Interview with Clare Blencowe

12 January 2021 | Posted in Emma Chaplin
Interview with Clare Blencowe
Clare Blencowe ©Miles Davies

Clare is Manager of Sussex Biodiversity Record Centre (SxBRC). We spoke to her about her work and other interesting stuff!

When did you begin in this role, and what was your route to it?

I started this role in July 2015 and I’ve been doing it for five and a half years. Before that I completed a Masters in Environmental Monitoring and Modelling and worked in environmental regulation for a number of years – in various jobs at the Environment Agency and Defra.

I got into biological recording initially as a hobby. I was very involved, on a voluntary basis, with the Sussex branch of Butterfly Conservation and the butterfly recording project which led to publication of The Butterflies of Sussex. I’d also volunteered at SxBRC while I was doing my Masters degree, helping with data entry.

When I saw the manager’s job advertised, I thought it would be right up my street. And it is! I live close to the Sussex Wildlife Trust headquarters at Woods Mill, so a big perk of the job in previous years has been a lovely walk to work across the fields and through the nature reserve. I’m probably one of the few people in our current circumstances who actually misses their commute.

Give us a potted version of what the centre does and your job involves

Sussex Biodiversity Record Centre is part of a network of local environmental record centres, across the UK. We work with ecologists, wildlife recording groups and volunteers in the Sussex biological recording community to collect and verify data on our county’s species and habitats – and we make that data accessible to anyone who needs it, through our ecological data request service

I manage the SxBRC team and work closely with users of SxBRC’s services – including local planning authorities, government agencies and local environmental organisations – to ensure they’re getting access to the biodiversity data and information they require.

SxBRC is fully self-funding and we cover our costs through a combination of contributions from partner organisations, income from our data request service and income from projects. So a big part of my role is developing projects and ensuring we are bringing in enough income to cover our operating costs. We operate on a non-profit basis so any ‘surplus’ funds that we generate are reinvested in improving evidence related to Sussex’s natural environment.

In recent years, a big achievement has been setting up the Sussex Local Wildlife Sites Initiative which is focused on improving the evidence base supporting locally designated sites in Sussex – so that they can be accurately represented in Local Plans and be given due consideration in the planning and development process. That project employs a full time ecologist, who I also manage.

What’s coming up for you now?

Much to our surprise, we’ve seen record demand for SxBRC’s data request service during 2020 – which has put our small team under added pressure while we’ve all been working at home. So we’ve been working on some systems improvements and I’m also looking at options for increasing SxBRC’s capacity.

Policies in Defra’s ’25 Year Environment Plan’ and the forthcoming Environment Bill, such as ‘biodiversity net gain’ and the development of a ‘nature recovery network’ across England, will depend on availability of good quality biodiversity data and information. We are looking at how SxBRC can help respond to that need and support effective delivery of government’s environmental policies. In particular, I think local habitat data could have an even bigger role to play in planning and decision-making than it has previously.  

What do you do when you’re not working?

When I began this role at SxBRC, and swapped a four-hour commute up to London for a stroll across the fields, I found myself with a lot more free time – so I thought I’d have a go at getting into fungi. That’s when I started my blog.

Over the past five years, I’ve got increasingly interested in mycology: the study of fungi – so that’s where most of my free time goes. I came to it with no previous training or qualifications in biology or mycology, so it’s been a steep learning curve. The blog has been a useful tool for recording my observations, consolidating my learning and inviting feedback on when I’m getting things right or (more importantly!) getting things wrong. It has also helped me connect with other mycologists locally, through the Sussex Fungus Group and West Weald Fungus Recording Group, and nationally, through the British Mycological Society – all of whom I’ve found to be very supportive and encouraging.

Which is your favourite season?

One thing I was surprised to discover, when I started getting into fungi, is that you can find them all year round (different species tend to favour different seasons). But recently I’ve been getting particularly interested in grassland fungi, which are typically found in the autumn.

So autumn’s currently my favourite – but the season always goes too quick when it finally arrives.

Are you a lark or an owl?

Neither. More of a Dormouse. I love sleeping.

Tea or coffee person?

Both. But not at the same time.

What’s your desert island fungus?

Oh, tricky to just choose one. I guess I’d have to go for something practical. Perhaps Hoof Fungus Fomes fomentarius. That was what scientists found with Ötzi, the 5,000 year old Iceman. Also known as Tinder Fungus, it would be useful for lighting fires and can be used to form a felt-like fabric called amadou – so I could make myself a stylish hat.

Hoof fungus

© George Chernilevsky 

What sparks joy in your working day?

Hearing from folks in the Sussex biological recording community about their encounters with wildlife.

The species database held by Sussex Biodiversity Record Centre holds over eight million records of wildlife observations in Sussex – which I think is just amazing.

Like a lot of Sussex’s naturalists, every year I look forward to the publication of Adastra: the review of wildlife recording in Sussex. It is written by members of the biological recording community and put together by my colleague Bob Foreman at SxBRC. It brings the wildlife observations recorded in SxBRC’s database vividly to life and features incredible images of Sussex’s natural world.

The publication is free to view on the SxBRC website

Printed copies are available for pre-order via the Sussex Wildlife Trust website

You can be the first to hear when it’s available by signing up to ‘Sussex Biological Recording News’ on the SxBRC home page: sxbrc.org.uk.

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