Friday, 27 April 2012

Sussex Butterfly Report 2011 - out now!

I couldn't possibly let this week go by without plugging the latest edition of The Sussex Butterfly Report. This beautifully designed not-for-profit publication is brought to you by the volunteers of Butterfly Conservation's Sussex Branch, just-because-we-care. It makes for an exhilarating read and it's got some very pretty maps in too (what I made).

As well as fascinating, informative and comprehensive reporting on how our butterflies and moths fared in 2011, the report includes the full story behind the aquisition of our new 80 acre Rowland Wood reserve and the inside scoop on Michael Blencowe's and Graeme Lyons' Fifteen Minutes of Flame - when they stumbled upon the 'the most memorable event of our recent entomological history' while out filming the first episode of their podcast.

The Sussex Butterfly Report is free to members of Butterfly Conservation - Sussex Branch. Join here. Or visit our website for details of how to get hold of a copy:

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Ye Olde Sussex

View Sussex in a larger map

If you're ever out and about recording wildlife near Gatwick, Royal Tunbridge Wells, Lamberhurst, Union Street or east of Camber - this blog post is for you!

We’re going to delve into a bit of the techie detail of wildlife recording now. But hey, what is the internet for, if not to provide more detail about everything than you ever realised you wanted to know?

Most national recording schemes work by first collating and scrutinising records at the county level and then forwarding all of this data on to a national hub, where it is amalgamated into one big national dataset, for futher analysis. This is how the Butterfliesfor the New Millenium (BNM) national butterfly recording scheme works. So I am the BNM local volunteer coordinator – responsible for pulling all the Sussex butterfly records into our Sussex sightings database – and, when I’ve managed to get the whole year’s worth of data together, I send a copy to Richard Fox - the BNM national coordinator.

But for this system to work properly and provide a comprehensive picture for the whole of the UK, we need to all agree on where the county boundaries lie. Modern county boundaries are particularly unhelpful in this regard – political whims and the ever-expanding nature of our towns and cities lead to regular boundary changes – so we don’t use those. We use Watsonian Vice Counties instead.

It’s elementary

Hewett Cotterell Watson (a man whose wikipedia entry is worth reading) devised the Vice County System of Great Britain in 1852, initially as a means of graphically representing the distribution of plants. He defined 112 Vice Counties of approximately equal areas, based on sub-divisions of counties. And it proved to be such a useful system it soon became popular for all forms of wildlife recording, as it still is to this day.

So when we talk about producing a new Sussex Butterfly Atlas - we are in fact talking about mapping the distribution of butterflies in the West Sussex and East Sussex Vice Counties, which are still identified by the numbers Watson gave them in 1852 - VC13 and VC14 respectively.

The Google Map embedded above - which you can click on to explore further - shows both the Vice County boundaries (in crimson) and the modern county boundaries (in grey). The main differences between the two are around:
  • Gatwick - which is outside the Sussex Vice Counties boundary, although it's in the modern county of West Sussex;
  • Royal Tunbridge Wells - some of which is inside the Sussex Vice Counties boundary, although the modern county boundary now traces the southern edge of the town;
  • Lamberhurst - there's a big area south of here which is inside the Sussex Vice Counties boundary, although not in the modern county of East Sussex;
  • Union Street (east of Ticehurst) - there's another big area here which is outside the Sussex Vice Counties boundary, although it's in the modern county of East Sussex;
  • Camber - there's an area east of here which is outside the Sussex Vice Counties boundary, although it's in the modern county of East Sussex; and
  • the East Sussex / West Sussex county boundary, which is in a totally different place - but you probably don't need to worry about that. 
For the Sussex Butterfly Atlas project, and the BNM national butterfly recording scheme, we are keen to know what butterflies we've got in every tetrad in the West Sussex and East Sussex Vice Counties. Helpfully, you can actually turn the Vice County ("VC") boundaries on and off in the Grab a Grid Reference website, which I was enthusing about in this earlier post. So it's easy to check if your records fall within the Sussex Vice Counties boundaries at the same time as grabbing your grid references. 

Please send us all your butterfly sightings for Ye Olde Sussex!

And if you happen to venture over the border you can find contact details for our neighbouring BNM local coordinators here - they will be happy to receive your butterfly records I am sure!

The West Sussex (VC13) and East Sussex (VC14) Watsonian Vice County boundaries are displayed under the terms of the OpenData initiative, courtesy of the National Biodiversity Network. The modern administrative boundaries for West Sussex and East Sussex are from the Boundary-Line dataset made available by OS OpenData. Displaying this data in Google Maps was more complicated that I'd bargained for, but made possible thanks to QGIS - the open source geographic information system software. Thank you internets!

Monday, 23 April 2012

Butterflies in the wider countryside

Following on from my last post about transect recording, it's worth mentioning another UK-wide butterfly survey - the Wider Countryside Butterfly Survey - also run by the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme (UKBMS).

Transects need to be walked week in, week out, year in, year out, by the same volunteers. It's hardly surprising then that they tend to be clustered around places where people actually want to walk - places like nature reserves and protected sites. So the Wider Countryside Butterfly Survey was launched in 2009, as a partnership between Butterfly Conservation, the British Trust for Ornithology and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, to assess the changing status of butterflies in the wider countryside - to provide an indicator of the general health of our environment.

In Sussex the Wider Countryside Butterfly Survey is coordinated by Penny Green and, very briefly, this is how it works:
The method involves making a minimum of two visits to a randomly selected square between May and August to count butterflies along two 1km survey lines running roughly north-south through the square.
So, compared to starting a transect, it's not a major time commitment. And there's the added bonus that you can enter your data online if you want, as soon as you get home.

Interested? If you want to find out more, it's well worth checking out the Wider Countryside Butterfly Survey 2011 newsletter, which came through my letterbox this weekend. It was great to read that, last year, Sussex achieved the second highest level of survey coverage nationally - with 26 squares surveyed. Well done to Penny and all the volunteer surveyors! And Sussex scored the most diverse square too, with 24 species seen over three visits in one square on the South Downs. Woohoo! ( ... With aspirations to be a proper scientist, I feel I must resist the temptation to claim this result thereby PROVES that Sussex is the best county in Britain for butterflying... Tho', of course, we know it is ;)

But anyway - aside from enjoying a bit of jockeying for positions on the county butterfly recording league tables - it was a sentence at the bottom of page 3 in the newsletter that really jumped out at me and highlighted why the Wider Countryside Butterfly Survey is an important companion to the UKBMS transect surveys:
"None of these maximum counts are exactly earth shattering given that they are culled from a large amount of effort all across the UK. They highlight the fact that, away from nature reserves and other special areas, ordinary members of the public are rarely if ever likely to encounter the clouds of butterflies that can be such a wonderful spectacle of the natural world."
A sobering thought. This data really shows us why it's important to adopt a landscape scale approach to conservation. And the results provide us with a tool to illustrate to government and landowners and everyone what state our countryside is in.

The good news is that the landscape scale approach to conservation has been gathering pace for a while. Environmental organisations have known for ages that this is the way we need to go. Butterfly Conservation is delivering projects at the landscape scale to conserve target species - locally our own Rowland Wood aquisition is an example of this kind of thinking. And the Dukes on the Edge project, as well as the recently announced South Downs Nature Improvement Area, are both landscape scale conservation projects aimed at boosting populations of Duke of Burgundy butterflies (among other objectives). Wildlife Trusts are doing the same kind of things through their Living Landscapes approach. And the RSPB too, with Futurescapes.*

Even the government seems to be cottoning on, judging by the stuff they're saying in the Natural Environment White Paper which follows on from the recommendations in Making Space for Nature - the independent review of England’s wildlife sites. The press release issued by Defra when Making Space for Nature was published was pretty stark in stating:
"We will not achieve a step-change in nature conservation in England without society accepting it to be necessary, desirable and achievable."
The Wider Countryside Butterfly Survey is one of the tools we have for showing a step-change is necessary. It's up to all of us to show that it's also desirable and achievable.

*Mark Avery's running an intriguing poll at the moment asking, if you had to give your money to one environmental NGO - which one would you give it to? I'm glad I don't have to choose in real life.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Today's news: Butterflies bouncing back

On my way to work this morning - stuck in traffic on the A259 as per usual - I was pleased to switch on Radio 4 just in time to hear Sarah Montague asking Dr Marc Botham from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology about Drizzled Skippers. Ha Ha! Well done Dr Botham for being quick witted enough to point out that it's actually Grizzled Skippers that were particularly abundant in 2011, largely in reaction to the hot dry spring we experienced last year.

For me, hearing and seeing Butterfly Conservation's press release get picked up by BBC News, The Guardian and The Independent today was a welcome reminder about why we - Sussex butterfly recorders - do what we do. And why I strain my brain with databases, data sharing, data models, data mapping and data entry. It's not what everyone would choose to do with their weekends! But it's a great hobby. And it's nice when those moments come along that remind you you're contributing to something bigger than just you. Bigger than Sussex even!

There are all sorts of different ways of recording butterflies - each valuable and important in their own way - but today's story is based particularly on the results of UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme (UKBMS) transect surveys. In Sussex Butterfly Conservation this is an area our Transect Coordinator, Peter Atkinson, looks after. Although I do also work on incorporating the results of the transect surveys in our Sussex sightings database - so that they can also be used for our Sussex Butterfly Atlas project.

If you read the mainstream media reports on today's story about long term trends in UK butterfly populations, the bit of Butterfly Conservation's press release that they didn't really pick up on is the bit that I find most amazing:
"UKBMS has run since 1976 and involves thousands of volunteers collecting data every week throughout the summer from more than 1000 sites across the UK.
The high quality data of the UKBMS is attributable to the continuous support of thousands of volunteer recorders."
Amazing huh? And we've got more than 50 of these sites in Sussex. All walked by volunteers.
UKBMS butterfly transects in Sussex - 2011

Now, I'll be frank: Being a transect walker isn't for everyone. The value of transect surveys is in the continuity of records from week to week, year to year - and always aiming to walk the transect in optimum weather conditions (which isn't very compatible with having a full time job). It's only really worth starting a UKBMS transect if you think you'll be able to commit to it. 

So I really take my hat off to the dedicated volunteer transect walkers we've got in Sussex. I hope you'll enjoy knowing you made national news today!

And my message to everyone else is - there are LOADS of different ways you can get involved in butterfly recording and make a real contribution to conservation, so do check out for more info. It's a great hobby!

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Grid references made easy

You don't have to venture very far away from this sceptred isle to discover that Ordnance Survey (OS) deserves to be one of Great Britain's most envied institutions. I'd even go as far as to say OS maps, and the public rights of way recorded on them, are one of the greatest things about living in Britain.

OS maps - especially the Explorer series - are certainly a great tool for wildlife recording. Learning how to read an OS map is like opening an invitation to a whole new world of places to explore, right on your doorstep, where you can hunt for undiscovered populations of Dukes and Emperors. And enjoy a nice pint while you're out.

Team up an OS map with the aerial imagery provided by Google Maps, and you've got an awesome tool for wildlife recording. And that's exactly what the Grab a Grid Reference website does.  Seriously, it's awesome. It's free. And it's been developed by Bedfordshire Natural History Society out of the kindness of their hearts.

How is this useful for wildlife recording?

Grab a Grid Reference enables you to identify a place - either on the Google Maps aerial image or on the OS map - where you made your wildlife sighting. By getting the marker and moving it around on the aerial image, it will give you an accurate grid reference for that location.

It doesn't matter if you don't really understand grid references because the Grab a Grid Reference site tells you the grid reference for the location where you put your marker and shows you a coloured square outlining the area that the grid reference covers. The size and colour of the square depends on how precise the grid reference is.  The more numbers there are in a grid reference, the more precise it is.  So a two-figure grid reference (i.e. one with two numbers in it, after the two-letter prefix) describes a 10 km square.  A four-figure grid reference describes a 1 km square.  And a six-figure grid reference describes a 100 m square.

County Recorders like me, and your Local Record Centre, will be eternally grateful if you're able to supply your wildlife sightings with accurate grid references that are precise to 1 km or 100 m (i.e. a four-figure or a six-figure grid reference).  

But it's usefulness doesn't stop there! Grab a Grid Reference is also a really useful tool for scouting unexplored areas. Using the aerial imagery you can identify potentially suitable habitat where you might find undiscovered colonies of butterflies or other species. And you can refer to the OS map to see where the public rights of way are, enabling you to get out there and explore and survey under-recorded areas. 

As we're approaching the halfway point with our Sussex Butterfly Atlas project, this kind of approach will really help us fill in the gaps in our distibution maps and our knowledge.

Explore somewhere new this summer! And make your wildlife sightings count.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Here, there and everywhere

One of the more mind-bending aspects of running the Sussex Butterfly Atlas recording project is keeping track of where the data is coming from, and where it's going. Trying to store all this information in my head seems to be a great way of inducing total brain meltdown - so I've dedicated some precious time this morning to getting the Sussex Butterfly Atlas data model down on paper.

People often ask how I want to receive their data and this data model really highlights that there are loads of different ways to contribute. It helps me (and the rest of my team of volunteers) if people can get their records into a spreadsheet or database and send them on that way, by email or over the internet. But we're still more than happy to receive paper recording forms and reports to our website.

Sightings from other national butterfly recording schemes such as the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme transects and the Wider Countryside Butterfly Survey feeds directly into our Sussex Butterfly Atlas dataset. We also make use of data from 'citizen science' recording schemes like the BTO Garden Birdwatch and the Big Butterfly Count to increase our knowledge of the distribution of common butterflies in our county. And we have an active data sharing agreement with the Sussex Biodiversity Record Centre, so any butterfly records you share with them will reach us also. 

And it doesn't stop there, because any data you share with us will go forward to the Butterflies for the New Millenium national butterfly recording scheme. In this way, the records we collect are also used to inform research, target conservation and influence policy at a national level.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Don't ask don't get

I had a chat with the very helpful Jim Bacon today, from the Biological Record Centre (BRC). I was very encouraged to hear that there is help available for local recording groups to get up and running with online recording, with Indicia. The BRC will provide web-hosting for the online recording database - the 'Warehouse' bit - and can even provide training, as well as advice on getting started and support through the Indicia forums. How great is that!

Apparently there are a few pre-requisites to getting Indicia up and running on a website - techie stuff like making sure your server supports MySQL and PHP5.2 or above. I am clueless about this stuff so had a chat with Bob Foreman - webmaster for our website and architect of the fab new Sussex Moth Group site - and Bob's fairly optimistic we could get that side of things sorted. 

So - lots of reasons to get excited! (If you get excited about this kind of thing... which I do...)

Luckily, before I get too carried away on a stream of ideas I don't really have the time or skills to implement, Peter Atkinson - our Sussex transect coordinator - has reminded me that software development for butterfly recording is on the agenda for the 2012 National Butterfly Recorders Meeting on 17 March.  It's possible that the guys at Butterfly Conservation Headquarters have got ideas around a national solution for providing online data entry and reporting.  We shall find out!