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the GiGLer

The newsletter of Greenspace Information of Greater London CIC

Interview, Emma Knowles

Emma Knowles, GiGL Partnership Officer

Emma is GiGL’s partnership officer. She delivers work for existing GiGL partners with service level agreements, as well as carrying out work with students that wish to use GiGL data for research projects. At times she focuses on internal database work and core projects.

Town or countryside?

Countryside (especially the West Country).

Summer or winter?


Early bird or night owl?

Night owl. Although I like getting up early when I actually manage it.

Outdoor or indoors?


Plants or animals?


What species is closest to your heart and why?

Humans, because my family are humans. Most of my friends are humans too, although some of them are cats, goats and sunflowers.

What is your favourite Greater London open space and why?

Hampstead Heath. It has enough green fields to look a bit like the country, hills to climb with spectacular views, a lovely hidden garden, known as the Hill Garden, as well as the obvious beautiful garden at Kenwood, and a pond that is lovely for swimming in summer, despite its colour. You can walk for over an hour without going off the edge of the Heath; and it’s easy for me to get to on a bicycle from my home in central London.

What past experiences do you have working in the natural environment? And what is the most valuable lesson you’ve learnt so far?

Before coming to GiGL, I did an MSc in Conservation Science, looking at habitat connectivity for grassland butterflies on the Mendip hills. This involved a lot of walking up and down hills all day looking for butterflies, and then a lot of sitting at a computer trying to make sense of the data. Collecting large quantities of species and habitat data takes a lot of time and effort, so it’s great that those data can be added to records centre databases so that it can contribute to further research and be updated and used cumulatively.

Although the course was based at London institutions (Imperial and ZSL), I was also working with the Somerset Environmental Records Centre, and was helped by individuals from other various organisations, including Butterfly Conservation members who were able to teach me how to recognise actual moving butterflies. These are rather different to the static pictures in books. Also, a researcher from a wildlife research centre in America answered my questions about the esoteric statistics software I was using for data analysis; and several landowners allowed me to survey their meadows. I was impressed by how helpful and how enthusiastic most people were about wildlife, and how it’s possible to fit together ideas and information from across organisations to answer questions relevant to conservation. It is great that, working at GiGL, I can continue to be part of that.

I have also done a lot of volunteering with The Conservation Volunteers over the years, looking after local nature reserves, especially the 30 or so sites visited by Camden Green Gym. With TCV, I learned that nature reserves are very important for people as well as wildlife. I also gained an understanding of the ways in which London’s open spaces can relate to their surroundings, which has proved very useful when digitising open space data.

Perhaps the most vital lesson I’ve learned for working in the natural environment, in any season, is: wear wellies.

What is your role at GiGL? What appealed to you working for a LERC?

I joined the GiGL team earlier this year as Partnership Officer. I facilitate sharing of data with the organisations that have data-sharing contracts with GiGL, including most borough councils, the London Wildlife Trust, TfL and many others; making sure that all their latest information on wildlife and open spaces is included in our database, and that they receive our up-to-date datasets in return.

Working for a LERC appealed to me because it supports conservation of our local wildlife, making people aware of what is living around us and informing decisions that affect other species; and as a scientist, I am interested in gathering information, sharing knowledge and finding answers from data.

What is your most enjoyable GiGL task and why?

I like solving puzzles and finding how to get from a question to an answer. There is plenty of opportunity for this at GiGL because people ask us questions all the time. How much hedge is in London? Which borough has the most green space? How can we measure people’s access to nature? We can build answers by finding the right information in the database. And I’ve found that people appreciate it when we answer their questions, which is satisfying.

I also enjoy team meetings because we are often working on interesting projects and sorting out better ways of doing things, and the GiGL team are a great bunch of people.

Has working for GiGL changed your perceptions of the challenges facing biodiversity in London, or of the opportunities to overcome those challenges?

I have learned that all sorts of unlikely places are important for wildlife, including railway sidings and grass around sewage works, but also that places where you might expect wildlife to thrive are no longer suitable. For example, many people are paving over their gardens and so removing habitat for a wide variety of plants, insects and birds.

I have realised not just how much information there is about wildlife in London and how much work goes in to keeping it up to date, but also how much we still don’t know.

I have been working on finding updates to open space designations in borough policy documents to add to our database, and it is good to see how many of the borough councils have policies in place for improving parks and open spaces for people and for wildlife. And there are clearly many individuals and organisations out there that are interested in the wildlife around them – they certainly send us a lot of records.

London has a lot to offer someone looking to learn more about wildlife and open spaces. What one thing would you advise people to explore?

Explore the open spaces near you – find out what is there and how to get to it – and keep your eyes open for the wildlife living there. For example, near me there is a piece of woodland that is hidden between the houses and is open every Tuesday afternoon. I’d never expected to find a bluebell wood in a built-up area. There is also a long thin open space along an old canal, confusingly called the New River, where I was surprised to find a heron that stood watching the people go by for a while before flying off.

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