Developing biodiversity skills for the future

Logo: Field Studies Council

It’s fair to say as an organisation Field Studies Council (FSC) are concerned about a lack of taxonomic skills. Some graduates are leaving university to start work in the environmental sector without the necessary field identification skills and there are fewer volunteers training courses helping with the knowledge needed for the critical role they play.

External evidence of the need for more expertise and knowledge at a professional level includes recent national surveys and reports published by (C)IEEM (2011), NERC (2007) and the British Ecological Society (2011). The skills and knowledge deficit has also been highlighted in a sequence of parliamentary reports (e.g. House of Lords 2010).

‘FSC believes that the more we

understand about and take inspiration

from the world around us the more we

can appreciate its needs and protect its

diversity and beauty for future


FSC also has extensive evidence that the decline in field skills and knowledge is deep-seated in schools. We have published several reports in conjunction with national partners such as the Association for Science Education and British Ecological Society which have highlighted a long-term decline in whole-organism biology and associated field skills (e.g. Outdoor Science, 2011).

As a charity developing more skills to help people monitor, identify and record biodiversity is at the heart of what FSC want to do.

Young Darwin Scholarship participants (Cathy Preston)
Young Darwin Scholarship participants (Cathy Preston)

Inspiring ‘Young Darwins’

One thing that is clear to us is the need to engage our young people with the natural world early on. Many children and teenagers visit FSC on school trips but we also offer Real Family Holidays1 - affordable UK breaks to encourage families to try new activities like pond dipping or moth trapping so they can start to learn more and enjoy the environment.

For young people who have already got that interest we have created the Young Darwin Scholarship. This pioneering scheme awards 15 scholarships each year to 16 and 17 year olds who are studying or interested in science - especially ecology, geography, geology or the environment. They begin with a five day residential at one of our centres, honing their identification skills, bonding with each other and making useful connections with us and other experts. 

The Scholars continue to benefit from ongoing mentoring and events, including FSC’s subject-specific summer camps2, building their own network to put them in the best possible position to succeed in an career in this field and continue using and developing these crucial skills. The aim is to build a future generation of ‘Darwins’.

One of our first Young Darwin Scholars was Douglas Boyes, now an undergraduate studying biological science at Oxford and a county recorder for butterflies and moths.  He is proactively working to increase the number of records submitted.  He now delivers his own training courses to others.  Douglas credits an FSC family holiday for sparking his interest in moths in the first place.

Earthworm identification (Pete Boardman)
Earthworm identification (Pete Boardman)

Accredited training

To improve the number of people with good field biology skills we are proud to have been offering accredited courses in biological recording for 20 years.  We now run two courses in partnership with Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) which focus fully on this: Certificate in Biological Recording and Species Identification3 and
MSc Biological Recording
3. These qualifications have gained increasing recognition from employers such as government agencies, environmental consultants, councils and record centres. They are strongly vocational courses allowing people to really up-skill in a practical way and gain a recognised qualification. 

Tomorrow’s Biodiversity

Another area in which FSC is working hard is for less well-studied organisms like earthworms, springtails and soil mites.  Their fascinating stories and potential to provide meaningful indicators of environmental change is at odds with the ‘uncharismatic’ label often attached to them.

Through Tomorrow’s Biodiversity4 (or, an FSC project funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation for five years, we are identifying important gaps in identification and monitoring skills, as well as barriers to filling those gaps, and developing/trialling solutions with new training and resources like new AIDGAP guides or electronic resources.

Soil mesofauna course (Charlie Bell)
Soil mesofauna course (Charlie Bell)

Dr Charlie Bell is our Tomorrow’s Biodiversity Project Assistant.  She shares her experience of a recent Soil Mesofauna training course.

‘First question – what exactly is Soil Mesofauna? The quick answer is basically any invertebrate living in the soil which is visible to the naked eye – even if just as a speck - and about small enough to pass through a 2 mm mesh. So things like bacteria, most nematodes and most single-celled organisms are not ‘mesofauna’, but animals such as mites, springtails, smaller spiders, smaller beetles etc are.

The first day saw the group learning about soil – and what a fascinating subject it is! My top facts:

  • In arable soil, there can be 5 tonnes of soil organisms per hectare. This equates to approximately 100 sheep! In grassland, this increases to 100 tonnes per hectare (or 2000 sheep!)
  • Soil is home to a quarter of the species on Earth. Most of these live in the top few cms.
  • Nematode worms are so numerous and abundant, that if you were to remove all other matter from the planet you would still see a ‘ghost’ Earth picked out in nematodes.

Truly incredible, and somewhat humbling!

Day 2 focused on springtails (Collembola), a fascinating group of creatures with some truly beautiful species, including the bright pink one recently found for the first time in the UK5 by Pete Boardman. There are around 250 species in Britain, so care must be taken with identification!

Day 3 was Mite Day - After learning about mite morphology and anatomy, we concentrated on three different orders of mite – Mesostigmata, Prostigmata and Astigmata, and tried (sometimes even successfully!) to key them out to family level. What a fascinating class of animals – and, under the microscope, some of them are incredibly beautiful.

Mites (Charlie Bell)
Mites (Charlie Bell)

On the final day, we attempted a soil ‘bioblitz’ – putting our new skills to the test in an attempt to identify every specimen from one of our soil cores.

I found the course a revelation. As ever when I use a microscope, I was struck by the whole new world which becomes apparent when you look down the eyepiece.  It also became apparent that, even on an intensive four day course, we were only barely scratching the surface (pardon the pun!) of Soil Mesofauna.’

Read Charlie’s full blog post.6


FSC is delighted to have received support from HLF for a further new project to ensure our future biodiversity and resource development add increased value to the sector through working with others.  This project is in its infancy and it will be linking with other organisations to ensure FSC continue to provide support where it is most needed.

There is more information about FSC and all our work to build biodiversity skills for the future at  We also offer around 300 natural history training courses each year and produce wide range of highly-regarded publications, including the AIDGAP (Aid to Identification in Difficult Groups of Animals and Plants) guides, which provide a valuable resource for the field biologist. 








First published in CJS Focus on Countryside Skills (traditional & modern) with Field Studies Council (FSC) on 23 May 2016

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