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Monitoring for nature recovery and local change: survey methods and tools

In the UK, there are a number of robust national citizen science schemes – many of which contribute to the official UK Biodiversity Indicators – that deploy volunteers across the country to collect data. Some of the component surveys are being adapted by our monitoring scheme partners to be used at a local level. This resource library is intended to provide the means for the complete information pathway for your monitoring needs, from survey design guidance to training materials, data collection apps and finally, analysis and interpretation. While some of these pathways are still being developed, below we outline the resources and guidance currently available that will help you to select relevant survey methods and recording tools to conduct your own species and habitat monitoring. Everything we recommend below meets the FAIR data principles – meaning that the data are Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Repeatable – all core to running a strong programme of work to monitor change, gather reliable data, and contribute to our understanding of how nature is changing.

Survey protocols and training resources

Citizen scientists play a pivotal role in biodiversity monitoring, contributing valuable data that spans across geographical boundaries. Selecting survey methods and protocols that are known to produce good quality data and that are fit for purpose is beneficial in many ways. On the one hand, it facilitates the best use of the collected data informing (e.g. site evaluation or decision making), and on the other, it also makes volunteers feel more valued, fostering a sense of purpose and connection to the larger conservation picture.

Using standardised survey methods provides you with confidence in your data collection, and storing your datasets in a way that they can be shared will facilitate the comparison of locally collected results with other locations. Including your survey records in a national online database or data repository may also give the added benefit of the data verification process built into some of these. By contributing your data to the growing pool of data, your survey records will help advance insights and understanding of biological systems across the UK.

There are currently a range of long-standing national species surveillance schemes that have developed reliable and robust methodologies for surveys of particular taxa. These schemes largely rely heavily on citizen scientists who volunteer their time to go out and record species. These are broad-scale structured surveys to detect trends in national biodiversity change, but the methods for these schemes can in many cases be used or adapted for use at a much finer (local or landscape) scale.

Links provided here to the methods and tools are suitable for professionals and volunteers alike. They include training resources, and so volunteers do not have to be “experts” to take part. In time we will update this page to signpost locally relevant methods explicitly. For now, links are provided to resources developed for the national schemes that may be relevant for local biodiversity monitoring. The number of featured methods will also grow to include a broader range of taxa and habitats, and to provide alternative methods for different objectives.

Plants

The National Plant Monitoring Scheme (NPMS) is a structured national survey. Since it uses pre-defined randomly selected sites, additional sites from local monitoring nearly always cannot contribute directly to core NPMS monitoring. However, the survey methodologies are readily applicable at a local scale, and by following these, your results can be compared with the national monitoring and with other local surveys. The NPMS website includes resource materials to get you started, including survey guidance, data collection forms, species ID guides, a plant survey "handbook" and access to training resources on both survey methodology and habitat and species specific identification. Training videos can also be viewed on the NPMS Support YouTube channel. A freely available data collection app called Plant Portal for local plant recording is currently in development and is expected to be available October 2024.

Pollinators

The UK Pollinator Monitoring Scheme (PoMS) surveys bees, hoverflies and other flower-visiting insects using survey methods accessible to local scale monitoring. There are two main surveys: the Flower-Insect-Timed (FIT) count which, being suitable for mass participation as it records flower-visiting insects to broad group level than species, is being increasingly taken up by local monitoring initiatives; and the more involved 1-km square surveys. FIT counts can be submitted via an app. You can find extensive resources and guidance on surveys on the PoMS website, including information on recording of other insects.

The UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH) has produced a comprehensive practical guide to pollinator monitoring which gives step-by-step guidance on setting up and carrying out pollinator surveys.

The UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme records all 59 species of butterfly that regularly occur in the UK. The scheme incorporates a number of different methodologies depending on circumstances, including both self-selection and/or random allocation of monitored sites. It is easy to get involved with the surveys, and some of the survey methods can be adapted for use in local scale monitoring, with due consideration for the volume of data and analysis of results. Guidance, training and other resources are available. 

Birds

The Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS) records waterbirds from a large number of inland and coastal sites. Almost any wetland area can contribute to WeBS, and if you want to start recording at a local site that does not feature on the WeBS site map please contact BTO to have it added. The website has a lot of information about wetland bird surveys and resources and guidance on taking part and contributing data. 

The Breeding Bird Survey records birds during the breeding season. The survey protocols are very tightly defined and use pre-defined randomly selected sites, and as a result additional sites from local monitoring nearly always cannot contribute directly to core BBS monitoring. However, there are other recommended survey protocols, and BTO (contact bbs@bto.org) will be able to advise on suitable approaches for monitoring of breeding birds at local or landscape scale. The scheme website has information about the survey and available resources and guidance which will provide some useful background to the survey and field methods, some of which may be adaptable to a local survey, depending on scale.

BirdTrack is a free and convenient way of storing your bird records online. In addition to being a facility for observers to store and manage their own personal records, the submitted records also contribute to a major resource enabling the monitoring of many species, primarily birds but records of other taxa can also be submitted. As a result, your observations support species conservation at local, regional, national and international scales. The mobile app makes it easy to upload your records even while in the field. 

Mammals

The Bat Conservation Trust's National Bat Monitoring Programme (NBMP) runs several surveys which enable monitoring of all but the scarcest of UK bat species. The surveys are carried out either by a surveyor using a bat detector or by placing a monitoring device in a suitable location to record bat calls, the latter usually being the best option for local-scale monitoring. The BCT runs training for volunteers and there are lots of online resources and training materials for both traditional, and passive acoustic monitoring available to help you get started with bat monitoring. Some of the surveys need no prior expertise on bats, making them particularly suitable for local monitoring projects. 

Amphibians and reptiles

The National Amphibian and Reptile Monitoring Programme run by Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust (ARC) is made up of several surveys that generate data to inform the conservation of amphibians and reptiles at a range of scales. The comprehensive guide to amphibian and reptile survey protocols will help you carry out effective surveys that produce good quality data. 

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Recording tools

The tools we employ influence the richness and depth of the data collected. From traditional field notebooks to cutting-edge mobile applications, each tool brings its unique advantages. The decision on recording tools should align with the survey method, ensuring seamless integration and efficient data capture.

Existing mobile applications and websites

Here we provide a list of mobile applications and websites that you might want to use when setting up your local initiative. Whilst we acknowledge that there are many apps and tools available (see the Resources page), we promote the following because they possess a data cycle that can be applied at a local or regional scale. 

Multiple taxa

App/project

Survey focus Partners Download
iRecord Multiple taxa UKCEH

Download the app free from Google Play or the Apple Store

 

Single species

App/project Survey focus Partners Download
BirdTrack Birds BTO, the RSPB, BirdWatch Ireland, the Scottish Ornithologists' Club and the Welsh Ornithological Society Download the app free from Google Play or the Apple Store
FIT Counts Pollinators UK PoMS, UKCEH, Bumblebee Conservation Trust, BC, BTO, Hymettus, Natural History Museum, University of Reading, and University of Leeds Download the app free from Google Play or the Apple Store
iRecord Butterflies Butterflies Natural Apptitude, BC, UKCEH Download the app free from Google Play or the Apple Store

 

Habitats and pressures

App/project Survey focus Partners Download
E-Surveyor Farmland habitat quality UKCEH, Rothamsted Research, and the British Geological Survey Download the app free from Google Play or the Apple Store
EarthTrack Land cover, habitats and change Living Wales, Aberystwyth University Download the app free from Google Play or the Apple Store

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How FAIR data protocols will benefit you

In the field of biodiversity monitoring, the adoption of FAIR data principles – making data Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Repeatable – is not just a best practice; it is a commitment to scientific integrity and collaborative progress and enhances the credibility of the survey data generated.

Findable – There are many data repositories onto which a survey dataset can be added to. Uploading your data onto a relevant data repository contributes to our collective knowledge and understanding and enables others who need the information to find it.

Accessible – All datasets need to have a clear statement of how the dataset can be used. This is called 'licensing' of the data. The more freely and openly survey data are available to use, the greater value the dataset has. The recommended licensing is the OGL (Open Government Licence), while CC-BY (Commons Creative Licence) is also widely used, although more restrictive.

Interoperable – Results from surveys that use the same or comparable survey methods and protocols can be analysed and interpreted together. This allows you to view your survey results in context with others and interpret them in a broader context.

Repeatable – By keeping a detailed record of how the survey was carried out, stored with the dataset, will enable you to repeat the survey at a future date to identify any changes in the environment.

Following these clear principles has many benefits for any recording or monitoring project. It paves the way for analysing together the data from several surveys which magnifies the value of their collective endeavours. It facilitates comparison of the survey findings with national and regional trends, makes it possible to repeat the survey to assess change, and supports informed decision-making.

Find out more about the Fair data principles in JNCC Report 640: United Kingdom Terrestrial Evidence Partnership of Partnerships data products: improving opportunities for re-use

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Future developments in biodiversity monitoring

The field of citizen science for biodiversity monitoring is poised for a transformative shift in the forthcoming years, propelled by the integration of cutting-edge technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), passive acoustic monitoring, drones, camera traps, and environmental DNA (eDNA) sampling. These advancements promise to augment the scope, accuracy, and efficiency of data collection and analysis, allowing for a more comprehensive and real-time understanding of biodiversity patterns. Whilst their widespread adoption has yet to commence, some national monitoring programmes in the UK are beginning to pilot these technologies. The most advanced is the use of passive recording devices to monitor bats, with two passive surveys already providing valuable bat data for NBMP. For more information about these technologies, please visit the Resources page.

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Citizen science for local change

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