Saturday, 6 February 2016

Nature conservationists should care about nature data. And when it is ignored.

One of the last things I remember the sadly-missed John Sawyer talking about, in the week before he died, was how during the NBN Strategy refresh consultation everyone wanted to talk about collecting more data. Getting more people out in the field! Convincing the public wildlife recording is important! Engaging more people in wildlife by getting them to record what they see! Using cool new apps to capture data! Citizen Science!

Far fewer people expressed views or interest in extracting more worth from the data that already exists - primarily biological records, but also habitats and sites spatial information, collected by skilled professionals and amateurs and volunteers and the ordinary person with a passing interest in wildlife.

Knowing What Wildlife is Where is Important

Naturalists almost always care about nature conservation, altruistically, because they love the natural world and/or selfishly, because they love experiencing the natural world. So let's assume if you are reading this you care about nature conservation. Here are just a few examples where I think you might therefore care that the best available nature data is being used:

  • Commenting on, responding to or deciding on a major development or planning application. (What impacts will there be on wildlife? What aspects of the mitigation hierarchy need to be applied?)
  • Weighing up different land management options for a nature reserve or other place trying to not have negative impacts on biodiversity. (Which species occur that need coppicing? Dead wood? Disturbed Ground? Nesting areas? More Grazing? Less Grazing? More Trees? More Open Space? Intervention? Leaving alone? Which species are depending on which microhabitats here, and how important is this site to them - are they rare or declining locally or nationally or internationally?)
  • Planning a new national trail or footpath. (Are there very rare or sensitive species or habitats which you might need to route around, to ensure they don't suffer too much disturbance in certain places?)
  • Deciding where to focus limited resources. (Where will grants, subsidies, projects for biodiversity do the most good?)
  • Strategic planning for housing and infrastructure. (Are there options which won't later involve lengthy battles over destroying natural heritage or involving a lot of biodiversity loss?)
  • Identifying special places that need protecting for wildlife. (Which places might need survey to determine if they should be notified as SPAs, SSSIs, Local Wildlife Sites?)
  • Reviewing the (changing) status of species and habitats. (Without this it is impossible to interpret biodiversity data for everything else.)


I agree with all that. Isn't that what happens?

Unfortunately not always, and the situation appears to be getting worse. There are lots of UK organisations out there working very hard within the National Biodiversity Network to make sure that more information is collected for all the valid reasons mentioned in the beginning and that all the information that is collected is put into standard formats so it can be "collected once, used many times".

This does need a certain amount of resource and support to make happen. Some of this is work is done at a local level, because it is in their local environment that most people are engaged and record, and at a local level that the most detailed data needs to be used. A successful model has been developed in the UK of bringing together resources from the public sector (e.g. local authorities, country agencies), voluntary sector (e.g. the country Wildlife Trust, local volunteer natural history societies) and private sector (e.g. environmental consultants) in Local Environmental Record Centres so that all parties get better information and greater value for their limited resources. The Centres share the data collected by each organisation (and also negotiate access to data from many other recorders and recording organisations) and have staff to put those datasets together, so that they can be used efficiently by the partners and clients as well as researchers and naturalists. The staff also work with many other national organisations to increase the data available and support volunteer recording, as described in this blog from one of the national hoverfly scheme organisers.

One of the major, long-standing partners for English Local Environmental Record Centres has been the statutory country agency for nature conservation, Natural England. This week it was announced that they are withdrawing from their Memoranda of Agreement with the Centres, citing lack of open data. There is a lot of confusion and misunderstanding about what the term open data means in this context, perhaps a subject for a future blog. And there has been concern expressed about the impact this decision will have on the future of wildlife recording in this country.

But I don't want to focus on those aspects of the announcement. Instead I'd like you, as someone who probably cares about preserving wildlife today for future generations, to recall Natural England's statutory responsibilities in protecting England's nature, to re-read those examples of when it might be important to use all the best available nature data, and to reflect on the potential consequences for wildlife of not doing so.

Volunteer Recorders at a CBDC-organised Recording Day at Duddon Valley SSSI in 2015 ©CBDC/Teresa Frost

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting, Teresa, and I'll send a Tweet about it from @PaulSeligNature later today. We are hoping for a different direction in Wales (I'm now a Director of SEWBReC, my local LERC).