“We need to know more about nature so we can protect it properly, but we also need everyone to feel that they can get involved in spotting and recording wildlife too,” says National Trust countryside ranger Gwen Potter. And the reason is simple.
Without all the surveying and recording done by thousands of enthusiastic volunteers and citizen scientists, nature would be in a far worse state than it is today.
Here in the UK we are extremely fortunate to have a very long and well established tradition of recording wildlife, mostly by amateur naturalists, who will enthusiastically go out at any time of year to survey anything from birds and butterflies to bluebells and bats.
Without such schemes, we would not know which species are doing fine and which are declining or threatened with extinction
It was Charles Rothschild that led the way in the 1910s and 1920s by campaigning for the protection of wildlife sites based on the diversity of species they contained.
Nowadays there is an astonishing number of surveys to take part in; some collect data all year round, such as the British Trust for Ornithology’s Garden BirdWatch, others for a short period like a month, a weekend or even a few hours at a time. There are those that set out to answer specific questions, and others occur annually to look at long-term population trends like Butterfly Conservation’s Big Butterfly Count.
The huge response to all these surveys shows that there is an appetite and great willingness for people to take part. But what happens to all the staggering quantities of data collected and submitted to the charities and organisations that run these events, and how does nature benefit from it?
The recording and monitoring of wildlife is vitally important for conservation, explains Richard Fox, head of recording for the charity Butterfly Conservation.
“Without such schemes, we would not know which species are doing fine and which are declining or threatened with extinction and in need of conservation,” he says. It is extremely important that the limited resources for conservation in this country are focussed on the species most at risk.
It’s those at risk species that can be identified by volunteers taking part in these surveys.
Take for example the recently released results of last summer’s annual UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme, Butterfly Conservation and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology’s key scientific survey, which is used in government statistics.
It revealed that, compared with the previous year, small copper numbers have dropped by a quarter and the species is now in a state of significant decline – in fact, it showed 34 of the 57 species of butterfly monitored were down in number.
Another example is the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds' annual Big Garden Birdwatch, which takes place over one weekend in January and is the world’s largest wildlife survey. The results from this year’s event will be available soon, but last year more than half a million people took part revealing significant declines for starlings, song thrushes and greenfinches.
But the real advantage of these, and all the other long-running surveys, is that they show the long-term picture, as well as the year to year trends and fluctuations due to unusual weather, and therefore which species need most help.
Surveys also tell us where these species occur in the landscape, so that conservation projects can be most effectively targeted. They can also be used to assess the impact of these projects and influence government policies.
All this volunteer and citizen science generated data is very important and drives evidence-based conservation action. “It can be used to improve understanding of how species live, what they require and how they respond to environmental changes, such as conservation management or climate change,” Fox says.
For Ed Bartlett, bioblitz co-ordinator for the National Trust, survey data “can help identify trends and patterns in distribution and abundance of wildlife”.
And they are a really important part of the National Trust’s work. There's a dedicated biological survey team that have been conducting surveys for the last 30 years. Their work helps to decide the best way to manage habitats to benefit wildlife and measure change.
The charity also encourages people from all walks of life and abilities to take part in the public surveys it organises, yielding results that really count at national and local levels.
“Wildlife surveys are pretty central to how we understand the impact of conservation work upon the environment,” says Tom Seaward, also from the National Trust.
Last year thousands of people including enthusiastic amateurs, volunteers and expert naturalists took part in a series of coastal bioblitzes, a popular way of surveying by counting and identifying the number of species in an area over 12 or 24 hours, collecting over 22,000 records of 3,400 different species of animals and plants.
Together these rapid fire surveys found examples of rare and threatened species. Not only were species recorded at sites that they hadn’t been seen at for decades, such as a water vole at Dunwich Heath on the Suffolk coast; others were recorded in areas for the first time, like the red-shanked carder bee at Birling Gap on the Sussex coast.
It's results from citizen science surveys like these that influence how the charity manages a site to better protect the wildlife.
This is evident from a find on the Roman fort at Brancaster, on the north Norfolk coast. Here they found a white letter hairstreak butterfly. This was unusual because these butterflies feed on elm and as most elm trees succumbed to Dutch elm disease in the 1970s and 80s, it was a real surprise to find.
The elms on this site can now be specially managed for this butterfly.
In fact, any new species found are verified and added to the site species list, explains Bartlett, and then taken into account in the way the site is looked after and managed.
Records are also sent onto the relevant local biological records centre and the National Biodiversity Network Gateway, the UK central database of wildlife, where researchers and specialist groups can use the information to detect trends and changes that help us understand and look after these species.
Give it a go
Now that spring has well and truly sprung and you haven’t yet taken part in a survey yet this year and would like to, then a good place to start is Nature’s Calendar from the Woodland Trust. Here you can record and view seasonal events that show the impact of climate change on our wildlife, from first flowers to spawning amphibians.
And with one of the warmest winters on record there have been some of the earliest records this century of flowering bluebells and blackthorn. So to help the Trust track any significant long-term changes try recording your bluebell sightings through their Big Bluebell Watch.
“Records added by the public to Nature’s Calendar help us monitor these changes, but equally important is to protect and increase our wildlife habitats to help species adapt,” said Dr Kate Lewthwaite, citizen science manager at Woodland Trust.
Closer to home and gardens have been a massive resource for citizen science data, with surveys like the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch and Butterfly Conservation’s Big Butterfly Count, which have really captured the public's imagination and attract very large numbers of people to take part. So if you fancy having a go at surveying the wildlife in your garden this summer, then the National Garden Bioblitz takes place over the weekend of June 4th and 5th.
And while you're in the garden then Butterfly Conservation needs your help. Their newly launched Garden Butterfly Survey is an ideal opportunity to help the charity establish the current state of our garden butterflies. Because, incredible as it may seem, we know more about butterfly populations in the wider countryside than we do in our own gardens.
“It isn’t known how important gardens are to local butterfly populations, either as breeding habitats or as sources of nectar, or what impacts specific garden features such as caterpillar plants or long grass have on butterfly trends,” Richard Fox told BBC Earth.
By taking part in this survey we can change that and find out how butterflies are faring in the UK’s 22 million gardens – hopefully identifying the species in trouble and clues as to how we can help them.
But Fox explains that it is important that surveys are well designed and widely publicised, and that participants receive feedback so that they know how their efforts are being used to stem the decline of the UK’s wildlife.
If this has got you thinking that you would like to take part in a survey to help protect nature, or you've already been bitten by the bioblitz bug and want to find some more, then have a look at the Bristol Natural History Consortium’s and OPAL’s explore nature websites. For organising your own event, then the Natural History Museum has downloadable guides to running a survey or bioblitz.
And this spring the BBC wants volunteers to join its Do Something Great campaign, and Springwatch have got you covered with events and ideas to get you out there and help nature and our wonderful wildlife. Join in using #Springwatch and #DoSomethingGreat on Facebook and Twitter to let them know what you’re doing.
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Jeremy Coles is a staff writer for BBC Earth. He is @jpcoles on Twitter.