Celebrating 50 years of the Biological Records Centre

From the time of “gentleman naturalists” to the enthusiastic citizen scientists of today, volunteers continue to collect vital data about our changing environment. For 50 years, the Biological Records Centre (BRC) has been the central point for the vast amounts of ecological data that are so vital for research and policy decisions. Dr. Helen Roy from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology presented highlights of the BRC’s projects at the joint BES/SFE conference in Lille.

The BRC has established over 80 recording schemes and societies to monitor more than 10,000 wild species in the UK. No other region in the world has such a variety of recording activity. These data would not exist without the dedication and expertise of enthusiastic volunteers.

As Dr. Roy said, “Citizen science is a new term to describe the involvement of volunteers in “real science”. However, citizen science is not a new concept. Volunteer involvement in biological recording has a long history and provides a rich legacy. Many of the lessons learnt on citizen science have come from working with the volunteer recording community.”

She continued, “Volunteers are critical to the monitoring and surveillance of non-native species and often provide first sightings of new arrivals”. These include the first records of notorious invasive species such as the harlequin ladybird. Data from the BRC has documented the spread of the harlequin ladybird throughout the UK at an astonishing rate of 100km per year.

“Research on invasive alien species enhances our scientific understanding and informs policy” she explained. For example, a recent study identified the invasive alien quagga mussel (Dreissena rostriformis bugensis) as public enemy number one for UK biodiversity due to its disastrous impacts on freshwater environments. The mussel has not yet established in Britain but it is anticipated to arrive within five years so strict measures are needed to monitor waterways and to prevent invasion.

Another aspect of the BRC’s work has been publishing atlases mapping the distribution of over 10,000 species of plants and animals. One that stands out in particular is a fascinating study of the 60 flea species in Britain and Ireland, the result of over 50 years work by former World War Two fighter pilot and science teacher, Bob George.

The BRC has seen enormous growth and changes in the past 50 years. According to Dr. Roy, “Advances in technology have been staggering – in the early days most records received were on paper cards and now most data capture is electronic.” The BRC now has six smart phone apps for volunteers to submit their records. This includes the popular “iRecord butterflies” app which gathered over 1,000 records of butterflies in the first month after its launch.

As Dr. Roy explained, “The range of statistical methods and associated computing power available today is enabling us to make more use of the data than was previously possible.” Now people can easily upload their wildlife recordings with GPS-tagged pictures and a range of extra information that make nature spotting more rewarding and effective than ever before.

“The diversity of taxonomic groups covered is incredible. From the tiny bugs to bumblebees – the UK is unique in the breadth of expertise and the willingness to share records. The contributions these records make to our understanding of changes to wildlife over time and space is simply amazing.”

More information about the BRC can be found in their special 50th anniversary publication.

Sive (BES Press Intern)
Twitter: @SiveFinlay