Listing heavily to one side

Posted by Graeme Lyons , Sunday, 13 February 2011 23:23

Having just spent two hours keying out two small dung beetles, I just came across this angry blog post about Mark Telfer's article on pan-species listing and the blog author's response to the comments he received and felt like I needed to make a few things clear too. Just in case any readers are not entirely with me on why I am currently listing everything and trying to get to 4000 species by the end of the year, the reasons are as follows:
  • I've been studying natural history for some 20 years now and as my knowledge base grows, it gets harder to remember what I have seen without some framework that is required to keep learning. Listing helps this. It also points to the areas where I know less and allows me to target my natural history. It gets me to new sites and enriches the whole experience. I want to be the most effective naturalist and conservationist that I can be, I can't do this if I am ignorant.
  • Life is short and I want to experience as much of the natural wonders this country has to offer before I die. I try and photograph most new things I see too, another resource that is valuable to conservation as I give all my photos to Sussex Wildlife Trust.
  • The more you know, the greater the range of work you can do in the field of conservation and help put something back in. If everyone only sticks to the easy to identify groups, we will end up in a situation where there might one day be no coleopterists or lichenologists for example. If we don't know something is there, how can we possibly help to conserve it if the need arises?
  • Listing for me evolved with this blog, the two feed each other (I was doing neither this time last year) and the listing ensures the blog is full of new things and that my enthusiasm is maintained. I get the impression people are not put off by the listing theme, in fact people seem to like it.
  • It's fun. I am actually enjoying natural history more than I ever have which I didn't think was possible. Having an arbitrary goal that is dauntingly far away means I am having to get out there a lot. I am seeing things I have always wanted to see that I just have never got around to seeing (and might not ever have seen if I hadn't started this challenge) as well as things I didn't even know existed!
Anyway, here's some more statistics: Natural history is more than a job and a hobby to me, it's a calling. I have studied wildlife for as long as I can remember, worked in conservation for the last decade, have given up months of my spare time, ran dozens of lectures and courses, helped conserve countless species, observed and identified 3107 of those species, (the two dung beetles were ticks) walked thousands of miles of transects, helped dozens of people with their ID skills and started a blog that within 9 months has had over 25,000 page views and I love every minute of it. I'm 32, I have 15 piercings, 6 tattoos and dreadlocks. I'm no anorak. Sadly there are people out there that get fixated on the word listing and don't look beyond that to the reasons for doing it. Wildlife in this country will be a tiny bit better off for my listing efforts both directly  (in the form of records) and indirectly (by expanding my knowledge and sharing it with others).What's the problem?

I would have been within my rights to have posted an angry comment under Dylan's article but I don't see what that would gain. I blog for fun in my spare time, I don't want to be drawn in to an aggressive debate when I should be enjoying myself. I have not had a single negative comment on this blog and I would like to keep it that way. Consider this my response then, I want to show how this is nothing more than a wholly positive endeavour and I hope this has come across in this post. I know of two people I have helped  inspire to put their lists together already from this blog, one who is only 17 and has already seen 1017 species! I bet he will be working in conservation in a few years. How could anyone put a negative spin on that? Thanks for following!

Oh, the photo by the way is the Fly Orchid fooling the wasp Argogorytes mystaceus which I took at Wolstonbury Hill in 2008.

9 Response to "Listing heavily to one side"

Jacob Says:

That's a very interesting post.

Having lived with a hardcore birder for a couple of years, it did make me wonder quite where their priorities can lie. For example, he would make a trip across the country in a car - carbon emissions and all - just to see one highly unremarkable sparrow.

I appreciate that people travel all the time for unnecessary purposes. But there does seem a contradiction in going to such lengths when you're at the same time apparently committed to conservation. Not that I mean to infer that you do this; I don't - it's more that this is the sort of obsessional behaviour that listing sometimes instigates, which is divorced from the bright, aesthetic appreciation of nature you often see in young children and that remains the bedrock for many adults.

What can rub people up the wrong way is the apparent, implicit statement - 'I am better at this than you are', and 'however long you spend in the fields or woods or beaches, you'll have seen less than me'. Now, this impression is only apparent, only implicit - but it can still put people on edge. And it is hardly helped by the hierarchical way in which listers of every kind - birds, moths, pan, &c. - will often end up ranking themselves in yet another list - most species in their local area, in the country, in the world.

I suppose I could put it this way - you wonder if someone who had seen thousands of species could look at someone who loved nature, but had seen only a few hundred, and say to themselves honestly 'this person has no greater appreciation of natural history than I do.' I do wonder if they'd scoff at the idea as absurd, or only pay lip-service to it, whilst deep-down thinking that the number of species seen must be the core determinant of somebody's appreciation and level of interest.

So I remain uneasy about the competitive, hierarchical way in which something as basic and wonderful as the natural world can be distorted by people eager to prove themselves better than others. And I also cannot but find some of the extreme lengths some listers go to just for one or two ticks to be laughably absurd. I am also tempered by the fact that, among the lecturers at university where I studied Conservation Biology and Ecology, lists were seen as little more than "stamp collecting" and of scant use, per se, for scientific studies.

However, critics must be self-critical enough to know that most naturalists, I think, would love to see thousands of species, and to avoid saying things motivated out of a misguided envy. And in any case, it is clear to me that for you, listing is a good way of continuing to explore your passion. The way you explain your interest is devoid of elitism. I just hope that most people see listing as at most a means of growing to understand and appreciate the breathtaking complexity and beauty of nature, and not as an end in itself.

Graeme Lyons Says:

Hi Jacob. That's definatley the longest and most well written comment I have had on here, thank you! I appreciate everything you say, a great response as this is just the kind of reaction I wanted. By the way, I haven't twitched any further than the neighbouring county for many years, I have no need to, there is so much to see in Sussex!

I appreciate that some people might be uneasy about a hierarchy of listers. I myself don't see it that way, hence I am oblivious to these negatvive aspects in my post, but I appreciate some people might be based on your comments and it is perhaps my passion for the subject that stimulates a state of naievty in me towards the darkside of twitching. I see a naturalist close to reaching 10,000 species as someone inspirational, simply a fun way of quantifying a life time's achievement rather than proving how awesome they are compared to everyone else. The real stars in all this are the wildlife! I want to keep it that way.

I don't wish to dismiss your comments however as I can see where the unease might be but in terms of the list of pan-species listers, most of them are heavily involved in conservation and I doubt very much that a single one of them has an agenda that different to that I displayed in my post.

Thanks once again and I hope I have not put you off my blog!

michael jenkins Says:

hello Graeme,
you did not write anything about your photo,
that looks like a crazy flower,
it looks like it matches its pollinator insect ?
is that a wasp of some kind ?
an ichneumon wasp ?
what flower is that ?
is this an instance of
'flower - pollinator insect - co-evolution' ?
when was the photo ?

Graeme Lyons Says:

Sorry Michael, I did add a very short one-liner about these two species at the bottom of the rant but it was hard to find. Perhaps I should give them the whole post that they deserve?

Steve Gale Says:

Hi Graeme, I'm glad that you have posted a response. My own comment on Dylan's blog could have been far more forceful, but I decided to rein-in my feelings. Intolerance amongst those of us who value and study the natural world is something I cannot begin to understand. Anyway, back to pan-species listing: number 2641 for me on Saturday was Coral Spot. I might not catch you, but I'm behind you!!

Graeme Lyons Says:

Hi Steve
I haven't seen Coral Spot. My last tick was a small black dung beetle called Aphodius ater and that took me over an hour to key out!

By the way I liked your post about the Little Gull at Dungeness. I had a similar moment there in 2001, it's one of my favourite places in the whole world. I watched seven Little Egrets fly over at sunset as I sat on the porch of my new home. As I prepared to spend my first night living on the RSPB reserve as a residential volunteer, all my doubts disolved away and I realised I had made the best decision of my life! The sun slowly set in that huge sky in a blaze of red. There is no better word to describe this than an epiphany.

Nice work with the mosses too, Thuidium is the best!

Mark Carter Says:

Hi Graeme,
I was pretty shocked by the thuggishness of the initial Dumpton Non-conformist's post. He seem to think not knowing what he is looking at half the time is a virtue. I posted a comment there to that effect but I doubt it'll survive his scrutiny.

Anyway, just wanted to say that I have found sites like yours and Mark Telfer's to be inspirational- I am in Australia and have been listing vertebrates and land snails for a few years now but you have inspired me to ramp it up.

Graeme Lyons Says:

Hi Mark
Thanks for the comments. Good to see someone on the other side of the planet is enjoying Britsh wildlife even though you have all those parrots and marsupials! Great stuff.

Simon Davey Says:

I have just seen your amazing photograph of the wasp mating with the Fly Orchid flower on Wolstonbury Hill. I am seriously jealous! Both of the photograph and your having seen it. The pollination of Ophrys has fascinated me for many years. Congratulations!

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