The National Forum for Biological Recording – the ‘who, what, where and when’ of the NFBR

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Logo: National Forum for Biological Recording

By Sarah Whild, Chair, NFBR

Invertebrate sampling in the field (Jodey Peyton)
Invertebrate sampling in the field (Jodey Peyton)

If you already work in the ‘countryside’ sector, you will probably be aware of the importance of field skills, and the application of these to biological recording. If you are an anxious graduate, applying for every consultancy job going, you will know only too well of the importance of identification skills, and how to use them (and how almost every job advertisement asks for the ability to identify several groups!) – so how do these skills and activities fit in with our rather obscure organisation – the NFBR?

We are an entirely voluntary charity, with most of our trustees and Council members coming from an active professional biological recording background, working at a local environmental records centre (LERC), or in research on national recording data – or old, and retired, like me! I had the privilege of working as a lecturer in biological recording, so got to see the whole story from several sides, of how the UK is one of the biggest hitters in global biological recording.

So, what is biological recording, and why is it so important?

Volucella zonaria, Hornet Hoverfly nectaring on ivy (Sarah Whild)
Volucella zonaria, Hornet Hoverfly nectaring on ivy (Sarah Whild)

A biological record essentially consists of a minimum of four pieces of information – who, what, where, and when. The ‘recorder’ is the important person – this is the expert (or improver, or beginner), who makes the record by identifying the species (or what), at a specific location, on a particular date. These records are gathered together by a loose association of organisations, called the National Schemes and Societies – these are the organisations with a taxonomic remit, such as the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (for vascular plants), the Hoverfly Recording Scheme (for – well, for recording hoverflies!). Essentially there is a scheme or society for most taxonomic groups that can be recorded in the field or lab.

The records undergo a verification process, via a ‘county recorder’ (a voluntary person in a county, who receives the records from voluntary or professional recorders for a particular taxonomic group), and then to the National Scheme or Society for that group (for example, the national hoverfly recorder). There may not be a county recorder for every group, in every county as some groups are more ‘popular’ than others. Depending on the size of the NSS, the national roles might be professional or voluntary. These national data sets are passed (for most groups) to the national Biological Records Centre, then to the National Biodiversity Network, where they are displayed on the NBN Atlas (and then on to the Global Biodiversity Forum, where global data sets are held and made available). It is these data sets that provide the basis for most conservation decisions – how common or rare is this species? Is this species invasive, and spreading? Is this rare species under threat? Our conservation designations in the UK are derived from these biological records – whether a species is on the Red List, Widespread and Common, Nationally Rare, or Critically Endangered. The records are also used nationally for policy statements and decision, for example in producing The State of Nature report.

Acanthosoma haemorrhoidale  Hawthorn shield bug (Jodey Peyton)
Acanthosoma haemorrhoidale Hawthorn shield bug (Jodey Peyton)

However, there is another biological recording arena at the local level. The county recorders work with local biological (or environmental) records centres (LERCs), and may provide their data to them, so that the centre can provide ‘in context’ data to consultants and planners. LERCs may hold several million of biological records, and they also submit their entire datasets to the NBN Atlas, so there can be some duplication of records on the Atlas website. Consultants and planners can then find out how species rich their ‘site’ is – are there any designated species there, or any site designations – local biological records centres provide an invaluable local context for biological records, and the conservation decisions based on them.

Where does the NFBR fit in? We have been around since 1985, when the first local biological records centres were starting to be set up, and we have always attempted to provide a talking shop for the wide range of people and organisations that work or volunteer to provide the 200 million records that are available on the NBN Atlas. The NFBR is completely independent, and self-funding, so we can provide a neutral forum for records centres, taxonomic specialists, museum curators, professional field biologists, and amateur recorders to all come together and discuss best practice in different areas of recording. Our newsletter usually features a local records centre, and a recording scheme or society, plus other information on what’s new in recording. The conferences that we run once a year, have an excellent reputation for the calibre of our speakers, and the great networking and training opportunities provided. In recent years, we have covered subjects such as Recording Outside The Honeypot – covering urban areas, or very difficult to reach habitats; Training and Skills in Biological Recording – covering skills gaps in recording and identification. Forthcoming subjects include Legacy in Biological Recording – the role of museums and collections curators, plus how to make biological recording sustainable for future recorders.

We work with a range of organisations, but have had a particularly fruitful relationship with the Field Studies Council Biolinks Project, who have supported our conferences, and hosted our on line events.

So, if you want to find out more about the NFBR, check out our webpages on

Mercurialis perennis, Dog’s Mercury, and Lamiastrum galeobdolon subspecies montanum, Yellow Archangel, in an ancient woodland ground flora (Sarah Whild)
Mercurialis perennis, Dog’s Mercury, and Lamiastrum galeobdolon subspecies montanum, Yellow Archangel, in an ancient woodland ground flora (Sarah Whild)

Our membership fee is an astonishingly low £10 (£6 if you’re a student!), and this gets you newsletters, and often a reduction in conference fees. Please join us now!

A quick who’s who and what’s what of biological recording in the UK:

  • The NBN – an organisation with paid staff, coordinating the NBN Atlas, where all (or most!) biological records come together and are available to the public.
  • LERCS – the centre of biological recording for each individual authority/county/area – the only ‘one-stop shops’ for recording at the county level. Many work with Wildlife Trusts and the planning system. ALERC is the national organisation for records centres.
  • The national schemes and societies – not a formal grouping, but they know everything there is to know about their taxonomic group, and they should/could manage their own data because they know best. Mostly voluntary.
  • Taxonomists and museums with collections – the natural repository for expertise in particular taxonomic groups and collections, which may cover a particular geographic area – they really know their stuff and have been guardians of actual specimens for hundreds of years (ok, there may have been some changes of staff…).
  • The BRC, the national Biological Records Centre – a research centre, that produces the definitive analyses of the biological records, and originally the repository of most biological records in the UK. Supports the National Schemes and Societies
  • iRecord – a brilliant and subversive online recording system, that allows anyone to put records on, and those records can wait for a verifier to come along. The natural place for all biological records, as it speeds up record transit.
  • Individual recorders, from beginners to experts – these are the boots on the ground, the ones who brave the elements to collect the data and specimens – nothing would happen without them.
  • The NFBR sits outside of the action. We don’t collect data, we don’t manage or validate data. We have in the past got people to talk together and be creative, helping the birth of the NBN and ALERC. We sit in the middle of all of the above, and try to make them play nicely.

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Posted On: 22/06/2021

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