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The Complete Guide to the Watsonian Vice County System

A map showing the Vice Counties of Great Britain excluding Orkney and Shetland

A map showing the Vice Counties of Great Britain excluding Orkney and Shetland

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

VCVice County

VC1

West Cornwall with Scilly

VC2

East Cornwall

VC3

South Devon

VC4

North Devon

VC5

South Somerset

VC6

North Somerset

VC7

North Wiltshire

VC8

South Wiltshire

VC9

Dorset

VC10

Isle of Wight

VC11

South Hampshire

VC12

North Hampshire

VC13

West Sussex

VC14

East Sussex

VC15

East Kent

VC16

West Kent

VC17

Surrey

VC18

South Essex

VC19

North Essex

VC20

Hertfordshire

VC21

Middlesex

VC22

Berkshire

VC23

Oxfordshire

VC24

Buckinghamshire

VC25

East Suffolk

VC26

West Suffolk

VC27

East Norfolk

VC28

West Norfolk

VC29

Cambridgeshire

VC30

Bedfordshire

VC31

Huntingdonshire

VC32

Northamptonshire

VC33

East Gloucestershire

VC34

West Gloucestershire

VC35

Monmouthshire

VC36

Herefordshire

VC37

Worcestershire

VC38

Warwickshire

VC39

Staffordshire

VC40

Shropshire

VC41

Glamorganshire

VC42

Breconshire

VC43

Radnorshire

VC44

Carmarthenshire

VC45

Pembrokeshire

VC46

Cardiganshire

VC47

Montgomeryshire

VC48

Merionethshire

VC49

Caernarvonshire

VC50

Denbighshire

VC51

Flintshire

VC52

Anglesey

VC53

South Lincolnshire

VC54

North Lincolnshire

VC55

Leicestershire with Rutland

VC56

Nottinghamshire

VC57

Derbyshire

VC58

Cheshire

VC59

South Lancashire

VC60

West Lancashire

VC61

South-east Yorkshire

VC62

North-east Yorkshire

VC63

South-west Yorkshire

VC64

Mid-west Yorkshire

VC65

North-west Yorkshire

VC66

County Durham

VC67

South Northumberland

VC68

North Northumberland

VC69

Westmorland with Furness

VC70

Cumberland

VC71

Isle of Man

VC72

Dumfriesshire

VC73

Kirkcudbrightshire

VC74

Wigtownshire

VC75

Ayrshire

VC76

Renfrewshire

VC77

Lanarkshire

VC78

Peebleshire

VC79

Selkirkshire

VC80

Roxburghshire

VC81

Berwickshire

VC82

East Lothian

VC83

Midlothian

VC84

West Lothian

VC85

Fifeshire

VC86

Stirlingshire

VC87

West Perthshire

VC88

Mid Perthshire

VC89

East Perthshire

VC90

Angus

VC91

Kincardineshire

VC92

South Aberdeenshire

VC93

North Aberdeenshire

VC94

Banffshire

VC95

Morayshire

VC96

East Invernesshire

VC97

West Invernesshire

VC98

Argyllshire

VC99

Dunbartonshire

VC100

Clyde Isles

VC101

Kintyre

VC102

South Ebudes

VC103

Mid Ebudes

VC104

North Ebudes

VC105

West Ross & Cromarty

VC106

East Ross & Cromarty

VC107

East Sutherland

VC108

West Sutherland

VC109

Caithness

VC110

Outer Hebrides

VC111

Orkney

VC112

Shetland

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

VCVice County

H1

South Kerry

H2

North Kerry

H3

West Cork

H4

Mid-Cork

H5

East Cork

H6

Waterford

H7

South Tipperary

H8

Limerick

H9

Clare

H10

North Tipperary

H11

Kilkenny

H12

Wexford

H13

Carlow

H14

Laois

H15

South-east Galway

H16

West Galway

H17

North-east Galway

H18

Offaly

H19

Kildare

H20

Wicklow

H21

Dublin

H22

Meath

H23

Westmeath

H24

Longford

H25

Roscommon

H26

East Mayo

H27

West Mayo

H28

Sligo

H29

Leitrim

H30

Cavan

H31

Louth

H32

Monaghan

H33

Fermanagh

H34

East Donegal

H35

West Donegal

H36

Tyrone

H37

Armagh

H38

Down

H39

Antrim

H40

Londonderry

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.

A map showing detailed differences between VC57- Derbyshire and the modern administrative county of Derbyshire.

A map showing detailed differences between VC57- Derbyshire and the modern administrative county of Derbyshire.

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

Comments

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.