I attended the Earthworm Society of Britain’s annual general meeting at Cannock Chase Forest where I got to meet fantastic amateur enthusiasts, very knowledgable naturalists with a general in…
By sharing biological records it opens up the potential benefit that a record can have to nature and the environment through analysis, research and the production of resources (such as a distribution atlas). Throughout the years, the number of organisations involved in the collection and dissemination of biodiversity data has increased and diversified, leaving biological recorders in a state of confusion as to who they should be sending their data too.
The best place to start with data flow is the end of the story, mainly because this is where the record’s use really comes into its own. The National Biodiversity Network Gateway is the UK’s depository for biological records (in Scotland this is the Atlas of Living Scotland). It houses many different data sets from many different organisations. These data sets may vary a lot in structure so they are accompanied by metadata (this is a description of the data set created by the data provider). One of the components of the metadata explains who the data set is available to (e.g. everyone, only government agencies or only those permitted by the provider) and what it can be used for (e.g. anything, non-commercial use or only by permission of the provider). Therefore, the NBN Gateway should be a one stop shop for all biological records and this is where we should aim to for our records to end up so they can be put to good use by scientists and conservationists.
So we just need to submit our records to the NBN Gateway? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Biological records are much more useful if they are validated and verified by appropriate experts and this is where things get a little more complicated. Below are three explanations of possible routes to the NBN Gateway. Please note that things differ regionally and between species groups so always contact the relevant organisations if you want to clarify what the best option is for any given record. Furthermore, records created for a specific survey should always be sent to the survey organiser (for example, records for surveys conducted as part of The Wider Countryside Butterfly Survey should always be sent to the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme).
Remember that you are the one creating the record so it is up to you where you send it to and you should base this on what you want your record to be used for. There is no right or wrong option and you may chose to send your records to multiple organisations to ensure it reaches all the relevant organisations (though this may lead to duplication on the NBN Gateway).
The species record perspective: National Recording Schemes and national surveys
If you would like the record to be used for distribution atlas production or species population trend monitoring, you should submit your record to the National Recording Scheme (NRS) for that species group. The NRS may be able to use your record to help improve the current knowledge about habitat preferences or behaviour, and will pick up on lesser known rare species. In essence, they are best placed to interpret your record in relation to the species group it belongs to.
You may need to contact the NRS to determine the best method to do this, as different surveys/schemes have different methods and preferences. Some will have a regional contact, a county recorder, that is responsible for collating the records in the local area and they will send your record on to the NRS alongside other species records.
Most NRSs will forward their data on to the NBN Gateway (depending on the NRS’s opinion of how their records should be used). From there it can be downloaded by Local Environmental Record Centres (LERCs), though there is no guarantee that this will happen. Some NRSs do pass on their records to LERCs but, as many NRSs are volunteer run, they do not always have the capacity to do so.
Pro: Species experts able to use data to better understand the ecology, distribution and conservation status of their species groups.
Cons: No guarantee that data will make it to LERCs to be used by managers of local habitats and local significance of species records may be lost.
The local record perspective: LERCs and local groups
If you would like the record to be considered when decisions are made regarding the area the record was made in, you should submit your record to the LERC for the area the record originates from. The local knowledge of LERCs mean that they are best placed to interpret the significance of your record locally (in particular, looking at the importance of species assemblages), though this may not be picked up for lesser known species groups due to a lack of species-specific knowledge. They are also pivotal in disseminating local records to decision makers such as planners and government agencies.
As with the species perspective, there may be a county recorder allocated for the species group that you would be redirected to (or they would pass your records on to them for processing).
Most LERCs will forward their data on to the NBN Gateway (although there is variation between LERCs as to how much and at what resolution data is shared, and who is granted access to LERC-submitted data). From there it can often be downloaded by NRSs, though this is unlikely to occur for most NRSs due to the fact that most recording scheme organisers are volunteers and would simply not have the time to do this. Some LERCs do pass on their records to NRSs (mainly through county recorders) but LERCs continue to be reduced in capacity by funding cuts and some may charge for all data searches/dissemination they conduct.
Pros: LERC able to put species records in local context and provide assistance to decision makers for local sites.
Cons: Records for lesser known groups may be overlooked and no guarantee that data will go to NRS where it can be interpreted alongside other records for the species.
The multi-taxa recorder perspective: iRecord
The two routes above consider the use of the record and there are valid arguments for both routes. So why not send all of your records to both the relevant NRS and the LERC? Well, ideally that’s the best option but it’s not always pragmatic for a biological recorder to be able to do this due to the amount of administration that would entail. In fact, even just sending your records to several different LERCs or NRSs can be an administration mountain!
One solution to this is iRecord. This is an online biological record submission platform created by the Biological Records Centre and the NBN to simplify things for the recorder. The idea is that you can use one system to input all of your records and the relevant NRS and LERC can access that. Furthermore, iRecord allows survey and scheme organisers to create their own forms so iRecord can allow for the vast differences between what different surveys will ask you to record, though all records will still require the basics: who, what, where, when
iRecord relies on a registered species group verifier to check species records to ensure that only reliable records are accepted. Verifiers may be county recorders or scheme/survey organisers, and are usually a representative of the relevant NRS. LERCs are able to download both verified and unverified data for their area from iRecord. iRecord verifiers can set up filters so that records are automatically accepted for certain easy-to-identify species (e.g. hedgehog).
Pros: Provides the recorder with an online database of their records and reduces administration workload of recorder (and often the verifier too). Allows NRSs to receive records from multi-taxa recorders that may not otherwise engage with the NRS.
Cons: Not all species groups have an active verifier assigned and those records remain unverified. No guarantee that LERC will download local records.
There is no doubt that data flow is a complicated topic and it’s no surprise that biological recorders are often left confused about where they should send their records. There is no right or wrong submission pathway to send your data to as they all have their pros and cons. The best way to decide is to think about what you want your record to be used for and contact the relevant organisation(s) to see what they recommend. You may find that some organisations have developed a data flow pathway that ensures that your record will go to everyone who can put it to good use. Regardless of where you send it, the most important thing is that you engaged with nature by making a record in the first place.
Keiron Derek Brown
20th March 2016
My interest in wildlife goes back as far as I can remember and the credit for this goes to my father who would often take me, my brother, my sister and our dogs on walks in the woods and along the beach. In particular, my dad would point out birds and pass on the knowledge he´s gained through books and observation. At 71 his love of birds is still strong and he´ll often spend his mornings watching his avian visitors or putting his previous trade as a joiner to use by constructing bird tables and nest boxes to improve his little patch for our struggling wildlife. Keeping his birds safe includes warding off any cats that try to enter the garden (much to the bewilderment, and often amusement, of my mother).
My father may not be an expert, but he knows his garden birds much better than I do so I thought it would be a great idea to put his observations to good use and give something back to him so I signed him up to the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch and booked a train home to Cumbria to undertake the survey with him.
The Big Garden Birdwatch is a citizen science survey hosted by the RSPB in winter each year. It was first run in 1979 as a one-off winter activity designed for junior RSPB members. However, the RSPB underestimated how popular the survey would be and over 34,000 forms were returned (partly thanks to coverage on Blue Peter). The survey was repeated each year and adults were invited to participate from 2001.
Thirty six years later over half a million people now regularly take part in the survey. This has built a useful dataset for looking at changes in bird populations over time. This has allowed the RSPB to determine that we´ve lost more than half of our house sparrows and three quarters of our starlings. Blue tits have fared better, seeing a 20% rise over the years and our woodpigeon population has increased by 800%!
The survey really is quite easy. You simply watch your garden (or a local green space if you don´t have a garden) for one hour and record the highest number of each bird species visiting your garden at one time. Recording just one number for each species prevents the results being skewed by repeat visitors and you only count birds that actually land in your garden. Following the one hour survey, you can submit your results online or via paper forms. Everything you need is sent out by the RSPB or can be downloaded in advance once you have signed up at the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch webpage.
The RSPB encourage their participants to provide food for our winter birds, so the survey also acts as a reminder to feed our winter garden birds. Some tips include providing fat cakes, coconut shells or seeds. You can make your own fat cakes as demonstrated by Nick Baker in the video below.
Our Big Garden Birdwatch
Before starting we defined our survey area as the back garden. The count would take place out of the back bedroom window (opposed to downstairs) as this provided a less obstructed view of some of the garden. We determined that we would include the fences and walls, as well as any of the neighbour’s overhanging tree branches. We put out bread, seed and fat balls for the birds and filled up the bird bath with water.
On Sunday 31st January 2016 we started our survey at 10am. Within minutes two blackbirds landed on the fence, before flying to the lawn. A robin was quick to follow. The odd jackdaw would snatch and grab a piece of bread from the bird table and after several individuals coming in and out one at a time, six jackdaws entered the garden at once. The next new species was a lone dunnock foraging on the ground beneath the bird table. Just before the halfway point a pair of tree sparrows entered the garden to check out nest boxes. Three blackbirds chased each other around the garden floor, increasing the total for that species and a pair of great tits were added to the list. Two blue tits then did the rounds checking out nest boxes left, right and centre. A starling flew to the bird table and the species list increased to eight with 15 minutes remaining. Only one new species entered in the final 15 minutes: the song thrush. However, during this final period three great tits and two starlings entered the garden at the same time, increasing the counts for these species.
We entered the following results on to the form:
Blue Tit (2)
Great Tit (3)
Tree Sparrow (2)
Song Thrush (1)
Tree Sparrow (2)
In addition the form asks you to record any additional wildlife (such as mammals and reptiles) that you have seen in your garden over the past year and give a measure of how frequently they visit (e.g. daily, weekly, monthly etc.). We had nothing extra to report so we placed the form in the return envelope (my parents do not have a computer or internet connection) and sent it back to the RSPB.
The survey was really simple and good fun. My father enjoyed it and was pleased to be putting his observations to good use. In my eyes, the best outcome from the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch was his realisation that you don’t need to be a scientist to make a contribution to science. It was a fantastic introduction to biological recording and I will definitely be returning to Cumbria next January to undertake the survey again!
Following the survey I presented my dad with a belated birthday present: membership to the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) Garden Birdwatch. This involves following a similar method to the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch and submitting data on a weekly basis. This creates a high quality dataset on bird population trends across the years and seasons and makes a fantastic gift for anyone with a garden that is interested in birds. The gift pack includes a subscription to Bird Table magazine, a free book on birds and other assorted bits and bobs, along with instructions for the survey method and the survey forms (though an online option for data submission is also available). The gift membership is only £19.95 and details can be found at www.bto.org/volunteer-surveys/gbw.
31 January 2016
Britain is very lucky to have a rich history in biological recording. Natural history was a popular pastime in Victorian Britain and our taxonomists were (and still are) responsible for the description and recording of species across the world. As a result of this history, the UK has a well developed network of organisations involved in biological recording. Getting your head around what these organisations do and how they can help you as a biological recorder can be confusing so I’ve tried to clarify the roles of some of the organisations involved. Please note that this list is by no means exhaustive, but I hope it is useful. Where I have explained a type of organisation I have provided examples.
Biological Records Centre (BRC)
This is a publicly funded organisation that works closely with the biological recording community, particularly the recording schemes and societies. This work includes the production of resources (such as recording scheme websites, mobile phone apps, atlases and guidance documents), the undertaking of research to better understand how to improve or interpret biological recording and collation of datasets on behalf of recording schemes and societies.
National Biodiversity Network (NBN)
The NBN is a network consisting of non-governmental organisations and government agencies involved or invested in biological recording. In addition to managing the taxonomic species dictionary for the UK and producing guidance for the biological recording community, the NBN manages the NBN Gateway. The NBN Gateway is a portal through which biological records can be accessed by users. Ideally, this is where all biological records should end up. Records are submitted to the NBN Gateway by organisations that collate records (e.g. Local Environmental Records Centres, National Recording Schemes and Conservation NGOs). In Scotland, the NBN Gateway is currently being replaced by the Atlas of Living Scotland (also managed by the NBN), with hopes to role out the same across the other UK countries.
National Forum for Biological Recording (NFBR)
The NFBR acts as the independent voice of biological recording in the UK. Their Facebook group provides a great forum for sharing news and events. One of the highlights of the biological recording calendar is the annual NFBR conference, where speakers from numerous organisations speak about a topic related to the theme for that year. This year’s theme is National Recording Schemes – celebrating the past, looking to the future.
Local Environmental Records Centres (LERCs)
LERCs are organisations that collate and manage biological records for a defined geographic area (for example the Cumbria Biodiversity Data Centre collates biological records for the county of Cumbria). Biological recorders may send biological records (of any species) to LERCs to be added to their database for the area they cover. LERCs are able to interpret the local importance of biological records (for example the location of European Protected Species records in relation to planning proposals) and may have contacts for species experts for some groups. An Association of Local Environmental Records Centres (ALERC) was formed in 2009 and many LERCs are now members. The ALERC website has an interactive map where you can find the LERC for any area in the UK: www.alerc.org.uk/find-an-lerc-map.html
National Recording Schemes (NRSs)
National recording schemes collate species records for a defined group of organisms and provide guidance on the recording of the species they cover. Records of the species covered by a NRS can be submitted to the scheme by a biological recorder for inclusion in the NRS database. The size of the species group these schemes cover can range from relatively few species (such as the Earthworm Society of Britain) to larger species groups (Such as the Bees, Wasps & Ants Recording Society) or even a a very large and diverse group of species (such as the Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland). These organisations have the expertise to verify records for the species they cover. A list of national recording schemes can be found on the BRC website: www.brc.ac.uk/recording-schemes
Although the focus of conservation NGOs is (obviously) conservation, these organisations may also be involved in biological recording as understanding population trends is pivotal to the conservation work they undertake. Conservation NGOs can be be national (such as the British Trust for Ornithology) or local (such as the many UK Wildlife Trusts) and may specialise on a group of species (for example Buglife) or a habitat (for example The Woodland Trust). Conservation NGOs may work with local recording groups (like the network of Amphibian & Reptile Groups of the UK working with Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust), run national monitoring programmes (such as the Bat Conservation Trust National Bat Monitoring Programme) or encourage citizen science based surveys (like the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch) – all of which produce biological records.
Field Studies Council (FSC)
The FSC is an environmental education charity with centres across the UK. Their work also includes producing invaluable resources for the biological recording community (such as atlases and identification keys) and running natural history courses covering a wide range of subjects and species. They have achieved funding for several biological recording focussed projects over the last 10 years. This includes the current Tomorrow’s Biodiversity project that has devised a range of tools for biological recorders and run regular courses and events.
Local groups are also of huge importance to the biological recording community and these can consist of general natural history groups (such as the Paisley Natural History Society) or groups that cover certain species (such as the Hertfordshire Moth Group). Some organisations that may also be worth a look are the British Entomological & Natural History Society and the Amateur Entomologists Society. Many more organisations are involved in biological recording in the UK and it is not possible to include them all in this article. A database of nature groups can be found on the Natural History Museum website: www.nhm.ac.uk/take-part/nature-groups-near-you
25 January 2016
Recording wildlife became a popular pastime during Victorian times and, as a result, natural history societies began popping up around the country. As time and technology progressed, the activity of biological recording has adapted and there are now many recording schemes, methods of record submission and types of organisation. However, the first question that any biological recorder needs answered is what constitutes a biological record?
In order for any biological record to be accepted it must have four basic components:
Who – The name of the recorder or determiner.
What – The name of the organism or group of organisms that you are recording.
Where – The location where the organism was observed.
When – The date the organism was observed.
Combining these four pieces of data produces a record of the presence of an organism at a specified time and place by a named individual, also known as a biological record.
The data quality of a biological record can be improved by ensuring the basic components are recorded at higher resolutions: the more specific the information, the higher the record quality. Examples for each of the basic components are given below
Who – Provide the full name of the recorder and/or determiner, as opposed to an organisation or institution name. This allows for any queries regarding the record to be directed to the correct individual.
What – The more specific the taxonomic classification, the better. For example, a record of a red squirrel is of higher quality than a record of a mammal. However, biological recorders should only classify organisms to a level they are confident is accurate.
Where – Provide the highest accurate geographic resolution you can. Using the UK Ordnance Survey system an 8 figure grid reference details that the organism occurred within a 10 m by 10 m square, whereas a 4 figure grid reference would only detail that the organism occurred within a 1 km by 1 km square.
When – As with location information, the finer the resolution the higher the data quality. Providing a specific date is more desirable than just the year of the record.
Additional Biological Record Information
The organisms on our planet differ greatly, some are fixed to a location while others are able to travel great distances. Some organisms are long lived and present year-round, while others have relatively short life cycles or inactive periods that render them difficult to record at certain types of year.
Different recording schemes will ask for different additional information to be included within the biological record dependent upon the ecology of the organism or the objectives of the scheme. Additional information also improves the data quality of the biological record and provides information that may help answer questions belonging to the fifth, and most important, component: why.
Example additional information fields could include habitat, abundance and life stage of the organism. These may or may not be compulsary information fields for acceptance of the biological record to a specific survey or recording scheme.
In summary, a biological record is a summary of four simple data components. Its data quality, and subsequent uses, can be improved by ensuring these components are recorded at the highest accurate resolution and by the addition of any other relevant information to the record.
Keiron Derek Brown
2nd January 2016