Professor James Pearce-Higgins explains the important role bird-ringing, Bioblitzes and data recording play in the big picture.
Effective conservation action relies on good monitoring data, to understand which species are in trouble and should be conservation priorities, and then to monitor the success of any resulting conservation action, to ensure that species or habitats recover as expected. Achieving this monitoring isn’t easy. Ideally it needs to be long-term and ongoing, firstly because environmental changes can take many years to manifest themselves and then many years to reverse, and secondly because we do not know what the future holds. In order to understand the impact of pressures like climate change, having a long-run of data is essential to properly identify the causes of change.
One of the most effective approaches to such monitoring is through the use of citizen science. This has a number of definitions, but in this context, involves individuals in a personal capacity (volunteers) undertaking data collection. It has a long history in the UK, originating from individuals undertaking monitoring for their own enjoyment, interest and concern for nature. Now, most data on species’ distribution and abundance, particularly in developed countries, are coordinated professionally through particular schemes by organisations like the British Trust for Ornithology and Bat Conservation Trust, but still collected by volunteers.
In the UK, 85 national schemes collect information from over 70,000 recorders to track changes in species distribution, many of which are coordinated by the Biological Records Centre at CEH. Over 8,500 volunteers spend over 170,000 hours a year monitoring changes in the abundance of 250 bird, 56 butterfly and 20 mammal species, whilst about 3,000 ringers catch and ring over 1 million birds a year. These volunteer contributions to data collection are estimated to represent £20 million of effort within the UK, if that time were replaced professionally, but is not free – requiring significant investment by those scheme organisations. JNCC contributes c. £1 million from government towards the annual running of these schemes which are also supported by NGOs.
Some of these schemes can be fairly passive and simply receive biological data that people collect wherever they are. Many of the biological recording schemes would come into this category, such as those run by the Biological Records Centre where people can submit records through i-record, or by the BTO using BirdTrack. Getting involved in schemes like this can be a great way to make trips to the countryside valuable to the wider community, and make a contribution to science or conservation. For example, records like this have been used to show how species are shifting their distributions northwards with climate change, and then to target their conservation – Turtle Dove records from BirdTrack in Suffolk have been used by the RSPB in this way.
Other citizen science schemes are more directed, involving various protocols and methods that should be followed in order for the data collected to be used for more specific uses. Monitoring schemes like the Breeding Bird Survey or Butterfly Monitoring Scheme require individuals to visit specific locations within particular time-windows, and to count all of the birds or butterflies that they see / hear. Following these methods enables such data to be used more robustly to estimate changes in the abundance of species through time, a bedrock of conservation prioritisation, as well as to support a wide range of scientific activities.
There are plenty of opportunities to get involved. Many organisations run training (both online and in-person) if you want to improve your skills and often support particular entry-level schemes for those interested in making a contribution but unsure how to start. If you are interested, the following links might help for Butterfly Conservation; Bat Conservation Trust; British Trust for Ornithology and the Biological Records Centre.
By doing so we will really be fulfilling a biblical mandate, given Jesus’ words who encouraged us to ‘Look at the birds’ and ‘Consider the lilies of the field’ (Matthew 6:26-34), and Solomon’s suggestion to ‘Go to the ant’ (Proverbs 6:6)!
James is Director of Science at the British Trust for Ornithology, a trustee of A Rocha UK and a member of our Foxearth Meadows Steering Group.