'Citizen Science': an opportunity for gardeners

It is now recognised that gardens in the UK between them contain a lot of biodiversity, and can play an important role in conservation of certain species. Our national love-affair with gardens has created some excellent habitats for species that find gardens to their liking. We gardeners are in a unique position to add to scientific understanding of the natural world by observing and recording the wildlife on our doorsteps.

Scientific surveys of gardens by individual researchers are difficult to organise - imagine the logistical problems of organising your fieldwork in dozens, or even hundreds, of private gardens on a regular basis in order to to monitor projects and collect data. It has been done (i.e. by the BUGS projects in Sheffield) but such research is hard to sustain. This is where gardeners have a role - we ourselves can contribute to some of the various garden wildlife recording schemes that have been set up.

The prime example is the weekly 'Garden Bird Watch' recording scheme established by the British Trust for Ornithology in 1995. This has proved very successful over the years and currently has about 16,000 contributors across the UK, who send in a weekly report of birds seen in their gardens. Long-term trends and changes in garden bird distribution and behaviour have been clearly identified from these records. Examples are the decline in numbers of House Sparrows and Song Thrushes in town gardens, and on the other hand the increasing numbers of Goldfinches that are seen visiting gardens.

There are now numerous recording schemes you can contribute to - some of them one-offs, some of them on one day or one week a year, and some of them are regular and on-going. There is something for everyone. Don't think that your contribution is not important - completing surveys is one of the most important ways that you can help our wildife. Conservation decisions can only be taken on the basis of data about the distribution and current status of a species, and the more records that are received, the better that data is. Charles Darwin himself was an amateur naturalist, who developed his ideas from regular observations and records of species that he saw in his garden in Kent.

Some recording schemes you can take part in at home

Here are some recording schemes particularly suitable for gardeners to take part in at home. The list is not exhaustive - new schemes are sometimes launched, and most groups of plants and animals have their own specialist organisations and recording schemes. (More about some of these on my LINKS page). All the schemes below are straightforward and suitable for newcomers to recording.

BTO Garden Birdwatch: you complete a simple weekly bird record sheet, and can also take part in garden mammal and garden bumblebee recording.

RSPB Big Garden Bird Watch: a separate scheme to the one previously described, this takes place on one weekend in January each year. It is very straightforward and everyone can do it - it only takes an hour. It has now been going for over thirty years and has provided some invaluable data about the chanhing fortunes of our garden birds.

RSPB Make Your Nature Count: this takes place in June every year, when the RSPB asks you to observe and record a range of birds and animals that visit your garden.

Wildflowers Count: this is organised by Plantlife, the national wild plant conservation charity. You count wild flowers in a small area near to where you live. There are three versions of the survey depending how involved you want to be.

OPAL Surveys: This organisation runs a number of surveys you can take part in. As part of the Air Survey spend an our or so recording lichens on a local tree or counting spots on sycamore leaves. Your results will help to give a picture of changes in air quality. Where air pollution has decreased, lichens are returning. Other OPAL surveys include the BUGS Count survey, including a special species quest where they want you to report on sightings of six distinctive species of invertebrates: The Devil's Coach Horse, the Small Tortoiseshell butterfly, The Two spot ladybird, the Tree Bumblebee, the Leopard Slug and the Green Shieldbug.

Moths Count
There are four recording schemes that you can access through this link:

Big Butterfly Count
- a simple, online survey of butterflies and day-flying moths aimed at people with no previous experience of recording. Only takes 15 minutes! 16-31 July 2011.
The National Moth Recording Scheme - a recording scheme for recording all larger moth species anywhere in the UK, Isle of Man or Channel Islands.
National Moth Night - the annual celebration of moths and moth recording. Record somewhere new, invite friends and family or hunt for target species. No event in 2011, but National Moth Night will return in 2012.
Migrant Watch - a simple, online survey for anyone who spots the amazing Humming-bird Hawk-moth or beautiful Painted Lady butterfly during 2011.

Count Bats Project

Pond Conservation's 'Big Pond Dip'

Bumblebee surveys - the Bumblebee Conservation Trust www.bumblebeeconservation.org/surveys.htm

Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Society (BWARS) - currently collecting data on the spread throughout the UK of our new bumblebee species, the Tree Bumblebee, which moved here from the continent a few years ago. Very easy to identify, so anyone can take part. BWARS also collects details of winter bumblebee sightings.

Stag Beetles - wonderfully interesting insects that are commonly seen in gardens in South London and Surrey and occasionally in gardens elsewhere. The big larvae live for years inside rotting wood - leave decaying logs for them half-buried in damp ground in a shady corner of your garden. You can complete the survey at:

Hogwatch Hedgehog Recording Scheme:

A useful website to help you to develop your identification skills is I-SPOT, sponsored by the Open University.

You can read about the two 'BUGS' biodiversity recording projects in Sheffield back gardens HERE.


© Marc Carlton 2011. You may print this page for personal use or for non-commercial, not-for-profit educational purposes. Other reproduction is prohibited without permission.