Fieldwork Diaries (1935-1958) of Isle of Man Naturalist, William Cowin  

Helping understand the island’s biodiversity through a single archiveManx National Heritage Library and Archives 

As spring continues to blossom, we spoke to Manx National Heritage Library and Archives about the important role flora and fauna play in the history and heritage of the Isle of Man. In celebration of Manx Wildlife week, what follows is an article about the life and works of the naturalist William Cowin, his unique contribution to the field, as well as an outline of a project underway to use his works to gain a better understanding of environmental changes over time.

Manx National Heritage Library and Archives (based at the Manx Museum, Douglas, Isle of Man), holds the 1935-1958 fieldwork diaries (16 volumes) of William Stanley Cowin (1907-1958), naturalist and co-founder of the Manx Field Club and Peregrine, a journal devoted to natural history.  These easily carriable, neatly handwritten diaries are an invaluable compendium of the flora and fauna Cowin spotted on his excursions around the Isle of Man. They are also the focus of a project to render this information discoverable through the National Biodiversity Network Isle of Man website (  As it is Manx Wildlife Week (29 April-7 May) we wanted to tell you a little about the man, the archive he created, and why what it tells us is of importance now. 

William Cowin © Manx National Heritage (PG/7673)

An Excellent Shot, a Gifted Naturalist and a Meticulous Recordkeeper

Born in the Isle of Man, William Cowin was an active field naturalist.  As a schoolboy he kept meticulous records of the flowering dates of plants, the emergence of insects, and the birds that he saw. Perhaps this reflected at some remove the influence of Philip Moore Callow Kermode, curator of the Manx Museum, who did his best to foster an interest in wildlife among members of the Isle of Man Natural History and Antiquarian Society.

As an excellent shot, Cowin held a museum auxiliary’s permit which exempted him from bird protection legislation so that he could take specimens required for the collections of the Manx Museum. He also befriended the young Kenneth Williamson when he became museum assistant. Together they worked on the insects of the Island and started to form a new definitive voucher collection.

© Manx National Heritage (MS 09082/1)

A Survey, a Publication and a Rare Find… The Discovery of the Robber-Fly

They visited the Calf of Man (a small island off the southern tip of the Isle of Man) as often as they could and planned its future as a site for one of a chain of bird observatories on British shores (which it now is). Next they started on a systematic survey of the wildlife of Langness and in March 1938, they founded the Manx Field Club. They then published Peregrine, and the records and notes also appeared in a journal called the North-Western Naturalist. William achieved the difficult feat of finding an insect new to the British Isles and it was named in his honour, Epitriptus cowini. This robber-fly is now known as Machismus, but its epithet still honours this Manx naturalist. 

© Manx National Heritage (MS 09082/1)

‘Cowin apparently disliked the combustion engine and instead went any distance he could by bicycle’

Jude dicken & laura mccoy

His death was a shock, most particularly as he was engaged to be married.  William’s natural history collections became a valued part of those of the Manx Museum, as did his diaries when they were later deposited in the Manx National Heritage Library and Archives (Reference number: MS 09082/1).  The fieldwork diaries cover the length and breadth of the Isle of Man and contain dated observations of what he saw.  The locations can be tricky to pin-down (especially where different places have the same name) but a working familiarity with each diary allows a researcher to steadily trace his movements and derive a grid reference; Cowin apparently disliked the combustion engine and instead went any distance he could by bicycle, which makes it easier to conjure his route.

© Manx National Heritage (MS 09082/1)

Tracking Environmental Changes Over Time – A New Transcription Project

Aside from the archive being catalogued as an archive and available in the public reading room, Manx National Heritage Natural History Curator, Laura McCoy, is working with a volunteer to transcribe key contents of the diaries as ‘biological records’ to form entries in the Manx National Heritage biological database (Recorder 6) and as point-map data on the National Biodiversity Network Isle of Man website (  The importance of doing this is, as Laura explains, is that having historical data allows you to track how our environment changes over time. Have there always been natural fluctuations and change, or is something drastically different? If a species starts dropping in numbers we can begin specific monitoring and find out why, and then hopefully help. It is most valuable when we have a long time series of data, so the more consistent the recording the better. 

© Manx National Heritage (MS 09082/1)

Further Information

If you’d like to know more about the archive of William Cowin or any of the other natural history related archives held by Manx National Heritage then email  Manx National Heritage is the charity responsible for the Isle of Man’s natural and cultural heritage.  To find out more visit

You can read the full biography for William Cowin on the Manx National Heritage website: click to view 

Jude Dicken, Collections Information Manager, Manx National Heritage 

Laura McCoy, Natural History Curator, Manx National Heritage 

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