Ian Bainbridge, Scottish Natural Heritage
In the UK we have a long tradition of recording and monitoring of animals and plants, much of it undertaken by volunteers. Some of the earliest observations were made by exceptional naturalists, such as Gilbert White, who set in place the foundation blocks of painstaking note-taking allied with an insight into the causes of change. They worked at a local level (eg parish), and over time, biological recording has become more organised at county level, and increasingly nationally with the emergence of NBN.
The development of nature conservation has occurred on parallel lines: the establishment of private and National Nature Reserves has been supplemented by the protected areas network, the development of Biodiversity Action Planning and the now the ecosystem approach. Each of these places more emphasis on the need to monitor aspects of our wildlife and countryside, in a way fit-for–purpose to report and reflect on our activities.
Today we have a great range of monitoring networks and schemes, notably for species. Many are professionally-led and advised but often with substantial public involvement, with some having several hundred thousand observers contributing observations annually; the annual RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch had more than 280,000 participating gardens in January 2010 – one of the world’s largest surveys.
This upsurge in public participation in surveys has occurred whilst we have witnessed major changes in the richness and diversity of biodiversity. The two have not necessarily been related or interconnected, often with concerns about the adverse trends of particular animal or plant groups giving rise, much later, to programmes of survey and monitoring. It is arguable that some monitoring systems, once established, persist and develop a life of their own beyond the needs of monitoring their subjects to provide feedback for further action.
Reflecting on the nature of changes in wildlife and habitats now, and ahead, we pose questions regarding the sorts of monitoring which will need to be undertaken in future. This raises some challenging, and indeed difficult, issues regarding the resources and priorities Government, its agencies and NGOs should channel into these.