Cornwall.

Here are a few links:

Biological Records Centre for Cornwall

Environmental Records Centre for Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly (ERCCIS): http://www.erccis.org.uk/wildlife_recording


Butterfly recording in Cornwall (including County Recorder): http://www.cornwall-butterfly-conservation.org.uk/recording.html (records are shared with ERCCIS)

Moth recording in Cornwall: http://www.cornwallmothgroup.org.uk/record.php

Butterfly Conservation: http://butterfly-conservation.org/110/recording-and-monitoring.html (see iRecord Butterflies – a free app)

…and I could list all the ways of recording for various species in Cornwall, but there are various different ones, which is, I guess, what might put some people off. So, if in any doubt, always send to the ERCCIS address above. They share their records with other interested groups in Cornwall, so you know your results will count.

Rare species, common species, all species. We need to know how they’re doing. Keep those records rolling in.




In search of the Grayling: a visit to Bissoe Downs

Carnon Viaduct, nr. Bissoe

Last weekend I went to visit Bissoe Downs, a little west of Truro, with a group of like-minded people from Cornwall Butterfly Conservation in search of Graylings (the butterflies, not the fish…).

Leaving your vehicle in a small car park (SW 783408), there are various well-made paths you can take. Dodging cyclists and joggers and enjoying the warmth of the day, we headed towards the nine arches of the Carnon Viaduct, which carries the Falmouth−Truro trains, opened in 1933 to replace an earlier mixed masonry and timber construction designed by Brunel. Take a look at the picture at the top of this post: the topless masonry piers below the arches are the remains of the previous viaduct, which once supported a timber frame along which the trains ran, and which are referred to as ‘Brunel’s stumps’ – there are several across Cornwall.

Bissoe Downs (photo: Amanda Scott)
Bissoe Downs (photo: Amanda Scott)

The area around the paths is in fact a previous arsenic mining site. Just up the road, Bissoe Valley Nature Reserve, owned and managed by the Cornwall Wildlife Trust, is an excellent example of how these previously mined sites can be restored, providing a haven for wildlife and recreation for us humans. Here, on Bissoe Downs, to either side of the path the land is naturally regenerating, with a succession of heathland scrub and trees such as birch.

Contaminated old metalliferous mining sites can, perhaps surprisingly, be more ecologically rich than you might think. This short report from Cornish Mining World Heritage makes interesting reading. These sites can even provide homes for species that are otherwise nationally rare but are tolerant of heavy metals, such as Cornish Path Moss (Ditrichum cornubicum), now found in only two copper-contaminated locations in Cornwall.

Can you spot the Grayling? (Photo: Amanda Scott)
Can you spot the Grayling? (Photo: Amanda Scott)

Here at Bissoe, the case in point is that of the Grayling (Hipparchia semele), a butterfly that likes to bask on patches of rocks or dry bare earth, of which there are plenty of the latter on the thin soils of this site. The colouring of the undersides of its wings, which it holds closed  when at rest, with hind wings covering the forewings, also camouflages it well in this habitat. You’ll spot it quite quickly in the photograph to the left, but imagine trying to find it in the middle of an entire heathland!

Here it is a bit closer…

Grayling (photo: Amanda Scott)
Grayling (photo: Amanda Scott)

This photograph was taken almost directly from above the butterfly, so notice how it has tilted its wings at an angle away from the vertical. The sun was behind me and to the right – perfect for the photograph, and perfect for the Grayling which has exposed as much surface area of its wing as possible to the sunlight. Not only is this good for basking but it also means that this cryptic butterfly casts hardly any shadow – excellent for camouflage. It is not often one gets to see the more orange coloured upper side of its wings.

Graylings have in fact only recently been discovered at this site (by Phillip Harris, a committee member and previous Chairman of Cornwall Butterfly Conservation, as well as all-round expert naturalist). Graylings are now most often found on coastal sites in Cornwall, with only a small handful of inland locations to their name, so this site was an exciting find.

There was a time when Graylings would have been much more widely distributed.  I’ve mentioned before on this blog my butterfly book from 1968. There it says that the Grayling is “widely distributed all over the British Isles, usually in dry, exposed places. Colonies may be found on steep granite cliffs above the sea, on rough moorland and commons, stony hillsides and chalk downs” (Mansell, E. and Newman, L.H., 1968. The Complete British Butterflies in Colour. Ebury Press, London).

State of the UK's Butterflies coverToday, the picture is very different. Butterfly Conservation’s 2011 report on The State of the UK’s Butterflies cites the Grayling as one of the many British butterflies that have been suffering in terms of both overall population numbers and distribution. A recent paper (Fox et al., 2010) places Graylings as being nationally vulnerable on the basis of their reducing 25-year trends for both population numbers and distribution. This is probably mainly due to the loss of suitable habitat.

The Grayling is the largest of our ‘brown’ butterflies. It exhibits variation between populations across the country, with six subspecies in the UK. The main food plants of its caterpillars are grasses such as Bristle Bent, Red Fescue and Sheep’s Fescue, and the adults like to nectar on plants such as Bird’s-foot Trefoil, Heather and Red Clover. It is a priority species under the UK’s Biodiversity Action Plan.

The Grayling, and other butterflies, are of course not just important for their own sake (which they are) but because they are sensitive indicators of climate and habitat change. With annual broods and specific habitat requirements they are often amongst the first species to respond to changes in the environment. If we want to continue to enjoy the sight of butterflies in Cornwall and the wider UK, we all need to take note and support those, such as Butterfly Conservation and its local branch, and the RSPB’s Give Nature a Home campaign, as well as our own Cornwall Wildlife Trust, who are all working to preserve habitats and species.

Did we find Graylings at Bissoe? Actually, yes…well over 30! Which just goes to show there is always hope.


Bodrifty…past and present together


Back in the early nineteenth century, Thomas Hood wrote the sonnet Silence, in which he compared silence in its more literal definition:

There is a silence where hath been no sound,
There is a silence where no sound may be,
…clouds and cloudy shadows wander free,
That never spoke….

with a different kind of silence, a silence of loss and passing that attaches itself to places where humans have worked and lived out their days, but which are now deserted:

…in green ruins…where Man hath been,
Though the dun fox, or wild hyena, calls,
And owls, that flit continually between,
Shriek to the echo, and the low winds moan,
There the true Silence is, self-conscious and alone.


Before you start wondering if you’ve strayed into the wrong blog, I do have a point here.

Roundhouse at Bodrifty, Penwith (photo: Amanda Scott)
Roundhouse at Bodrifty, Penwith (photo: Amanda Scott)

I went to visit Bodrifty, an ancient, and well-known, Iron Age village on the Penwith Moors in the west of Cornwall. Excavated in the 1950s, all that remains now are the low rocky walls, overgrown by grasses and heathland plants, of eight roundhouses that once would have been thatched, inhabited by families who farmed the surrounding land. If you passed it by without straying from the track, you would only see a rock-strewn heath landscape. But stop and walk through it, and the circles of the houses take shape.

The lives of these people, over two thousand years ago, would have been very different from our own. Both simpler and much, very much, harder. Even so, although they might not have had our knowledge or technology, they had the same intelligence, the same ability to observe and interpret and appreciate their world. And now they are gone. What would once have been a lively, active settlement is deserted, and all that is left is stones, and some pottery shards in the Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro.

Heath-spotted Orchid (photo: Amanda Scott)
Heath-spotted Orchid (photo: Amanda Scott)

So I do understand, and indeed feel myself, that there can be a kind of wistfulness, even a sadness, to the places that we humans have left behind. And yet…

…I’m not sure that, in my heart, I completely agree with Thomas Hood. As I walked through the remains of these people’s homes, I found myself enjoying the march of nature. Foxgloves, stitchwort, heath-spotted orchids, clovers, trefoils, tormentil, heathers, pignut and bedstraw, the call of a cuckoo in the distance, a kestrel hovering overhead, black crows soaring across the fields, wrens chattering in the gorse bushes, scurryings in the undergrowth (a lizard, a vole?)…

What I did not find in this place was any separation from the people that lived here, no loss of impact of lives once lived, whether endured or enjoyed. Not because my life is like theirs, nor because I recognise them as my ancestors (I’m a northerner by descent, so my own roots will more likely be Norse), but because what I found here, at Bodrifty, was continuity. Because this place was teeming with life. Not human life but, nonetheless, life in all its messy, vibrant, glorious existence.

Bedstraw (photo: Amanda Scott)
Bedstraw (photo: Amanda Scott)

I think that one of our problems, as humans, is that all too often we perceive ourselves as separate from the world of nature. This is the blessing, but also the curse, of self-consciousness. We obsess about our own immediate past, when we should be relishing the present and mindful of the future.

Bodrifty is alive and breathing, not  a dead or historic place. So, humans may not be in charge of Bodrifty any more, but we can still be visitors who can enjoy, watch and appreciate and, indeed, be part of the pageant of life that struts its course through this particular corner of our beloved Cornwall.

If you would like to visit, and live for a while, this corner of Cornwall yourselves, I’d encourage you to do so. The map reference is SW 445354 – find out more here. And let me know what you think of it.


Marine Conservation Zones: the picture for Cornwall

Yesterday, DEFRA published its consultation document on the Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) it proposes to designate in 2013 under the UK’s Marine and Coastal Access Act.  The proposals have caused an angry reaction from conservation organisations – including the Wildlife Trusts, RSPB and Marine Conservation Society – because, of the 127 sites recommended, only 31 are being put forward for designation in 2013. Others could be put forward in future years, but there is no clear commitment to do so, and the question being asked is ‘Why the delay?’: of the 59 of the recommended sites considered to be at the most risk, under half are being proposed for designation in 2013.

There has already been extensive consultation for over a year with local communities on the impact of MCZs – recommended MCZs in the South West were reported in 2011, following consultation under the ‘Finding Sanctuary‘ project, which considered socio-economic as well as environmental impacts –  and there is no obvious reason why DEFRA shouldn’t now be consulting on the lot. Each site was proposed on the basis it contains important and/or endangered habitats and supports species we need to protect.

What does this mean for Cornwall? What is in and out for 2013? Well, it takes a bit of ploughing through the unwieldy consultation document and annexes on the DEFRA site, but I’ve managed it (have a go here if you like!), with plenty of help from the much more accessible Wildlife Trusts‘ pages.

The South West as a whole has proportionally done a little better than other regions. Of the 45 sites recommended, 15 of these are now being proposed for designation in 2013 (so one-third compared to the one-quarter nationally). These are:

Deeper sea zones: East of Haig Fras, South West Deeps, The Canyons

Cornish coastal zones: Padstow Bay and Surrounds, The Manacles, Upper Fowey and Pont Pill, Whitsand and Looe Bay, Tamar Estuary sites

Isles of Scilly: Isles of Scilly Sites

Other South West coastal sites: Lundy (already designated), Skeeries Bank and Surround, Torbay, Chesil Beach and Stennis Ledges, South Dorset, Poole Rocks.

These are all incredibly valuable sites, and great that they’re in for the current consultation. But which of the other original recommendations for Cornwall are missing? Here’s a few examples, with thanks to the Wildlife Trusts‘ webpages for the information.

Land’s End is out – one of the best UK areas for the critically endangered balearic shearwater.

Fura-bucho do Mediterrâneo // Pardela das Bale...
Balearic Shearwater (Photo credit: jvverde)

Swanpool is out – the only known natural location in the UK for an endangered filter-feeding bryozoan – the trembling sea mat.

Mount’s Bay is out – with its rich population of dolphins, basking sharks, porpoises, as well as seagrass beds, stalked jellyfish and crayfish.

Newquay and the Gannel is out – there you’ll find the protected pink sea fan and European eels.

Pink sea fan
Pink sea fan (Photo credit: CameliaTWU)

Hartland Point to Tintagel is out – noted for porbeagle sharks, mussel beds and reef-building honeycomb worms.

English: Porbeagle shark (Lamna nasus)
English: Porbeagle shark (Lamna nasus) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Via the Wildlife Trusts, you can sign up to befriend your local proposed Marine Conservation Zone – or all of them! They’ll then send you information and ideas on how to support the campaign to get all of them designated. Or on 26th February 2013, the Marine Conservation Society and Sealife are organising a march to Westminster to campaign for MCZs – register your interest in taking part here.

You can expect me to be returning to this topic as the consultation progresses.

Working together for nature

I’ve been heard to express doubt about whether wildlife NGOs work together often enough. Acting in partnership gives not only strength in numbers and clout, but means that people and organisations, both at local and national levels, get to share views, good practice and ideas.

So I’m always glad when I’m forced to eat my words on this point.

Coverack Harbour on the east coast of the Lizard. Photo credit: Amanda Scott

A great example where I’m proved wrong in Cornwall is the “Linking the Lizard” project. Part of Cornwall Wildlife Trust‘s Living Landscapes initiative, the Trust is working in partnership with the National Farmers Union, Natural England, the National Trust, and Cornwall Area of Outstanding National Beauty to deliver changes across the landscape that will benefit both wildlife and those who live and work there on the land and sea by supporting sustainable business, agriculture and tourism. Wildlife will gain from those involved being able to work across boundaries to link habitats and species. I’ll be watching the project develop with interest!

Nationally, it’s also good to see the NGOs speaking out together on issues. The RSPB, Wildlife Trusts and Institute of European Environmental Policy have recently written to the Prime Minister urging him to push for wise spending on environmental policies. They’ve told him the key is not more expenditure, but in a time of economic austerity, to target it in the most effective way, to improve the environment for all EU citizens. It’s very powerful when wildlife NGOs and an independent policy thinktank speak out together – let’s hope Mr. Cameron listens.