Does count­ing count?

Thou­sands of vol­un­teers take part in wildlife record­ing schemes. Do their ef­forts make a dif­fer­ence – or are they wast­ing their time?

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Contents - By Kate Risely Il­lus­tra­tion John Devolle/Fo­lio Art

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.

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