Guest blog – Volunteers in the conservation sector (3) by Louise Bacon
Louise writes: I used to be a biochemist studying human immune system malfunction whilst being a part-time naturalist and conservationist. Then I converted to being an environmental data geek, which is what I do part of the time in a vague attempt to pay the bills I have been a birder since childhood, and am now the Cambridgeshire county bird recorder, and am also a butterfly and moth enthusiast, with an interest in several other taxon groups including lichens, ants and molluscs, and when not in front of maps or a database can usually be found in woodlands carrying out vital management work, or surveying farmland birds.
Volunteers in the conservation sector: Part 3: Being a county recorder – volunteers with a spiralling data problem?
I took on the role of butterfly county recorder around a decade ago. As someone working in the environmental records centre network and an active county naturalist, it seemed the obvious thing to do at the time when the post became vacant. A few spreadsheets of submitted records, transect records to co-ordinate and check through for oddities. Not too onerous a task. A couple of years later, I was also approached by the county bird club, having spent 6 years co-ordinating the county and national atlas work [BTO atlas 2007-2011] to become county recorder, a role I was very pleased to accept. A similar role, getting in records from county-based birders, directly, through our club sightings pages and increasingly through Birdtrack. Not too bad, with probably 100,000 records per year. It does take a proportion of one’s time; data management, dealing with poor field behaviour of individuals putting the welfare of wildlife at risk, and all the other things like attending meetings, as alluded to in my section on the time cost of volunteering.
And then came the citizen science revolution, apps and online recording, and the realisation that getting anyone and everyone to participate in projects such as the Big Butterfly Count was a great way to engage new audiences. I agree, however, I don’t think any of us bargained for the burgeoning popularity, and promotion by conservation charities, of recording popular groups. What was, a decade ago, an interaction with enthusiastic naturalists in your county in person some times and usually by email or phone has become a faceless interaction with a spreadsheet and a web validation interface. With 10 times the amount of data, maybe more, surely that’s great, more records, giving more information across the county. Well, it would be nice if that were true. The sheer volume of data means that we have to take at face value the ID of any common species…. I would never, and do not have time to, query the ID of a Blackbird or a Robin or a Black-headed Gull, or a Speckled Wood butterfly or a Small Tortoiseshell. But, always at the back of your mind is the doubt over whether the common stuff IS correctly identified, and the reason for this follows. On occasions when a link to a twitter page or a photo is given, there is a low percentage of mis-identification of species which seem to me, and to many other naturalists, straightforward to ID, so how can it be wrong. Yet, in that link is the proof that is HAS been identified and/or entered into the system wrongly.
With the new GDPR regulations, it also means that, as a county recorder, or verifier as I think we have become, we have no direct means to contact the individual if it is on a national data site through which we have been granted access to verify county data – there may be a flag to raise a query, but in my experience they then usually go ignored by the user, who never responds. Those who still use direct record submission are obviously much more likely to interact if there is a query, purely by dint of their initial means of contact.
This raises the big question then. What IS the point of gathering huge amounts of weekly lists of birds from a site, with no counts made or no additional comments eg singing, or nesting, or the presence of young, added to the record? I increasingly struggle to know. Personally, my recording will be a list of things seen, heard, identified, with counts for many species and comments where appropriate. Because that’s what I was taught to do, by everyone who encouraged me as a child and a young adult. The ‘record it through the app’ with no further mentoring which is what tends to be the norm these days does indeed lead to spiralling numbers of records being made, and whilst the number of records for me to wade through for butterflies and birds has grown 10-fold, the quality has probably gone down at least 5-fold, although this is an incredibly difficult metric to assess……
Harking back to earlier, the amount of time taken to be a recorder, or a field naturalist is a thing under pressure in everyone’s lives, and I am sure that the web-based systems are designed to simplify some things. I, and others who perform similar roles, feel, however, that with increasing digital recording, constraints on how we can view and verify that information and now an increasing number of online platforms for recording (even birds have 3 different choices, Bird Track, e-bird and trektellen, although moves are underway to make all viewable through one platform; this is definitely not the case with other online systems), that the task has become near impossible, and increasingly, onerously, a daily chore rather than a pleasure.
So, when a volunteer decides they have had enough, of being a county recorder, of walking a transect as part of a monitoring scheme, of being on a committee, or recruiting the next generation, where indeed will the next generation come from? If anyone wants a decent work-life balance and a sane existence then I suspect there will NOT BE a skilled next generation and I certainly wouldn’t blame them. Right, I’m off out to enjoy some wildlife and not record it now.