New blog from Conservation Manager Stuart Benn.

Crowd Atlas

There’s really nothing else quite like it. 

Every 20 years or so, all of Britain and Ireland’s birds are counted and mapped, and the results put out in a Bird Atlas.  This info, when added to other more regular counts, is absolutely vital to organisations like the RSPB - it is one of the key building blocks for much of our conservation work but these counts are an almost inconceivably massive undertaking.  Think how long it would take you to count the birds in your local park and then scale it up.  All those fields, islands, moors, towns, cliffs, hills and coasts need to be visited and not just where there is a good road network - it’s the whole lot.  One person couldn’t do it alone, a hundred people couldn’t do it but combine the efforts of thousands of volunteers and all those individual counts add up and that is exactly how this huge task is broken down into little bits and achieved.


On Saturday, I was delighted to give a talk at an event celebrating the latest Bird Atlas run by the organisers of the count, the Scottish Ornithologists Club, the British Trust for Ornithology and BirdWatch Ireland.  The book itself isn’t due to come out until this autumn but we were treated to a sneak preview of some of the maps and each one tells its own story - the big increases of nuthatches and buzzards, the large declines of cuckoos and curlews.  Unfortunately, those on the way down outnumber those on the way up and this story is the same for much of our once familiar wildlife from hedgehogs to butterflies.  We need to start reversing these losses but the first step is knowing the scale of the problem and that’s why these counts and the volunteers who do them are so vital.

So, my talk at the Conference was to give a flavour of how rewarding and fun it was to be one of those 17270 volunteers giving up some of their spare time to do the counts.  Being a lover of the Scottish hills, a fair amount of my effort was spent getting into and then surveying some pretty wild places with Breac, our Border collie.  Equally dramatic were the couple of weeks we spent  helping out the Irish in Donegal away in the far north-west – striding along the top of those huge coastal cliffs with the surf pounding below and the ravens and choughs wheeling above was unforgettable.

North Donegal coast

But, just as enjoyable was getting to really know our local area near Inverness as we went out exploring, looking for new species.  It sounds daft but we found brilliant places for walks and wildlife within minutes of our house that had remained undiscovered and unknown to us for the previous 17 years.

I know that when I get to see all of the maps I’ll be able to pinpoint some of my own records and there is certainly a lot of satisfaction to be gained from that.  But that’s not the main point.  The big picture is that it’s a massive joint effort and it’s everyone’s individual records added together that count.  And I guess that’s what volunteering is really all about – lots of contributions adding up and making a big difference, together.