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the GiGLer

The newsletter of Greenspace Information of Greater London CIC

Structuring Surveillance

Matt Davies, GiGL Data Manager


We at GiGL are always striving to increase the number of records we hold by encouraging more people to get involved in recording, and by supporting existing recorders in carrying out surveys and encouraging them to share records with us. Previous GiGLer articles have looked at some of the ways in which we work with recorders, recording societies and the general public to this end.

We encourage citizen science and the use of web-based forms. We provide best practice guidance on our website on reasons to record, what constitutes a good basic biological record, and survey methods appropriate for London, and provide links to recording schemes and specialist societies.

Cordelia Webb’s analysis of our records of flowering plants, bats, butterflies, mammals and reptiles for open spaces in three London boroughs highlighted how uneven data collection is across the city, both taxonomically, and in terms of which organisations provide data to GiGL.

Around the same time as Cordelia was analysing our data, Natural England were embarking on a “structured surveillance” programme that sought to work with the voluntary sector to develop more structured approaches to data collection, including collecting data for more than one species group at a time, and piloting new data entry and management systems.

This programme appealed to us at GiGL as a possible means of addressing some of the issues of data coverage that Cordelia had highlighted. As part of their service level agreement, Natural England asked GiGL to identify ‘potential reference sites’, to gauge interest for structured surveillance and identify potential sites for multi-taxa surveys.

We wanted to investigate whether surveys already underway could be carried out in a more structured way. Although we receive a great deal of survey data, we don’t currently have full information on exactly who is carrying out surveys for which species, how frequently the surveys are repeated, the methods used, or the location of the sites where repeated surveys take place.

In an effort to answer these questions, we asked several hundred members of the London recording community about their current and potential recording activities via an online survey. Many respondents indicated that their site of interest was being surveyed repeatedly for more than one taxonomic group, in some cases by several individuals or organisations. This helped us to identify sites that may already be, or could have the potential to be, structured surveillance focal sites.

To better understand the gaps in our knowledge, we also undertook an analysis of data we already held. Local wildlife sites (SINCs) were used as a basis for the analysis as these give a good coverage across London of sites supporting wildlife worthy of monitoring. We identified SINCs where multiple taxonomic groups had been recorded by multiple organisations in the last five years; sites where multi-taxa surveillance may already be in effect. Further discussion with data providers will be necessary to ascertain the exact survey methods used. There was some overlap with sites highlighted via the online survey, which suggests these would be prime candidates for further investigation as reference sites.

Based on the survey results and on our experience, we now know that:

  • Much quality data come from volunteer recorders who have a passion for a particular local site (in which case they may record multiple taxa on that site) or a particular taxonomic group (in which case they often have a range of sites that they frequently visit).
  • ID skill levels are likely to be greatest for specialists, who therefore might not be surveying more than one taxonomic group.
  • Interest in recording more than one taxonomic group is most likely to come from volunteers who are interested in the ecology/preservation of a single local site.
  • Given training and/or equipment to learn standard methodologies and taxon ID, some recorders are interested in recording other taxonomic groups (particularly invertebrates, bats and flora).

It was at this point that we became aware of a group of volunteers at Brockwell Park, Lambeth, with individual expertise who were collectively interested in enhancing their skills. We teamed up with London Borough of Lambeth to run our first structured surveillance training event. Lambeth agreed to host the event in the glorious Brockwell Hall which afforded us enough space to invite other interested questionnaire respondents from across London.

And so it was that we gathered on a sunny Wednesday afternoon in April at Brockwell Hall and Park. Iain Boulton (London Borough of Lambeth) welcomed us and gave an introductory talk about the importance of survey results for influencing land management; Karen Harper (London Invasive Species Initiative) talked about monitoring and invasive species; and I discussed GiGL, recording and the need for structured surveillance. I was able to enthuse attendees with the tale of Penny Frith, who undertook a photographic invertebrate study of the seemingly insignificant Warwick Gardens in Peckham, and caused quite a stir amongst entomologists by making the first recorded UK sighting of Orientus ishidae.

After the introductory talks, participants split into groups to receive training in the field, or rather, in the park. The groups received training in surveying for either amphibians and reptiles, birds, invertebrates, or plants.

We are very grateful to the trainers, who gave their time for free; Tony Wileman (London Wildlife Trust), Eddie Brede (Froglife), David Darrell-Lambert (Bird Brain UK) and Claudia Watts (GiGL). The feedback from the participants was excellent, with all respondents finding the training interesting and useful, feeling inspired to undertake structured surveillance, and being interested in attending another event.

It remains to be seen whether or not Natural England will facilitate an on-going national structured surveillance programme but, by working in partnership, we have established a format that will help people establish species monitoring programmes and, in turn, provide vital information for informing land management and conservation in London. If you are interested in hosting a similar event, please get in touch.

Matt Davies oversees the data-related work of the GiGL team and is responsible for ongoing improvements to GiGL’s data infrastructure. Although Matt is familiar with a few survey techniques, he’s usually desk-bound, and has enjoyed the opportunity to get out in the field, improve his ID skills, and help others to do the same.

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