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Confessions of a pan-species lister …

Why do I want to see a big list of species and what makes me think other people might also want to be pan-species listers? I’ve had to think hard about the answers to these questions in recent months following the Twat-gate affair and various thought-provoking and satirical blogs from the North Downs and beyond.

I get a thrill every time I see a species for the first time: it’s a tick! It’s a unique and unrepeatable moment, whether you go on to become intimately familiar with the species or never see one again, the first encounter is usually the most memorable.

8th June 2008

I have to identify the things I see. I know there are naturalists who can appreciate wildlife without feeling the need to identify it. And I admire those who can enjoy nature for its purely aesthetic appeal. I try to do this when I’m abroad, where I’ve little hope of being able to identify everything, but not very successfully. For me, identifying wildlife is as much of a buzz as seeing it, if not more so.

I love making discoveries. So I’m always keen to be out looking for wildlife and keen to scrutinise what I find to check for anything unusual. I’ve discovered 5 beetles new to Britain so far. One of these (Acupalpus maculatus) had already been collected on several occasions but everyone had overlooked it as A. parvulus, assuming that they’d found a species already on the British list. Even in my utterly unremarkable back garden, I have discovered numerous beetles new to Bedfordshire.

Acupalpus maculatus by John Read

With pan-species listing, I’ve found a way of enjoying the thrill of seeing things for the first time, of making discoveries and finding rarities. In some ways it’s the opposite of twitching. I don’t have to chase after anything: I can just go out in the field locally whenever I like and be sure that I will see something I’ve never seen before! Despite a certain nostalgia about twitching birds in the 80s, I’m mightily glad to be able to get my nat hist kicks much closer to home now. And at the same time, most importantly of all, I can make a contribution to conservation and to the promotion of natural history.

All-round naturalists are important. There are about 70,000 species in Britain and most are poorly-known and poorly-recorded. Lots of birders in recent years have been spreading their interests into butterflies, dragonflies, moths, orchids, cetaceans and many other groups, generating lots of valuable records. I think it would be a terrific boost to natural history and conservation if this trend continues into ever more neglected groups of British wildlife. I have entered all 50,000+ of my invertebrate records into my MapMate database, all of which I make available to national recording schemes, county records centres, etc.

I was interested in wildlife from a young age but, like most keen naturalists, it was birds that first got me really fired up. I used to love everything about twitching: ringing the grapevine, driving through the night, service stations at 3 am full of familiar faces, dawn in some new and distant part of the country, once-in-a-lifetime birds from Siberia or North America. I’ve hitched to many parts of Britain for birds including Shetland and Scilly, and for a while in the 80s I didn’t miss much. But to be a good twitcher you need commitment, deep pockets and a flexible lifestyle. I am not a good twitcher but twitching has given me some great experiences (and still occasionally does!). It was a brilliant gateway into nat hist for me and a superb training ground for developing rigorous ID skills. But I really wish I’d cottoned on to the rest of biodiversity at a younger age. I didn’t identify a single beetle until I was 22!

Conservation in Britain is a democracy. For much of the early part of the 20th century it was a two-party system and many of our NNRs, SSSIs and Wildlife Trust reserves are primarily of botanical interest. But in recent decades, the ruling party has been the birdwatchers. They do their best to cater for other wildlife but inevitably birds come first. Ultimately, the more people in this country who care about each and every species of British invertebrate, the more chance we have of conserving them and their habitats. And they need all the help they can get.

I wish I’d been born to be the next David Attenborough. I wasn’t, but if I can help a few more people to get more enjoyment out of Britain’s wildlife and to put more back in, I will be a happy man.


  1. Steve Gale says:

    Hi Mark, Firstly I want to thank you for awakening the slumbering all-round naturalist with me. Since being converted to pan-listing I have spent many happy hours looking at things that only a year ago I would have walked past and been ignorant of. I cannot but understand that others (even of a natural history persuasion), do struggle to come to terms with what makes or encourages someone to become a pan-lister. A part of me can see the absurdity, so I do poke a bit of fun at myself. However, will I stop doing it? No way!!

  2. Josh Jenkins Shaw says:

    Nice article Mark, nice to know its not just me getting thrills from ticking woodlice etc (…and thanks for bringing the whole concept of pan-specie listing into my life!) As somebody who works in the industry, do you think inverts are getting more protection and awareness in development? Or are they still fairly insignificant in developers/consultancies minds.?


  3. markgtelfer says:

    Thanks for the comments. Josh, Yes I’d say that invertebrates have been getting more protection and awareness in development, though they need much more. I don’t know if they’ll get it. But anyone with your breadth of natural history knowledge is always going to be very employable and sought after whether as a consultant or in the conservation, education or research sectors.

  4. As another pan-lister (but I didn’t know I was one!) I have become very interested in the complexity of the interactions amongst species and between species and their environment. I was very interested in wildlife as a youngster, but my career took control for many years. Now that I’ve slowed down, I have ‘sunk into’ the local wildlife to such an extent that there aren’t enough hours in the day. The number of identifications that I can complete is largely determined by the amount of time, the size of my library and access to keys and expertise. Without formal qualifications in any relevant topic, I am unlikely to get employment in the natural history field, but my records are useful (14 – 15 species new to Ireland, countless new county records) and I run lots of classes for adults, but more importantly for school kids. I think it’s really important to get kids enthused and made aware of how interesting wildlife is and how important it is to our own survival.

    I think being a pan-lister gives me an all-round perspective that is invaluable, so I have no shame in being one.

  5. markgtelfer says:

    Thanks for that Stuart, I think as it gets more and more expensive to travel the world, or even the country, pan-species listing in your home county is going to be the best way for keen naturalists to indulge. And as you have shown so well, it’s possible to make important discoveries without travelling to the ends of the earth.

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