How You Can Help Conservation Right Now! : #1 Biological Recording

February 25, 2019

Feeling like you want to try and help in conservation but don't know where to start? Or maybe you feel that conservation issues are happening far away and that you are powerless to do anything about them? Well I might have the answers for you! To try and help people find where their efforts are best placed, I will be posting about things that you can start doing almost immediately that can bring about meaningful change.

This time it's the turn of Biological Recording. If you enjoy looking for wildlife and trying to identify what you find, you can turn your hard work into useful data which is used for conservation research all over the world. You don't have to be an expert, and you can record anything you like depending on what you find interesting and exciting. You might do a little bit here and there or it may even become your next big obsession! Read on to see how you can start to make a difference and begin your journey as a biological recorder.

What is Biological Recording and why is it important?

Put simply, a biological record is an observation of a species in a specific time and place made by an individual. This record can be entered into an online database such as iRecord, where it is verified by an expert identifier. Once verified the record is available for everyone to use, on resources such as the National Biodiversity Network (NBN) Atlas or the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF)Biological Recording is a fantastic example of citizen science, where the efforts of volunteers provide a huge tool for the use of conservationists, policy makers, scientists and many others. Anyone can be a recorder, whether a seasoned naturalist, budding conservationist or someone with a casual enjoyment of nature.

Why is Biological Recording so important for conservation? Records can be used to provide evidence on the status of species, their distribution, and their habitats, which can show how they are being influenced by pressures such as climate change, habitat destruction and fragmentation, pollution and more. They can also show how effective conservation action is and where attention and resources should be directed to achieve the most positive outcomes. Accurate records are vital to influence decision making with regards to protecting the environment and ecosystem services, with more records providing stronger evidence. For example, Biological Records are used in contributing to the UK Biodiversity Indicators, and from 2004-2014 were used in over 200 peer reviewed scientific papers. Actions such as setting up a nature reserve or planning a building development require species records, and recording can be used to track the spread of invasive species. It is also important to record species that might be thought of as common, as people tend to be drawn to rare or 'flashier' species, while under-recording others. Common species can therefore decline and become endangered without anyone realising. For example, the dramatic decline of the house sparrow over the past 100 years would have been detected sooner if numbers had been properly monitored before the 1970's.

House sparrow, UK

Biological Recording can also be an important way for aspiring conservationists to gain skills highly valued by employers, especially as reports show huge gaps in ecological knowledge which are vital for effective policy making and implementation. A lot of these gaps include identification and taxonomy skills which are not as highly prioritised at universities as other skills. You might even  become an expert identifier and verify other peoples records!

What does a Biological Record need?

The more detail the record has the more useful it can be, but generally it must include four key pieces of information: 

- What the species is - better as the scientific name, but the common name can be used also. This is because common names for species can vary regionally, and some may have many names like the dandelion, which has 50! Some species may have no common name at all, especially if they are rare, so taking a photo can be a great addition to your record to help in your identification. 

There are a vast array of resources available to use such as guidebooks and identification keys which you can find at libraries, local records centres, museums or conservation organisations. The internet is also a fantastic resource and probably the most readily available. If you aren't sure, there are many forums and groups online where you can submit a picture and get some potential answers, such as the Insects and other Invertebrates of Britain and Europe group on Facebook. Whatever your interests there will most likely be a group for you!

- Where it was observed - this is usually an 8 or 6 figure grid reference, but could be an address or postcode. The more specific the location the better, but it depends on what you are recording. For example an insect sitting in one spot might benefit from a more precise location, whereas a bird flying around covering a larger area and so not need such exact information. Accurate locations are important because they might show a species outside its normal range, or provide the exact location of a very rare species which needs urgent protection, among other things. Websites such as Grab A Grid Reference allow you to get a figure from place names, addresses and postcodes so there's no need to be fiddling around outside with a huge paper map!

- When was it observed - the exact date and time of the record, where possible. Date is important because it can reveal how distributions of species change over the seasons and the years, revealing how climate might be affecting the emergence of insects or bird migration, for example. It can also mean that records of species taken on different days are not seen as being duplicates. 

- Who recorded it - your full name and address. This helps to link your records to you, so you are duly credited for them, and also stops confusion with other people of the same name. If anyone has a query about a record you have made it also makes it easier to contact you about it. 

In addition to these key components, the record can include a whole lot more detail, such as the sex, behaviour or how many of the species there were. The more detail the better, and the more useful it can be to conservation. For instance, a breeding bird in a tree might be of more importance than a bird just flying past, or bats appearing from a specific building more important than those just feeding. We can identify from this information where birds are breeding or bats are hibernating, and so protect these areas from development. Taking a Biological Recording course will deepen your knowledge of record taking and so these things will become more clearer and you can begin to make records with even more impact!

How you can get involved

Out recording with the Merseyside Biobank Active Naturalists (MBAN)

Biological Recording is great because you can do it all by yourself wherever you like! All you have to do is sign up to a website such as iRecord, which is run by the Biological Records Centre (BRC) for the UK. The BRC works closely with volunteer recorders and is connected to more than 80 schemes and societies around the country. Other websites such as iNaturalist or Project Noah also provide recording platforms and a wide community to engage with. These tools all have phone apps as well, making recording on go extremely easy. Once you are online or on the app you are ready to go!

If you want to go a step further you might consider getting in touch with a local records centre, which you can find here. They often run short courses, allowing you to learn more about it while gaining official certification for your efforts, as well as running identification workshops or days out to local reserves and parks to help you hone your recording skills and provide you with the necessary tools to do it yourself. The Field Studies Council also runs short courses. If you have a specific interest and want to get involved in a particular recording scheme, be it mammals, ground beetles or slime moulds, then you can find all those linked to the BRC here.

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