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Monitoring biodiversity in hard times

By Anna Robinson & Chris Cheffings

COVID-19 continues to impact us in many ways – from our personal lives, to society, the economy and the environment. It’s clear going forwards that things will not be the same, but there are growing calls to ensure that there is a 'green recovery'. The monitoring of wildlife can support a green recovery by providing crucial evidence on how wildlife is faring, and by helping us to understand how it is impacted by pressures, policies, and conservation action.

We at JNCC have been supporting biodiversity monitoring since our inception. We partner with many conservation NGOs and research organisations to run monitoring schemes for groups such as birds, bats, butterflies and plants, as well as supporting the ad hoc recording of any species you are likely to come across (as well as many you aren’t!). The schemes benefit from the dedication and expertise of thousands of volunteer citizen scientists who take part. Many schemes are very long running, for example the precursor of the Wetland Birds Survey started back in 1947.

JNCC's monitoring schemes provide great value for money – and we don’t take the value of the time volunteers contribute for granted. Across our main monitoring schemes, it is worth a staggering £20 million a year! At the same time, schemes still take a reasonable level of resource to run well. Online web presences and databases need to be maintained, volunteers need to be supported, and we need to analyse results from the schemes to get the most out of them.

A birdwatcher in a hide looking through a telescopeBecause robust information on wildlife trends is so important, we have always prioritised support for biodiversity monitoring, doing our best to continue our funding and input into scheme design and analysis, despite financial pressures over the years. Although our total core funding for UK-wide activities is now about 17% lower than it was in 2008/9, in the last financial year our spend on our Terrestrial Evidence programme was just over £1 million, which is around 97% of the spend in 2008/9. However, when you take inflation into account, in real terms, last year's spend in this area was just 71% compared to 2008/9. We have worked hard with our partners to make schemes as efficient as possible and to ensure they provide the best value for money, for example by developing online data entry. However, we are conscious that it hasn’t been easy for schemes to keep running with diminishing budgets, and we have had to make hard decisions to reduce spend in some areas. On a positive note, we have had some notable successes over this time – for example the design and launch of a new monitoring scheme for plants, providing a very useful insight into habitat condition and the benefits provided by the natural environment.  

In recent months COVID-19 has taken a big toll on our monitoring schemes, and particularly on many of our NGO partners. Some fieldwork has had to be temporarily suspended due to restrictions on movement, and many conservation NGOs have been impacted financially, for example as they have had to close reserves to visitors and lose the associated revenue this provides. The current situation is compounding the longer-term financial risks associated with biodiversity monitoring. There is a strong case for additional investment in this area and we will work with governments and others to explore options for filling the funding gap. Additional funding of just £200k per year would allow us to handle the immediate vulnerabilities being faced by our partners and schemes, as well as invest in evolving the schemes to incorporate new technologies, and support other priority developments. Our new Terrestrial Biodiversity strategy sets out a range of areas that it would be beneficial to invest in at a UK scale.  All of these will be of great value in supporting a green recovery, something we feel is so important in light of the ongoing biodiversity crisis and impacts of climate change.


Photos courtesy of Anna Robinson, JNCC.

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