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.




Sun, boggy places and sundew: a trip to Newlyn Downs

Recently, I went on a trip to Newlyn Downs on a sunny day in North Cornwall, not far from Newquay and St Newlyn East. It’s a Site of Special Scientific Interest and Special Area of Conservation, and it’s not hard to see why.

Newlyn Downs
Newlyn Downs (photo: Amanda Scott). The rusty red of the soils is derived from iron-rich mining spoils.
Dorset Heath
Dorset Heath, Newlyn Downs (photo: Amanda Scott)

Newlyn Downs forms the largest area in Cornwall of a vegetation type known as Southern Atlantic wet heath. It’s also the largest area of heathland in Cornwall that is rich in the nationally rare Dorset heath (Erica ciliaris). The SSSI citation gives more detail if you want to do a bit of fact-finding about what else is there. It’s a site influenced by past mining; capped lift shafts are dotted about, and the soils are a rusty red in the wetter parts of the Downs due to the iron-rich mining spoils.

My main observation, however, was that a lot of it is very boggy, and that’s fine by me as I love bogs and bog-loving plants! I was very happy as I tramped across the sphagnum.

We were on a Cornwall Butterfly Conservation field trip, and saw a fair few butterflies, moths and other species: butterflies – Gatekeeper, Brimstone, Small Skipper, Large Skipper, Meadow Brown, Small White, Large White, Small Heath, Green-veined White, Grayling; moths – Drinker (and some eggs), Magpie, and a marvellous Emperor caterpillar; other – Golden-ringed and Keeled Skimmer dragonflies. There were lots of Yellowhammers as well, perching, singing and dashing about for the benefit of the birders amongst us.

Emperor moth caterpillar
The wonderful Emperor moth caterpillar (photo: Amanda Scott)

The beauty of a field trip with a group of fellow enthusiasts is that everyone has different things to bring. We had moth, bird and plant experts with us, as well as folk who know their butterflies, and everyone was friendly and willing to share their knowledge. I learned more about how dragonflies lay their eggs in the water as we all watched a Golden-ringed female doing just that, guarded by the male.

But my main focus, I have to admit, was on the plants. It was great to see comparative rarities, such as the Dorset Heath and Babington’s Leek, but best of all was the Round-leaved Sundew, one of our native carnivorous plants. I have never ever seen so much Sundew in one place. We were all trying very hard, but without much success, not to tread on it as we walked across the boggy areas. It was flowering, but the leaves were even more impressive, postbox-red against the rusty-coloured soil, and with their sticky ‘dewdrops’ glistening prettily but with sinister intent as they wait to trap unfortunate insects.

I tweeted a photo of the Sundew, and Plantlife tweeted it as their wildflower of the day.

It’s well worth a visit to Newlyn Downs – there are clear footpaths throughout – but take your wellies or a good pair of waterproof boots! The grid reference for where to park is SW8368355209 – in the ‘lay-by’ in front of the gates to the old golf course. Cross the road and follow the signed footpath.

Bell Heather
Bell Heather, Newlyn Downs (photo: Amanda Scott)

If you’d like to come along to a Cornwall Butterfly Conservation field trip, there are still a few more this year. Link here for a list. Everyone is assured a friendly welcome: you don’t need to be a member to attend.

Link here and here to find out more about wonderful Sundews: Plantlife’s Wildflower of the Day on 30 July, and my favourite wildflower on most days!

Gatekeeper butterflies