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Caithness Field Club

Caithness Field Club Bulletin

Biological Recording in Caithness
By Ken Butler


One of the purposes of the Field Club is to encourage members and the public to know about the animals and plants in Caithness. So we might ask what �know� means and how to go about it. It is one thing for members to observe and recognise animals and plants � but something more to record the information systematically for future generations to understand and tap into.

The Field Club wants to encourage recording of animal and plant observations both in greater breadth and greater depth. Flowering plants and birds get plenty of attention, but mosses, insects, freshwater algae, mammals, lichens, spiders and all sorts of others are not at all well recorded. The depth of recording is also shallow; we might know the number of sites where the Sea Spleenwort Asplenium marinum grows, but we do not know how many plants there are, how they vary from year to year, how severe storms affect their survival, whether they are increasing in number or decreasing, or whether the species is spreading to new sites or not.

We also do not have very convenient ways to make the information available to others. There are a few booklets available to tourists, but nothing comprehensive or up to date.

Biological recording is not confined to species. The collection together of some characteristic species makes a habitat or community. The recording of habitats by multi-skilled teams has become a common form of biological recording in which the geology, climate, plant community and the animals that live in the habitat are all recorded.


The first step in the process is to make a Checklist. This is a list of all the species of a particular group that have been recorded in Caithness. There are checklists for birds and higher plants which go back to Victorian times; other lists are scarce.

The checklist has to be for a specifically defined area. This concept was proposed by Hewett Cottrell Watson in 1852. He divided Britain into 112 areas, largely based on the county boundaries of that time and he called these vice-counties. So in the Watsonian Vice-county system Caithness is VC109. The area is, fortunately, the same as we would recognise today as Caithness within the Highland Region though for many other vice-counties the boundaries no longer coincide with the county boundaries which have changed with time. The point is that if you look up a checklist for (say) the year 1900, you can know what area of ground it refers to and compare it with the checklist today.

Distribution Mapping

To go beyond the Checklist, one usually progresses to some sort of distribution map to indicate where a species is found or not found. Following on the Checklist idea, it is possible to draw a map of the vice-counties and to colour in those that have the species on their checklists. The same Dr H C Watson produced Watson�s Topographical Botany in 1873 which, although all the maps were not drawn, gave the list of vice-counties that would be coloured in, for all the known British plants at that time.

But distribution maps give rise to a dilemma. What should the unit of mapping be? The vice-county is a coarse basis. The other two options usually considered are:

  • A grid base system founded on the Ordnance Survey Grid

  • An ecological based system founded on zones of similar ground; thus Morven as a mountain might be a recording unit, and Dunnet Sands might be another.

The OS Grid system in fact won the day; the first OS grid dot map was produced in 1936 by Good in a study of Lizard Orchids, but the ground-breaking publication was Franklyn Perring�s Atlas of the British Flora published by the Botanical Society of the British Isles in 1962. It became the template for many publications including The Atlas of Breeding Birds in Britain and Ireland and a myriad of atlases of butterflies, mosses, mammals etc.

Hectads and Tetrads

The Atlas of the British Flora adopted the 10km square of the OS grid as the standard unit. The 10km square has become known as a hectad. This gives a four-character representation of any square. The 100km super-square for each part of Britain can be represented by letters or numbers. For most of Caithness it is ND or 39. Within this the 10km divisions go from 0 to 9. So, for example, Thurso lies in ND16 or 39/16, while much of Wick lies in ND35 or 39/35.

Especially in the home counties or in cities, the 10km square is considered to be too coarse a unit for general mapping � but the 1km square is too fine. So the tetrad � a square group of four 1km squares to form a 2km x 2km unit, has become favoured.

There are around 3500 hectads in the British Isles; there are 29 in Caithness including the small area in ND47 at Duncansby Head. Views vary on how small an area of land should be that qualifies as a hectad.

An example of a hectad-based plant distribution map is shown below.

Recording cards

For speed of working, a range of special recording cards has been designed. A card has a long list of possible species that might be encountered and it is only necessary to tick a species name when it is found in the recording unit. Slick computer software is available to allow speedy transfer of data from these cards to a computer database.

Scarce, rare and interesting species are recorded in much more detail. A special �Pink Card� is available for recording detail on a national standard format for these species.


The government runs a Biological Records Centre at the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology, Monks Wood, Abbots Ripton, Huntingdon. It aims to keep all records of observation of biological species on its central database. The BRC (as it is known) works with the national learned societies to organise the data collection and the interpretation and dissemination of knowledge. The learned societies are thus the keepers of the knowledge about species.

Recently there has also been increased interest in biological recording as a technology. Nationally, Britain has set up the National Biodiversity Network to oversee developments. The organisation Biological Recording in Scotland (BRISC) takes the lead in Scotland and there is a Local Records Centre at the Inverness Museum and one in Kirkwall for Orkney Records Centre.


Everyone knows that the Latin names of plants and animals keep changing as scientists develop their understanding of the boundaries between species. A map of distribution is not much good if one is unclear about which species is being mapped. So identification and naming of observations is a key part of having good records. For most groups of species there exists a national Checklist, which gives the currently accepted names for the group of species. And for most groups of species there is a standard textbook that allows identification.

People often need help with identification of their finds. The Natural History Museum in London is a resource for the more difficult things, but they have very limited effort to help with things that are sent to them. There are national or local Recorders who will help as much as they can and a useful list is given at the end of this article.

Keeping Records

The BRC aims to keep all biological records on its huge database at Monks Wood. However the coverage is at present patchy and the resources to maintain and improve it vary according to the government of the day and the priority it attaches to it. However there are 9,000,000 records on 10,000 species.

Our Local Records Centre at Inverness Museum holds only the records that are sent to it. It does not hold the appropriate sub-set of the national BRC database. However for some groups of species its records are comprehensive.

For birds and vascular plants there are local Recorders who are volunteers appointed to hold a set of local records for their area of interest.

There are a few volunteer experts who keep records for the whole of Scotland in their area of interest.

This is obviously a rather bitty and non-uniform system. The government has appointed the National Biodiversity Network Steering Committee to run a project to unify and co-ordinate these records. It currently envisages that:

  • Data will be stored on computers in a standard format using common software,

  • The computers will be at local record centres

  •  The computers will be linked through the Internet

  • Users will be able to get data in a uniform presentation from any relevant site via a gateway in the network

  • It will cover all the 50,000 biological species in Britain.

We await developments with interest!


Records of finding species for which there is a local Recorder should be sent to that person. If there is not a local Recorder then the option is to send records to Inverness Museum or to a national Recorder. One will often be expected to have a reference specimen to offer in verification of the find. It is usually difficult to know what is best regarding specimens. The man who shot the last Great Auk was no doubt taking a specimen!

It is often possible to get help with recording from the local Highland Council Ranger Service
( 01847821531) who have contacts and knowledge to offer.

What is worth Recording?

There are not good records of any mammals, so notes of any mammals are worth submitting. Also reptiles are easy to identify and any records are appreciated. Botanists keep their eyes on the ground, so miss recording trees.

There are schemes for recording specific things and it is worth contributing to them. A current one is to record witches brooms on birch trees. If you keep a lookout on spring walks then the records will be appreciated.

List for Caithness

Below is a list of the persons who can be contacted to hold, comment on and determine records.

Species group





Ms Ro Scott

SNH, 27 Ardconnell Terr. Inverness IV2 3AE



Bat Conservation Trust




Mr Hugh Rose

Trian House, Comrie






Dr Bob Reid

SAC Vet Service,

Drummond Hill

Stratherrick Rd



Sea Watch


L&P MacDonald

4 Craig View


Grampian AB56 2QF



Neil Money

Heathfield House, Dunnet,




Peter Miller

10 Harrold Cottages, Reiss,
Wick, Caithness




Inverness Museum



Oliver Crimmen

British Museum (Natural History)



Ray Collier

Achavaneran Farm
Inverness-shire IV1 2XF




Inverness Museum



Ian Evans

Calltuin, Nedd
Sutherland IV27 4NN



David Horsfield

131 3F1 Comiston Road

Edinburgh EH10 6AQ



Prof GN Foster

Balfour-Browne Club

3 Eglinton Terr, Ayr



Thomas Huxley

The Old Manse
Perth PH1 3LR



Murdo MacDonald

Inverness Museum


Butterflies and Moths

David Barbour

125a High St


Banffshire AB38 9PB



Adrian Sumner

7 Smileyknowes Court
North Berwick
E Lothian EH39 4RG




Inverness Museum




Inverness Museum



Martin Wilkinson

Heriot-Watt University
Riccarton , Edinburgh



Prof. Roy

Royal Botanic Gardens
Edinburgh EH3 5LR



BJ Coppins

Royal Botanic Gardens
Edinburgh EH3 5LR



Gordon Rothero

Stronlonag, Glenmarran
Dunoon PA23 8RA



Ken Butler

Seaside Cottage, Thurso East
Caithness KW14 8HN


Other organisations


Biological Recording in Scotland is an organisation that promotes and assists recording in Scotland. It produced A Sourcebook for Biological Recording in Scotland in 1999 which is a mine of information.


Chesterhill, Shore Road, Anstruther, Fife KY10 3DZ


The Highland Biological Recording Group is a club associated with the Inverness Museum that runs schemes and projects to record individual species distributions. For example they have done special projects to record rabbits, dragonflies, bumble-bees and recently earwigs. The Membership Secretary is:

Ian Evans, Calltuin, Nedd, Drumbeg, Sutherland IV27 4NN

The Ray Society

The Ray Society is the keeper of the Vice-county system. The maps of the vice-counties are Publication 146, Watsonian Vice-counties of Great Britain, The Ray Society, c/o British Museum (Natural History), Cromwell Road, London.

In Conclusion

There are many opportunities to add to the wealth of knowledge about our animals and plants. Some require little specialised knowledge (are there any stoats in your hectad?) while others require special equipment and detailed knowledge. Bit by bit the observations recorded will add up to a huge bank of knowledge. I can only encourage you to think about doing some.

Example of a Dot Map showing Plant Distribution for Mertinsia Maritima - the Oyster Plant.
Each dot represents one hectad
Full dots are post 1950 data Open dots are pre 1950 data

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