An independent, non-commercial site to collect and disseminate information on the natural history of Shetland

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Nature in Shetland

winner of a Shetland Environment Award 2004


Shetland Biological Records Centre



What is a Biological Record? 

Put very simply, a biological record is documentary evidence of wildlife.  A good biological record may be in any format (e.g. written, electronic, photographic), but will contain all of the following four key components.

  1. First, and most important of all, the species (or sometimes habitat) concerned is identified correctly

  2. In many cases this is very straightforward, but in some cases, involving rare species or ones that have closely similar relatives, the process is more difficult.  For difficult species, corroborative evidence may be required to establish the validity of the record.  This may be in the form of a specimen (e.g. for plants), or a detailed written description, outlining key identification features (e.g. for birds or cetaceans).  For many groups, such as birds and mammals, there is often a panel of experts which will judge difficult records.  The British Birds Rarities Committee is one such panel, which operates at a national level for very rare species of bird (mostly ones that have only been recorded in Britain a few times).  Often, a second tier of assessment exists at a local level, for species which may be unusual in one particular region.  Hence the Shetland Bird Club Rarities Committee judges species which are unusual in Shetland, some of which may be very common elsewhere in Britain.  For example, the Nuthatch is a widespread and familiar bird in England, but there are no accepted records for Shetland, so any sighting would require corroboration.  Such extra detail may be in the form of a written description, but of course it could also be in the form of photographs or video/film footage, or even a specimen if the bird was found dead.  Of course, in the past the taking of ‘specimens’ was the main way in which records were confirmed!

  3. Second, the date of the record is crucial.  Recording dates allows patterns of occurrence to be assessed, and population trends through time (i.e. whether a species is increasing, stable or declining) to be established.

  4. Third, the location of the record.  An accurate description of where the record was made is of enormous value.  A written description will usually suffice, but the best was to describe locations is by using a grid reference, which can be gained easily from an Ordnance Survey map.  For most biological records a six-figure grid reference is perfectly adequate.  This pinpoints a location to the nearest 100m.  In some cases, for example the precise location of a rare plant, for which only a few individuals survive, an eight-figure grid reference (giving location to the nearest 10m) is more appropriate.  Modern technology, in the form of hand-held GPS (Global Positioning System) recorders, looks likely to revolutionise the accuracy with which naturalists can record their sightings.  This technology is particularly useful when faced with a wide expanse of featureless habitat – such as a large area of moorland.  It is even more useful at sea, for example when recording whales and dolphins.

  5. Fourth, and finally, the name of the observer is an important piece of documentary evidence.  Allied to this, the name of the expert or the authority which has determined a difficult record (see above) is similarly important.

In summary then, a biological record is documentary evidence of wildlife, at a certain place and time, made by a known observer. So if you’re sending in records, remember:  what, where, when and by whom.

In addition to the four basics listed above, additional or ‘background’ information can be very useful, in particular counts of a species, any interesting behaviour (perhaps whether other species are associating with the organism concerned) or details of the habitat where the species is encountered.  Often, a list of other species present can give vital clues to a record assessor.

Photo above right - Paddyfield Warbler - Roger Riddington

What sort of records does SBRC collect?

Records at the Centre come from many sources, from specialist surveys by professional biologists, to keen amateur naturalists, to interested members of the public. ALL records are important. To encourage more widespread record submission, SBRC co-ordinates surveys to find out more about Shetland’s wildlife. These cover both common species, some of which we know relatively little about, and rarer species. If you would like to help with these surveys, please contact

How do I get access to information at SBRC?

Information held by SBRC is available to anyone with a legitimate need, or interest in natural history.  Personal visits to the Centre are welcome, though appointments are advised.  Requests for sensitive or confidential data will be referred to SBRC’s Steering Committee, which is composed of members of funding partners and local recording groups.  


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