Meeting Report: Wildlife Recording — Past, Present and Futurer

27 January 2017
Mark Pollitt (D&G Environmental Resources Centre Manager)

In a fact-filled and often entertaining talk Mark took the audience through the history of wildlife recording, from its 17th-century beginnings to the digital future.


The 'father' of wildlife recording is thought to be parson-naturalist John Ray (1627–1705). Many early recorders were clergymen, who were well educated, had a reasonable amount of spare time, and usually remained in one district for many years. In 1798 the Reverend Dugald Williams of Tongland recorded numerous glow-worms in his parish, a species now almost unknown in Dumfries and Galloway. William Jardine and George Scott Elliot, early presidents of the DGNHAS, were also notable wildlife recorders. Early naturalists had to contend with a lack of guide books (and the few that existed were very poor by today's standard), and confused taxonomy, the latter problem being solved by the introduction of the binomial Latin classification of living organisms by the celebrated Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus in the mid-18th century.

By the mid-19th century naturalist societies were beginning to be formed, the first in Scotland being in Berwickshire in 1831. However, it was soon realised that the variable size of administrative counties made them unsuitable as units for wildlife recording and in 1852 the so-called Watsonian vice-counties were created by dividing large counties and amalgamating small ones — a system that is still used today.

The Victorian era saw an increased interest in wildlife, which mainly manifested itself by an enthusiasm for collecting specimens. Although many of these collections have now found useful homes in museums, the depredations of collectors was sufficient to almost wipe out some species.

Today the DGERC collates records of all forms of wildlife, mostly provided by amateur wildlife enthusiasts (or 'citizen scientists' as they are now called), for which Britain is particularly renowned. This information is vital for finding out about population trends, identifying species at risk, and helping organisations such as Dumfries and Galloway Council manage areas of wildlife importance. The largest number of records received is of moths, closely followed by birds, and a surprising number of records are received of more obscure groups such as beetles. This data has helped chart the spread in Dumfries and Galloway of newly-arrived species such as the Nuthatch and the Tree Bumblebee, and also keep track of harmful alien species such as the Himalayan Balsam and the Harlequin Ladybird.

The potential of modern technology to alter the way wildlife is recorded is truly amazing. It is now possible to photograph something with a smartphone, which will identify the location through its GPS technology, send it to an expert for identification and then forward it to a wildlife recording centre. It is now also possible to detect the presence of Great Crested Newts, an endangered amphibian found in Dumfries and Galloway, by performing DNA analysis on the pondwater.

Mark finished his talk by urging members of the audience to send in wildlife records, and to take part in the forthcoming RSPB Garden Birdwatch — Britain's biggest wildlife recording event.