Saturday, 9 August 2014

To collect or not to collect?

After a week of glorious weather an Atlantic low has swept in (and seemingly swept out again judging by the sun peeking through the cloud) so it is a good opportunity to tackle the thorny subject of pan-listing, league tables and collecting.

Rather than personalise this post, let's just précis what's gone before as this: a few naturalists have voiced an opinion that trying to take on too many orders is destructive to their already attained knowledge and reduces their enjoyment of natural history; questions have been raised over the need for a pan-listing league table; and the collecting of specimens for identification has come in for a good kicking.

Too much?
I have already voiced my opinion on this and admitted that I cannot possibly function as a competent naturalist while trying to identify everything that I come across. This just leads to a watering down of any knowledge that I already possess. Some pan-listers get around this by becoming 'tourists' and latch onto acknowledged experts in difficult fields and are shown stuff - absolutely nothing wrong with this, but unless you are taking in what you have been shown it is all a little empty as far as I'm concerned. I have come back from a day in the field with a notebook full of phonetically spelt Latin names that were shouted out by experts as we looked at mosses, lichens and invertebrates - I then spent several hours trying to decipher what they all were before adding 'ticks' to my pan-species list - it became highly unsatisfactory, nothing stuck in my brain and my time spent doing this was one reason why my ability in my core subjects continued to fall.

League tables
I do not have a problem with there being a league table for pan-species listers. It is harmless fun, can act as a spur to get out in the field and listing is a trait that many naturalists embrace. It is a way of collating what we have seen and has a social element to it as well. You don't have to submit a list (many haven't) and if you have done you don't need to chase it. There is a possibility that avid listers become less caring field naturalists, the tick becoming all consuming, lessening the desire to adhere to good protocol - or, induces the need to collect specimens to prove a lifer - which conveniently leads to...

A can of worms, this one. There are some people who simply abhor the practice of killing a living thing purely to be able to identify it or sticking a pin through it to keep it in a drawer. To some there is no difference between snuffing out a beetle and shooting an Osprey dead - and quite frankly, in the cold light of day, what is the difference? Both are species as equal of the other. Is it permissible to kill one but not the other? And if so, why? (I'm playing devil's advocate here, I don't necessarily have any answers). I have killed moths to establish identification, but don't do so now. However, am I not being hypocritical as I am more than aware that an MV trap will result in the death of moths either due to bird predation, being battered by other moths in the trap or by the weather (ever seen the bottom of a flooded moth trap?). There are many who will defend collecting as the only means of establishing the correct identification of difficult groups, establishing collections for future reference and without collecting our understanding of our ecosystem would be impoverished. At either ends of the debate are people who are passionate about why we should - or shouldn't - collect. I'm sitting this one out on the fence! What I would pay to watch is a well argued debate on this subject. It is not as straight forward as it first seems...


  1. Steve, The only point I would pick you up on is that to say "There are some people who simply abhor the practice of killing a living thing purely to be able to identify it ..." implies that those of us who do kill specimens for identification purposes do so with something other than abhorrence. I can assure you I take no pleasure in killing invertebrates but as a dedicated invertebrate conservationist I know it needs to be done in some circumstances. By contrast, I know I don't need to eat animals to survive, so I don't. I also never leave a moth trap unattended beyond first light as I don't regard the bird predation as acceptable. As you say, it is not as straightforward as it first seems!

  2. This is my position on collecting, posted 4 years ago, with some interesting comments below:

    1. Thanks for your comments Mark. I believe that the pan-species concept is a good place to air, debate and turn over such thorny subjects as killing, collecting and listing. They are not black and white subjects and any mature discussions can only be revealing and enlightening whatever side of the fence you may be (or even, like me, sitting on)