My life in biological recording
Being serious about biological recording has come to me relatively late in life. I grew up north of Copenhagen, and as a child I loved especially wild flowers. They grew in plenty in unsprayed meadows, along roadsides and by the beach. We would often go for walks in the countryside, when we would pick one of each of the flowers we came across, not something you could encourage today, but it was very pleasing to put the collection in a vase on the table when we got back, and it certainly greatly increased my interest. Fortunately my mother and aunt could put names to most of the flowers. I even had a go at pressing flowers for my private herbarium. This interest was closely followed by birds in the garden and the nearby wood, but there was no tradition in my family of keeping records, let alone submitting them.
Nor were there the field guides we have today. A friend was studying plants prior to becoming a pharmacist, and he introduced me to a Danish flora, which was really a botanical key, full of technical terms and no illustrations. It was hard going, and sadly I soon gave up. There must have been societies devoted to different wildlife, but I never knew anything about them, not even Dansk Ornitologisk Forening (established 1906 and the equivalent of British Trust for Ornithology), which I only learnt about when I came to live in Scotland. I suppose that if the general public had a natural history query or wanted a specimen identified they would take it to a museum, but there was no such museum near my childhood home.
My first experience in systematic recording was not till after I married and came to live in Scotland. I had met my future husband at Cambridge, where he was studying for a Phd and I was spending a year improving my English. Wildlife, and especially birds, formed a strong bond between us. Most of Chris’ friends were birdwatchers, and my knowledge of birds greatly improved This was also when I came across Birds of Britain and Europe by Peterson, Mountford & Hollom, with descriptions and coloured illustrations of every species I was likely to see. Compared to the Observer-type of booklets I had access to in Denmark, this was a complete revelation.
Once married, we settled in Edinburgh, where Chris had been appointed lecturer at the University. Chris early on signed up to WeBS (Wetland Bird Survey), the purpose, then as now, being to monitor non-breeding waterbirds in order to identify trends and population sizes. Volunteer counters were allocated a suitable site to visit monthly, preferably on a specified day. Counts were then conscientiously recorded and submitted on special forms - and we have been doing WeBS counts, somewhere, ever since.
It was Chris who kept notes of all our more interesting bird sightings, which were then submitted to the Scottish Ornithologists Club (SOC), and contributed to the yearly Scottish Bird Report. When our children were small, I found my interest reverting to butterflies and wild flowers, but I did not keep records – nor did I know of anywhere to submit such records if I had kept them.
When the survey began for the first BTO/SOC Atlas of Breeding Birds in Britain and Ireland (1968-72), we signed up to record x-number of squares, and we have collected records for many atlases since, and not just birds. However, for me personally, the importance of systematic record-keeping became very clear when I started my research for The Birds of Fife, published 1986. Records collected in the past by keen naturalists like John Harvey-Brown and the Misses Baxter & Rintoul provided invaluable information: what species had been common or scarce historically, where they occurred and so on, giving us benchmarks against which any changes over time could be measured. Without lots of people keeping and sharing records no such book could be compiled.
I am not a professional biologist, but eventually I became a professional biological recorder. We had by then moved to Fife, and my chance came when a post was advertised by Fife Council to set up a Local Records Centre (LRC). After completing my university degree, I had chartered as a librarian and, recognising the usefulness of computers for dealing with large amounts of data, I had recently completed a diploma in Information Technology. I don’t think the competition was great, but anyway I was appointed. Various LRCs already existed, e.g. in Dundee/Angus and Renfrewshire in Scotland, but most were down south, and I went there to learn the craft, which stood me in very good stead. Lasting friendships were also made, such as with Trevor James, who at the time was in charge of Hertfordshire LRC.
Recording and promoting recording was now my professional business. Wildlife had always been my hobby and now my hobby was also my work. My IT skills were adequate to cope with the newly developed Recorder3 software – though it took three months before I was given a computer, and I was never allowed to ‘go on-line’. I got to know a lot of interesting field naturalists, many of whom were experts in their field, and who kindly assented to join my ‘Official Recorders’ Group’ to help with verifying incoming data as well as adding their own records to the database. Together we published four provisional atlas for Fife: on dragonflies, butterflies, mammals, and amphibians and reptiles.
When time came to retire from Fife Nature I was asked to be chairperson of BRISC (Biological Recording in Scotland), so happily I could continue with my interest in recording, and even widen my horizons to promote it throughout Scotland. Fife Nature had made me a generalist, because it soon became essential to have a reasonable knowledge of as many groups as possible. Now, in my retirement, I spend a lot of time doing surveys of one kind or another. I fear I am still a generalist, enjoying starting to learn new groups, the latest being seaweeds, but I am no expert in any of them. My greatest interest, however, has focussed on moths. It all started when Chris and I were out looking for migrant birds at Fife Ness, when a huge and magnificent moth landed on my woollen scarf – a Clifden Nonpareil! I now run a moth trap 2-3 times a week both for pleasure and for record-keeping. There is always something new to look at – how empty life would be without wildlife recording.
Written by Anne-Marie Smout