What is the Watsonian Vice County System?
In basic terms the system is geographical division of the British used exclusively for the purpose of biological recording and data gathering. They were first introduced back in 1852 by the botanist Hewitt Cottrell Watson, who included them in the third volume of his Cybele Britannica, a comprehensive guide to British plants and their distribution. Watson based his vice counties on the historical counties of Britain, but subdivided the larger ones such as Yorkshire into smaller areas of roughly equal size. He also considered certain exclaves to be a part of the surrounding county. So, for example the town of Dudley in the Black Country, historically an exclave of Worcestershire is surrounded on all sides by Staffordshire. Watson dealt with this problem by chosing to ignore such anomalies and placed Dudley squarely within Vice County 39, otherwise known as Staffordshire.
Watson gave each of his 112 Vice Counties a name and number so as to make them easy to identify. For example Vice County or VC1 for short is otherwise known as 'West Cornwall with Scilly' , with the last county VC112 simply being known as 'Shetland'. The Watsonian system predates the now more popular National Grid-based reporting system, but still remains a very important way of collecting data, particularly regarding the distribution and abundance of certain flora and fauna across the country.
The Vice Counties of Great Britain
West Cornwall with Scilly
Isle of Wight
Leicestershire with Rutland
Westmorland with Furness
Isle of Man
West Ross & Cromarty
East Ross & Cromarty
The Irish Vice Counties
Seven years after Watson introduced his Vice Counties to Britain, another botanist Charles Cardale Babington suggested extending the system to Ireland. However, it wouldn't be until 1901 that the system would be formally introduced to the Emerald Isle, by the Irish naturalist Robert Lloyd Praegar. Like Britain, the Irish Vice Counties were based on the 32 historical counties, with the six largest ones being subdivided similar to Britain. For example County Cork was divided into three separate Vice Counties. In total Ireland has 40 Vice Counties, although they are identified as follows: H1- the H stands for Hibernia and the numbers denotes the county. So for example H1 is 'South Kerry' and H40 is 'Londonderry '
The Vice Counties of Ireland
The Pros and Cons of the Watsonian Vice County System
There are a great many benefits to adopting the Watsonian system for your own recording purposes. Firstly unlike the administrative county boundaries, which have changed several times since their inception in 1888, the Watsonian boundaries have remained fixed since 1852. This means that you will never to have worry about for example losing a county rarity to another via the changing of a boundary. This is in stark contrast to many local bird clubs, who have chosen to follow the administrative boundaries laid down by politicians, although some including the Leicestershire and Rutland Ornithological Society have chosen VC55- "Leicestershire with Rutland" as their recording area. Moreover, by retaining ancient boundaries old and modern records can be compared easily, in order to determine the fortunes of a particular species, whether they have increased their range or numbers or declined.
One particular feature of the Vice County system that I like is how the boundaries seem to run along natural features such as rivers, streams, ditches and banks. For example, I live virtually on the border of VC37- 'Worcestershire and VC38- 'Warwickshire'. A perusal of online maps shows that both the historical and Vice county boundary runs along the course of a section of the River Cole. Every time I cross over a bridge situated near Stetchford, a little part of my brain informs me that I've either crossed into Warwickshire or Worcestershire, depending on which direction I'm travelling in.
The only cons of this system that come to mind are, firstly the lack of any boundaries on any modern OS maps. Ordinance survey maps are useful of course for showing county boundaries, but as expected they conform to the modern administrative boundaries. However, this problem can be easily overcome in the modern age by consulting Vice-County maps online. There is even a facility where you can punch in a National Grid reference number and it will tell you which Vice County you are in; its how I found out that I am in VC37- 'Worcestershire' (just!) Another con is attempting marry personal records with those laid down by the respective local bird club. For example, I belong to the West Midlands Bird Club, an excellent organisation that has been studying the birds of my home region for over 80 years. However, unlike other biological recording systems, they follow the administrative boundaries laid down by the government between 1888 and 1996. This can cause slight anomalies between personal and official records, so I have to be vigilant when submitting records. I shall outline a few examples below:
In June 2015, notable Midlands birder Alan Dean stumbled upon a very rare Melodious Warbler near a site known as Mercote Mill, between the villages of Berkswell and Hampton in Arden. Officially this was the first record for the 'West Midlands county', but the area comes under VC38- 'Warwickshire', so on that basis, many birders including myself duly added it our Warwickshire county list. However, when submitting the record officially, I made sure that it went to the West Midlands County Recorder. Other birds that have been found nearby that have caused similar issues include Hoopoe and Stone Curlew, both of which were found at the private Marsh Lane Nature Reserve.
More recently in December 2018, I connected with a beautiful Black-throated Diver that offered superb views at Arrow Valley Lake in Redditch. Officially the bird was recorded to be in Worcestershire in accordance with the modern county boundary. At the time I simply added the bird to my Worcestershire county list and thought nothing else of it. It was only when idly checking out an online map that I realised that Arrow Valley Lake in actual fact lay within VC38- 'Warwickshire', so the bird was quickly transferred to my Warwickshire list. However, again when submitting it officially it was passed onto the Worcestershire County Recorder.
More recently still, in March 2019, Roy Smith found a very rare apparently wild Ferruginous Duck at Alvecote Pools near Tamworth. In accordance with modern administrative boundaries, Alvecote straddles the border of Staffordshire and Warwickshire. The bird was on the Staffordshire side, so for many it was a very welcome addition to their Staffordshire lists. Once again I followed suit, but another look at an online map revealed that the historical boundary to be markedly different, and in actual fact the whole of the Alvecote site lies firmly in VC38- 'Warwickshire', so once more I transferred the bird from one list to another. Once again though, when submitting the record I ensured that it was sent to the Staffordshire County Recorder.
So there we have it. The Watsonian system may sound rather quirky or strange, but is very useful for gathering data. Moreover, as already stated myself and my fellow naturalists can continue to do so without fearing the whim of any individual politician or council.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 James Kenny
James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on May 25, 2019:
Ah well disputes do crop up from time to time especially with birds as they can easily fly from one county to another. The Vice County system at least means that everyone knows where they are.
Liz Westwood from UK on May 25, 2019:
I had never come across this system before. It makes sense to have a fixed organisation in place for gathering data. I wonder how many borderline sightings get attributed to the incorrect vice county.