Friday, 16 October 2015

Where is Surrey?

A Twitter discussion has erupted this evening regarding the agreed boundaries for the ornithological recording area of Surrey. Some of you may wonder what the fuss is about, as, compared to our coastal neighbour's, it is hardly a county to set the birding world alight - however, as I'm only too keen to point out, it has a number of species up on our 'big brother' Kent, namely American Robin, Common Nighthawk, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Pine Bunting, Killdeer and Glaucous-winged Gull - not bad for a runt county...

Anyhow, back to the recording area discussion. In the 19th century (1852 to be exact) a geographical division of the United Kingdom was devised that resulted in clear divisions of the vice-counties, also called the Watsonian vice-counties. These were adopted by biological recorders as easily identified units in which to collate and publish natural history records, which included the Surrey Bird Club (formed in 1957). I quote directly from Wikipedia:

The London boroughs of Lambeth, Southwark, Wandsworth, and parts of Lewisham and Bromley were in Surrey until 1889. The boroughs of Croydon, Kingston upon Thames, Merton, Sutton and Richmond upon Thames south of the River Thames were part of Surrey until 1965, when they too were absorbed into Greater London. In the same year, the county gained its first area north of the Thames, Spelthorne, from defunct Middlesex. As a result of this gain, modern Surrey also borders on the London boroughs of Hounslow and Hillingdon.
Today, administrative Surrey is divided into eleven districts: ElmbridgeEpsom and EwellGuildfordMole ValleyReigate and BansteadRunnymedeSpelthorneSurrey HeathTandridgeWaverley and Woking. Services such as roads, mineral extraction licensing, education, strategic waste and recycling infrastructure, birth marriage and death registration and social and children's services are administered by Surrey County Council.

So we can see that, although the northern-most London boroughs of Watsonian Surrey 'left' the political county in 1889, they were still accepted in the biological recording unit for the county. And again, when the remaining London boroughs were removed in 1965, the biological recording unit of Surrey still adhered to the 'old' Watsonia vice-county area.
However, at the same time (1965), the addition of Spelthorne into the political unit was ignored by biological recorders.
What we have now is a bowl of confusion:
To be crass, Surrey listers do not count anything outside of the vice-county (that is to say, those involved in the competitive 'big boys' league table).
Wheatley's 'Bird of Surrey', published in 2007, refers to Spelthorne as a separate, but clearly removed, set of data.
The Surrey Bird Club website embraces all of Spelthorne as if an unquestionable part of Surrey - but if this is the case, why are the London boroughs still also included?
I think there are only two courses of action.
Firstly, (and my favourite), vice-county ONLY. This has the advantage of being a constant area and one that the historical record adheres to. 
Secondly, admit Spelthorne, but lose the London boroughs. This would, at a stroke, remove the vast ornithological input of Beddington and Barn Elms/Barnes. This would hurt...
At the moment, all areas seem to be accepted, whether they have been added or subtracted from the political map. Surely it is time to adopt one or the other: Watsonian or political...


  1. Steve - I make comment as a complete philistine! The birds, moths, butterflies, plants, etc have no concept of county boundaries, however described - does it really matter if your lists are unable to be compared with others who see the situation differently? "At the moment, all areas seem to be accepted, whether they have been added or subtracted from the political map." and I quote you directly. (via the copy and paste facility)
    I fail to recognise how an encounter is any more important/enjoyable, in the grand scheme of things, because it was, or wasn't, within a man-made set of parameters? My Newland's patch boundaries are something which I have decided upon, purely for my own pleasure, any one else is free to watch this same area and come to their own limits. I understand your point of conformity, but have no idea why it should make any difference to the wildlife records that you choose to accept/dismiss. I've stated before - they're your lists - surely you make the rules to suit yourself? - Dyl

  2. Well Dylan has beaten me to saying pretty much what I was going to say, only he said it better - basically, who bloody cares unless you are one of these high and mighty knobs who think that they own birdwatching and everything that goes with it.

  3. Thanks chaps, you are both right of course - an arbitrary boundary is nonsense to the wildlife that live or pass through it. It is the invention of human conceit! However, for a bit of lively banter, it is a subject to be played with!!

  4. Argh! The hoary old subject of Watsonia vice-counties v the ever changing political boundaries debate. Marvellous stuff, takes me back to my bird recorder days in Bedfordshire where for many years a southern leg of the county loitered between Beds and Herts. While I tend to agree with your two esteemed contributors above, for historical consistency the Watsonia should really be adhered to for recording purposes, such as Atlas work, so that relevant comparisons can be made in future. In that regard the botanists (dear old John Dony), certainly in Beds, always used the vice-county boundaries. Back in the day I can remember many a row about this in meetings, daft really when you think it about it...

    1. I've always been a Watsonian man Paul. Just seems to make sense to me. Hope to see you later in the autumn...

  5. There is a big difference in boundaries for different purposes. Your own patches are just that, yours, so you can make your boundary where you like, but for official, scientific purposes it really needs to be consistent, or else you are comparing non-likes.

    1. In total agreement with you there Gill.

    2. Steve/Gill - I'm going to play "Devil's Advocate" here - makes a change from being a total twat? What is "official" about bird sightings? There is no statutory/mandatory undertaking for any individual to get involved with this silly data collection. As for science, and the purpose of an individual avoiding any proper work, I fully understand the need for correlated data to ensure a direct comparison like for like! Beyond that - get a proper job!
      Steve, you spoke about the Surrey county boundaries - what about the Kent ones? The county, as depicted upon any map/atlas of the UK clearly depicts the area as the land mass adjacent to the sea. So how is it that rabid "county listers" can't include birds at the Sussex end of Scotney - whilst stood inside the county borders, yet are happy to tick species that are flying to and fro above the English Channel - never in, or above, Kent?
      This whole listing concept is total bollocks - and I love it! Have a nice day - Dyl

    3. Again Dyl, I cannot disagree with any of this. I suppose that the use of the term 'official' is for the collation of records for the county bird clubs and the BOC. Nobody has to take part in such things if they don't want to. But if you play the game, you need to stick to the rules...

    4. Game - that's all it is - sport it isn't - no need for rules?

  6. We've been down this route before, Steve.

  7. Watsonian all the way - the rest of the natural history recorders use it without question, so why should birders be the exception?