Defining bioregions in these islands III

Watsonian vice-county 1

Ed Tyler has written an interesting response to the previous posts in this series (I, II) on his bioregioning site. He makes a number of interesting points that are worth reflecting on, but here I’ll limit myself to his reference to the Watsonian Vice County map.

I first came across the Watsonian Vice County map in the course of researching the “pre-history” of bioregional thought in the Atlantic Archipelago and it seemed a worthwhile line to pursue. In his 1852 book Cybele Britannica. Hewett Cottrell Watson divided most of the archipelago islands into 112 distinct areas in the service of accurately recording plant distribution (the remaining were similarly divided in 1901, when Robert Lloyd Praeger introduced a similar system for Ireland and its off-shore islands with 40 vice-counties [‘Irish Topographical Botany: Supplement 1901 – 1905’, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy]). This vision of mapping these islands and their constituent parts in the service of biological considerations seems on first look to be clearly bioregional.

Watsonian vice-county

On a second look, it’s more complicated however. The vice-county maps are a naturalist’s device for dividing the landscape born of phytogeography (Watson was an amateur botanist), but it being devised before the development of the ecosystem concept it’s more a tool for field biology than an output of field ecology.

The concept of the vice-county was adapted from the traditional division of Britain into counties and Watson’s primary aim was to provide a set of unit areas more equal in dimension than those counties. Watson found the traditional counties to have an ‘extreme inequality of size’ that was ‘most inconvenient and objectionable ‘

These old political divisions of Britain (i.e. the counties) were found to be little suitable for the objects of phyto-geography. As a first step downward, in subdividing the three ancient kingdoms of England, Wales, Scotland, they were found to be inconveniently numerous. Their extreme inequality of size was also most inconvenient and objectionable; the largest of them being more than a hundred fold the size of the smallest. Other divisions or sections of the surface were required instead, more equal in
their dimensions, and bearing some better relation to the physical geography of the surface. By utterly disregarding the old comital divisions, and tracing out an entirely independent series of districts, the required objects might have been met very completely.  But the advantages thereby gained would have been attended with disadvantages so great as to become practically insuperable. An entirely new set of boundary lines would have been necessary, not in accordance with those laid down in existing maps; and which would thus have necessitated new maps, on a large scale, for tracing them out satisfactorily.  – Cybele Britannica, Vol IV

The equality of size thus afforded more accurate comparison work about the distribution of life-forms across the landscape – but necessarily meant that the divisions were ecologically arbitrary – as it is in the grid system implemented in the 20th century.  The boundary lines of the vice-county divisions consist of a mixture of natural and man-made features: so rivers, coasts, and watersheds for sure, but also high roads and canals – and, of course, a legacy dependence on the pre-existing county lines.  In East Anglia – a completely artificial line divides both Norfolk and Suffolk its location determined as x degrees latitude East of Greenwich.

Ed notes, fortuitously, that ‘Watson’s map (topographically the whole of the long, thin peninsula facing N-S) answers perfectly to my home region’ which he illustrates with a map of VC101 Kintyre. This vice-county is predominantly defined biogeographically by the coastlines of the peninsula and the Isle of Gigha – with only its northern boundary defined by an artificial feature – the Crinan Canal (opened in 1801), which arguably is located at the site of a natural break in the landscape. Ed makes a convincing case that this boundary separating the peninsula from ‘the rest of “Main” Argyll’ might be more meaningful than the current use of ‘Kintyre’ to refer solely to the land mass to the south of the West Loch and also that there is clear value in the determination of his bioregion equating ‘to a wildlife-recording area, big enough to include whole ecosystems such as blanket bogs and celtic rainforest’.


When I turn back to a Dengie perspective I run into trouble with a Watsonian approach. The division of ‘South Essex’ (VC18) from ‘North Essex’ (VC19) uses the coastline of the Blackwater Estuary and the rivers Blackwater and Chelmer, but then continues largely westward following the line of roads in urban Chelmsford before following the course of the A414 to North Weald then south-west along the course of the B181 through Epping to Jack’s Hill before taking the route of the A121 to Waltham Abbey and the traditional county border of the River Lea (Watson could describe this line simply as ‘the high road from Waltham and Epping to Chelmsford, and thence… the Blackwater River’).

After the rivers this is clearly an arbitrary line, I’m sure the high road followed some line of ease in the landscape but I’m not convinced it’s a meaningful landscape feature and Watson never intended these boundaries to be considered so. The divisions of the counties were made simply on ‘a dividing line which is not in doubt’  ‘readily distinguishable on maps, and most of them… obvious in the field’ (J.F Dandy, Watsonian Vice-counties of Great Britain (1969)). Rather than aids to the generation of new maps based on some biological imperatives, they are artifacts of existing maps making claims on the land itself.

So I return to the Dengie peninsula, we have no clear tracing of a boundary between the tidal reaches of Blackwater/Chelmer and Crouch – no Crinan Canal to form a separating ribbon of water, nevertheless a straight line drawn between the two would hardly be worse than the Waltham to Chelmsford high road.  Some greater artistry might find a more satisfying route climbing up from the tidal reach of the Chelmer at Beeleigh to the summit at Danbury then on down to the Crouch’s tidal limit at Battlesbridge.


Dengie peninsula – 2 metre contour map made using Contour Map Generator


watsonian map
Dengie & Kintyre peninsulas seen on the South and North sheets of The Ray Society’s Watsonian Vice-counties of Great Britain map (1969)

I guess the tl:dr or all this is:

  • I think the wildlife recording data associated with the Watsonian vice-counties is very valuable and a useful tool for bioregional praxis
  • In general, I don’t think the Watsonian boundaries themselves offer us any new useful information for defining bioregions
  • In some cases, as with Ed’s Kintyre, the Watsonian divisions may happily accord with divisions established otherwise.
  • Biogeographic elements in the division of the ‘traditional counties’ may account for the above

In relation to the last bullet above, and thinking back to the last post, it’s interesting to note that the Danish equivalent of the Watsonian system is based on the herreder, administrative areas equivalent to the English ‘hundreds’ comprising several parishes( J. E. Lousley, ‘Maps showing Plant Distribution in Britain and European Countries’, in J. E. Lousley (ed.), The Study of the Distribution of British Plants; Being the Report of the Conference held in 1950 By The Botanical Society of the British Isles).

Other European systems tend towards the use of a grid (as indeed the UK does now) but I found appealing the human-scale grid used in the Netherlands which consists of squares that are:

‘each covering 5,000 x 4,133 metres…  known as uurhok– ” hoursquares”, so called because their sides represent approximately the distance which can be comfortably walked in an hour. Each “hour-square” is in turn divided into four “half-an-hour
squares” and each of them once more into four kwartier hokjes – ” quarter-squares”, which are the principal units and measure 1250 x 1044 metres. – A. W. Kloos, ‘The Study of Plant Distribution in Holland’, in J. E. Lousley (ed.), The Study of the Distribution of British Plants; Being the Report of the Conference held in 1950 By The Botanical Society of the British Isles)

This implicit call to go out into the landscape, to encounter what we can in comfortale walks, seems to chime very well both with Ed Tyler’s closing remarks to his post: ‘Let’s start by building networks of home regions and see where it leads us’  and to the vision he presents for bioregioning: ‘You already live in a bioregion. Manifest it to yourself by exploring the land around you. Wander, discover, get lost, awaken to what is around you. Use your feet to do it; it’s what they are for; it’s what you are for.’


[Digistised Watsonian boundaries are downloadable here: ]

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