Do you note the first cuckoo in spring? Notice how invasive species are spreading? Can you tell a hare from a rabbit?

Logo: Biological Records Centre

And even if you can't but want to then you can become a Citizen Scientist.

What's that?

Citizen science can broadly be defined as the involvement of volunteers in science.  

Sounds complicated?

It's not. Sign up to iRecord by the Biological Records Centre ( and follow the instructions, there's even a training mode so you can make sure you're doing it right before you start sending your sightings.  You can send details of one-off sightings or do a complete survey of an area.  Even if you're not sure what it is you've seen you can still include your sighting, one of the fields is the level of certainty.  Obviously the more detail you can include the better and photographs are an added bonus, as specialists can check your sighting and confirm the identification if necessary.  

If you're an absolute beginner then iSpot, run by the Open University, is the one for you, it's even simpler than iRecord and is focused more on identification of what you've found; there is even a range of identification keys ( and a lovely friendly forum.

CJS screen grab
CJS screen grab

If you have a smartphone it's even easier. There are a range of apps available for both apple and android to help you.  Many of them come complete with a built-in identification guide. CEH has a range of apps, from butterflies to mammals (which are surprisingly under-recorded) and even one with the British Geological Survey for soils.  They're incredibly easy to use and the built-in guides are a handy reminder for everyone.

So why bother?

The records submitted to iRecord are used for many different research purposes.  The full dataset is available through the NBN Gateway, the central repository of biological occurrence data (that's the technical term for your submitted sightings) and is a platform for sharing that data with policy makers, researchers, students and other recorders.

Numbers of species in iRecord (Tom August, CEH)
Numbers of species in iRecord (Tom August, CEH)

BRC and the volunteer schemes have worked together to gather and analyse wildlife observations for 50 years providing evidence to underpin science, policy and practical conservation. During 2007, volunteer observers for biodiversity surveillance in the UK were estimated to contribute time in-kind worth more than £20 million.1   

The number of people submitting wildlife sightings online is increasing dramatically. The taxonomic breadth of data collected through iRecord on behalf of recording schemes is unrivalled. The quantity and quality of data offers great opportunities for research and conservation but also presents many technological challenges.

It's because of the value of these records that organisations such as BRC and partners have put time and effort into building easy to use websites and apps.  

The development of a smartphone app for recording ladybirds has enabled the UK Ladybird Survey to attract new recorders. More than 9,000 records have been submitted in its first year. The recently released iRecord Butterflies app received more than 4,000 records within a month of being available. Verification and validation methods within iRecord provide quality assurance and onwards flow of data.2

Photo: CEH
Photo: CEH

The Conker Tree Science project engaged over 8,000 people. People were invited to report the occurrence of the horse chestnut leafminer (Cameraria ohridella). The project enhanced understanding of the invasion dynamics of this moth, the associated parasitoids and the value of citizen science.2

New apps are being developed all the time and sometimes it's not just to look at the distribution and frequency of species. In May 2015 the Lichen App was released; it aims to monitor air quality by identifying the presence or absence of nitrogen sensitive and non-sensitive lichens on tree trunks and branches.  Lichens can be difficult to identify but this app places emphasis on use of indicator species at the easier end of identification and are least likely to be confused with other species.

And what do you get out of it?

Other than a lovely warm fuzzy feeling of having done something good to help the conservation sector you mean?  Well it's an excellent way to practice your survey skills, to learn to identify new species, meet people if you join one of the organised bioblitz events and of course it's a fantastic thing to be able to include on your CV.

Footnotes, sources:

1.  Tweddle, JC, Robinson, LD, Pocock, MJO, Roy, HE, (2012) Guide to citizen science: developing, implementing and evaluating citizen science to study biodiversity and the environment in the UK. NERC/Centre for Ecology & Hydrology ISBN: 978-1-906698-37-9


First published in CJS Focus on Volunteering in association with the National Trust on 24 August 2015