Does counting count?
Thousands of volunteers take part in wildlife recording schemes. Do their efforts make a difference – or are they wasting their time?
Can wildlife surveys really make a difference to conservation efforts or is it all just a waste of time?
If you’ve ever diligently scrutinised your feeders for the RSPB or strained your ears listening for tawny owls for the BTO, you’re part of a long tradition of citizen scientists who have been watching, counting, monitoring and recording Britain’s fauna and flora for generations.
But, when sending back your completed survey forms, you may wonder where on earth your records – that glimpse of a tree sparrow, that hedgehog trundling across your patio – end up. Will they make a difference to the wildlife you love, or are we all just documenting what we are losing? What, really, is the point?
Counting wildlife was once the realm of amateur enthusiasts, but today data gathered by the wider public can have enormous value, landing on the desks of professional scientists from the Government and national organisations.
Collectively, our records can be used to push through high-level decisions that can have lasting effects on our wild neighbours.
We don’t have to look far to find a highprofile example of how monitoring efforts are helping to save a threatened species. For several years the RSPB has spearheaded a campaign to rescue Lodge Hill, a Site of Special Scientific Interest in Kent, from extensive housing development.
Pivotal to the campaign is Lodge Hill’s status as the country’s top spot for breeding nightingales, a species whose population has crashed by 90 per cent in the past 50 years. Currently keeping the diggers at bay are three vital pieces of information, all of which have emerged from counts compiled by volunteer birdwatchers: the number of breeding nightingales at Lodge Hill; the total number of nightingales in the country (so we know the proportion at Lodge Hill); and the fact that nightingales are already declining and that their breeding sites are therefore in desperate need of protection.
The case of Lodge Hill shows how baselines (the total number of nightingales in the country), trends (how they have declined over time) and distributions (where they are found) are all critical in driving and supporting conservation action on the ground. While government funding and policies provide the framework for data collection, the numbers themselves often come from volunteers’ eyes in the field. Without this information, we wouldn’t have the context that is needed – the population estimates, the priority habitats and species, and the IUCN Red and Amber Lists of conservation concern – to make any sort of case for protection.
The fight for Lodge Hill is well known, but the same story – site protection based on monitoring data – is constantly played out on smaller and larger scales up and down the country, from local planning decisions to huge national projects such as the proposed Severn Tidal Barrage.
And it’s not just the terrestrial landscape: surveys and data collection have also been vital to our marine environment. Visitors to Cromer in north Norfolk can be surprised to see scuba divers walking across the beach and into the waves, bearing camera and slate alongside oxygen tank and regulator, heading off to record the wildlife of the chalk beds of the Cromer Shoal Marine Conservation Zone. And records collected by volunteer divers under the Sea search project have contributed to the establishment of coastal marine protected areas around the country, including ‘no take’ zones, where all fishing is prohibited.
There is a plethora of organisations that co-ordinate volunteer monitoring for other groups or habitats. As well as organising formal surveys of particular species, a network of Local Biological Record Centres collects reports of all and any wildlife, from lichens to fleas to amphibians, creating a resource covering the whole country and the seas around it. Many conservationists, drawn to their careers by a love of wildlife, end up in front of screens to validate and process this data and eventually turn it into something meaningful and relevant. This is the invisible, unsung side of conservation.
It’s easy to demonstrate the value of monitoring data when talking about site protection, but there are many other ways we can conserve wildlife by using information collected by the public. Measuring and publicising declines, for instance, often prompts individuals to make changes that, collectively, can reap huge benefits for a species, particularly in urban areas or gardens. The hedgehog highway campaign (encouraging holes in garden fences) would not be working if people weren’t aware that our favourite mammal is on the wane; swift boxes would not be appearing on the eaves of homes and community buildings if this harbinger of summer was fading away in silence.
Sadly, conservation action isn’t always as straightforward as putting up nestboxes. A great deal of work goes on behind the scenes, tackling the conflicting demands of humans and wildlife on a landscape scale, including the growing threat of human-induced climate change. Understanding how best to share finite space and resources relies on painstaking academic research, which often involves looking for patterns in longterm baseline data collected by volunteers. The findings feed into site management plans, species action plans and agri-environment schemes used by government, farmers, landowners and conservation organisations to manage Britain’s landscape.
And this doesn’t just apply to our green and pleasant lands. In towns and cities, appropriate management can mitigate the effects of increasing urbanisation. For example, research is underway into how to reduce the impact of housing developments on bats, using data generated by projects such as the BTO’s Norfolk
Bat Survey. Similarly, large-scale surveillance of how birds use gardens, based on counts by homeowners, should influence planning policy, for example where to plant woodland corridors to break up tarmac and brick.
Records undoubtedly help with conservation, but this begs the question of why having great, detailed information often seems to make little difference. After all, we are still losing our wildlife in spades. One reason is that the path from identifying a problem to conservation action can be lengthy and complicated. Declines in farmland birds have been known and measured for decades, but the causes of these losses have taken a lot of work to pinpoint, or are, even now, not fully known. There is no shortage of obvious possible causes – the disappearance of hedgerows for nesting; lack of winter food supplies with changing farming methods; increase in predator numbers; or habitat degradation in the wintering grounds of migrants such as turtle doves and yellow wagtails.
Clearly it would be a waste of money, time and resources to work on the wrong solutions. Expensive agri-environment subsidies designed to provide additional food to farmland birds in winter will have no long-term effect on populations that are actually limited by nesting habitat in spring. Similarly, nestboxes will be useless for any species whose numbers are kept in check by overwinter survival rates. The research needed to identify the right solutions on the ground is both costly and complicated.
Once we have the data, and the solutions are clear, it’s the role of government and other decision-makers to make conservation a priority over the competing needs of farming or industry. Agri-environment schemes may have slowed the declines of farmland birds, yet haven’t reversed them altogether, because conservation inevitably takes second place to food production.
Conservation action often happens due to national and international legislation
that protects species and natural places, and these laws need the evidence provided by counts and monitoring in order to be applied. The protection afforded to wetland sites often rests on the fact that the UK has international obligations to protect areas that hold above a set proportion of the waterbird population. Currently, in the UK, European Union Habitats and Birds Directives are of prime importance but we don’t know what kind of environmental protection rules will apply to post-Brexit Britain.
Another reason why data doesn’t always trigger action is because records sometimes need to be collected for many years before they come into their own. Volunteer surveyors used to question whether it was worth recording house sparrows and starlings, which were present in abundance. It was unimaginable that it would ever be necessary to keep an eye on their populations. As we now know, both species did decline, and it was only thanks to years of data that sparrows and starlings were added to the Red List of conservation concern and removed from the general licence of species that can be killed as pests.
Sometimes we don’t have a clear idea of what we might find when records are collected. In the meantime any data serves a valuable purpose in increasing our knowledge and establishing baselines.
Where records are used for conservation, the data needs to be reliable and high quality. We need to be sure that the numbers definitely represent whatever is being measured and that the figures are suitable for analysis or comparison – and are available to the organisations that take action on the ground.
However, not all recording schemes are primarily about collecting useable data. Taking part in a survey opens our eyes to changes around us. In fact, many projects are just as focused on the education and engagement of those taking part. This is crucial for the conservation movement as a whole, fuelling the pressures that create a demand for data, but it does mean specific records collected by the projects may not contribute to the scienceled conservation solutions.
Does counting count? Unequivocally, yes. Without people getting out and recording our wildlife, we wouldn’t be able to enforce
our protection laws. We might even have fewer regulations in the first place and thus little evidence to back up our calls for conservation. We would also, perhaps, have a smaller constituency of dedicated and informed naturalists putting pressure on decision-makers. So next time you notice the wildlife around you, note it, record it, send it off: think about how you can make those records count.
It was only thanks to years of data that sparrows and starlings were added to the conservation Red List.
KATE RISELY leads the BTO’s Garden Ecology team and is Garden BirdWatch organiser. She is co-author of Garden Birds and Other Wildlife (BTO, 2016). bto.org
From top: surveys showed a need for swift nestboxes; data from Lodge Hill helped nightingales; a Seasearch survey at Cromer; research led to the 'hedgehog highways' concept.