A love letter to county recorders, the unsung heroes of Britain's countryside

Boris Johnson recently pledged to cut the “newt counting delays” in the British planning system. But without our county recorders, our understanding of our landscapes would plummet
August 29, 2020

When Boris Johnson recently pledged to cut the “newt counting delays” in the British planning system—a speech that sent shivers up the spines of environmentalists—I thought of the newt counters themselves, and those like them: the passed-over heroes of the conservation world. The UK’s flora and fauna might be the most comprehensively recorded in the world, thanks in large part to the network of “county recorders” who volunteer their time and expertise to keep track of the wild populations in the area and to offer advice to members of the public.

It was in this latter role that I first came across them. I got into foraging a few years ago, during the rather listless summer after I left my last proper job to go freelance. “Freelance,” for me in those days, was a euphemism for “penniless” and “almost completely unemployed.” Foraging offered a welcome distraction from unanswered emails and my sense of freewheeling panic.

Berries and leaves were easy enough, but mushrooms could be dangerous. The field guide I borrowed was full of plangent warnings on the irreparable harm one could do to oneself with a bad identification. Edible species were often easily mistaken for poisonous ones.

So I turned to my local county recorder, who ran woodland walks helping beginners like me explore the world of fungi. Not only was he better at naming specimens, he was better at finding them too. He waved me over to inspect a cluster of tiny nidulariaceae (bird’s nest fungi), which take the form of tiny cups of egg-like spores. “You might never see these again,” he said. (It’s true—to this day, I haven’t.) He plucked one specimen, a psychedelic vision of a mushroom in lime and tan, and sliced it in half with his penknife. On contact with the air, its pale interior was flooded immediately with a dark blue sap: the “ink stain bolete.”

I have never felt confident enough to go mushroom harvesting alone—except for chanterelles in known locations—but that walk in the woods made a deep impression on me. Later, when I developed an ill-informed but ardent enthusiasm for moths, I knew where to turn. Reuben Singleton, the county recorder in Peeblesshire, was running occasional trapping sessions, and I drove an hour or so there from what was then my home in Edinburgh to join him.

That drizzly morning was a joy: the opening of the trap and subsequent process of identification—so easy!—was strangely compelling. With every new moth extracted from the trap (which is perfectly humane, I should add, merely detaining moths for a few hours before they are released) there was a frisson of intrigue and then an immediate pay-off as Reuben declared this banana-yellow creature to be a canary-shouldered thorn, or that with the batik-pattern wings to be an antler moth.

How lucky we are to have county recorders to share their wisdom with us—and for free. In the Orkney Islands, where I live now, we have 26 of them, including recorders of cetaceans, molluscs, algae, sawflies, bats, and slime moulds. A few weeks ago I contacted the moth recorder, and he was soon introducing me to the burnished bronze and the strikingly-spotted tiger moth.

The county recorders’ most crucial role, though, is not as teachers but surveyors. Throughout the year, they are steadily gathering data: surveys are conducted, sightings checked and submitted to a database. Over time, a pleasant morning in the woods becomes a data point in a detailed portrait of the nation’s wildlife. Without the likes of the newt-counters, we might have missed the fact that one in seven UK species are at risk of being lost. But with that warning—and, yes, sometimes a willingness to delay the bulldozers—we might arrest their fall.