Dragonflies and me; a career as an insect specialist

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Logo: BDS

By Eleanor Colver, Conservation Officer

Female Common Emerald Dragonfly resting on a leaf
Common Emerald Damselfly. Female (Ken Gartside)

The British Dragonfly Society has been working to conserve dragonflies and their wetlands since its formation, by a group of dedicated enthusiasts, in the early 1980s; the organisation now has over 2000 members and four staff members. Although my official title is Conservation Officer, I have an eclectic role within the organisation that includes conservation and recording project management, as well as outreach and communications. This is one of the benefits of working in a small charity team; Conservation, Outreach and Fundraising staff are in constant collaboration, and this has allowed me to gain experience in a range subjects.

One of the primary goals of the BDS when it was set up was to develop the national Odonata recording scheme; the BDS currently receives over 50000 records every year for Britain and Ireland, which are enter into iRecord to be verified by a team of dedicated County Dragonfly Recorders, before being exported to NBN atlas where they are publically available. The citizen science community in the UK is truly an inspiring force and is responsible for collecting the majority of recordings that populate our database, providing us with the scientific evidence to guide and support Odonata conservation targets. This year I will be using the database to review the Odonata Red List for Great Britain; if there’s anything the dataset has illustrated, it’s that the distribution trends of our Odonata is changing rapidly; species historically regarded as being common, such as the Common Emerald Damselfly Lestes sponsa, showing significant occupancy (number of inhabited 1km OS grid squares) reduction and on the other hand, species such as, the new colonist, Willow Emerald Damselfly Chalcolestes viridis, showing rapid range expansion. You can find out more by reading the State of Dragonflies in Britain and Ireland 2021 report on the BDS website. As well as promoting the recording of species occupancy, the BDS runs the Dragonfly Priority Site Assessment, a structured comprehensive survey method used to identify locally and nationally important sites based of the presence of Red Listed species and/or high species diversity. The process allows us to identify sites of significant value to Odonata within the landscape in order to prioritise them for monitoring and conservation. We regularly assist site managers and volunteers with developing monitoring schemes for priority sites, and wetlands where land owners want to track changes in their species’ populations. In addition, we assist local authorities and site stakeholders in obtaining site data and information; this is particularly relevant in the case of planning applications where the proposed development has the potential to impact freshwater wetlands. The Priority Sites Assessment provides us a vetting tool to identify which application sites we have adequate evidence for to support our involvement in the planning consultation process.

A new dragonfly interpretation board surrounded by team at a project launch
Interpretation board installed at WWT Steart Marshes at Hotspot project launch event (Nick Wilcox-Brown)

The BDS does not manage any of its own reserves, like many taxa specialist societies, much of our work is done in partnership with reserve managers and land owners. This is another perk of my job as it allows me to travel to some degree, and work with a variety of people.

An important feature of the BDS is the Dragonfly Conservation Group, an assembly of knowledgeable Odonatologists who direct the BDS’s conservation, recording and research goals. They are a fount of knowledge on every topic related to dragonflies, who assist me in providing the best habitat management strategies, for specific species or dragonflies in general, based on the latest research. In addition, they provide guidance on the best codes of practice for activities such as re-introduction projects; there have been a number of White-faced Darter re-introduction projects in the past decade, as sites such as Fowlshaw Moss in Cumbria, and the DCG has helped provide guidance on methodology and subsequent monitoring.

Unfortunately, research into dragonflies and their ecology is lagging behind that of more popular taxa. They are not the easiest creatures to study in the field, due to their, sometimes trying, elusive nature; accurately monitoring changes in abundance is difficult enough! According to the recent State of Dragonflies report more species are showing an increase in occupancy (41%) than a decrease (11%). However, that doesn’t necessarily mean our total abundance of dragonflies in Britain is increasing. Considering the well documented loss of their freshwater wetlands and dramatic decline in the abundance of their flying insect prey over the past 100 years it is safe to assume Odonata abundance has responded in correlation.   

An interview on Good Morning BBC1 for the State of Dragonflies
BBC 1 Good Morning interview for the State of Dragonflies 2021 (BBC)

Depressing statements such as this can be rather demoralising to wildlife lovers; as a result, I work in partnership with our Conservation Outreach Officer to ensure out communications are motivational and empower the public to get involved in making a difference. For example, garden and land owners can have a direct positive impact on our declining numbers of dragonflies by providing breeding habitat in the form of a pond (a significant proportion of our resident species oviposit in ponds). Follow us on social media to join in with our PondWatch campaign every June, which promotes the value of ponds for dragonflies and other animals (including people!) and encourages others to share the message with their pond stories, photos and videos.

To promote awareness of, and involvement in, dragonfly conservation we also run a yearly calendar of field meetings, and events, thanks to our fantastic team of dedicated volunteers. I assist our Conservation Outreach Officer when working with partners at our designated Dragonfly Hotspots, such as Stover Country Park in Devon and Llangorse Lake in the Brecon Beacons, to provide engagement activities, resources and events that give visitors the opportunity to learn about and connect with dragonflies. Our summer visits to Hotspot sites are always a highlight of the year; when working in conservation sometimes the challenges we face can seem insurmountable. However, seeing the astonishment on the faces of a kid meeting their first Emperor Dragonfly larva, or talking to a new volunteer who’s eager to lend their support, always provides a valuable motivational boost!

Male Migrant Hawker dragonfly resting on a leaf
Migrant Hawker. male. has been increasing in occupancy across Britain and Ireland since the 1970s. (Gareth William Tonks)

If you told teenage me that I would end up as the Conservation Officer for the British Dragonfly Society I would be more than pleasantly surprised. Invertebrates have always fascinated me, along with most fauna to be honest; however, it wasn’t until meeting a kind (and very patient) dragonfly recorder during my RSPB warden internship that I truly gained my current passion (or obsession, if you ask my family) for Odonata. Being passionate about your taxa is the most important quality you need to work in a specialist job long term; when I start work every morning I know I’m going to finish the day knowing more about these magnificent and mysterious insects, which only increases my appreciation for their fascinating evolution, behaviour and ecology.

Don’t be a stranger; you can follow the BDS on social media:

Facebook British Dragonfly Society 

Twitter @BDSdragonflies 

Instagram @britishdragonflysociety 

Please visit the BDS for information on dragonflies, conservation, and recording.

You are also welcome to join our free online Annual Meeting which will be held on the 19 November; you can view the programme and book via the event section of the BDS website.

First published in CJS Focus on Working with Wildlife in association with The Wildlife Trusts on 17 October 2022. Read the full issue here


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Posted On: 17/09/2022

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