Wednesday, 23 August 2006

Audit of our bird populations

Last weekend saw the launch of “The State of the UK’s Birds 2005”; a now regular publication charting the changing fortunes of our bird populations. Published by the British Trust for Ornithology, RSPB and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, in association with the four Country Agencies, the report provides a very valuable measure of how our birds are fairing. Knowing that a species is in decline can help to trigger appropriate research and plan effective conservation action. Similarly, evidence that a species has begun to recover from a previous decline is a valuable yardstick by which the success of conservation work can be measured.

The information presented in the most recent report comes from a wide range of surveys, some covering multiple species, others targeted at single species or particular sites. While figures for individual species provide the best level of detail for conservation efforts, they can also be used collectively to stimulate appropriate policies for Government. One way in which such an approach has been adopted is through the use of indicators, such as the “farmland bird indicator” which summarises what has been happening to farmland birds as a whole. This particular indicator demonstrates that, as a group, farmland birds underwent a period of sustained decline during the 1970s and 1980s, from which they have yet to recover. Government sees indicators as a useful tool for communicating the state of the natural environment and for measuring the success of Government policy. However, some researchers feel that they are of limited value, not least because they may hide all-important differences between individual species. Nevertheless, thanks to work carried out at the British Trust for Ornithology, the UK has led the way in developing these useful tools, demonstrating the role they can play in conservation.

One underlying message within the report was the essential role that volunteers play in collecting the information upon which much of our understanding is based. The report presents long-term information for many widespread species, monitored by volunteers who give up time each year to go out into the field and collect information in a standardised manner. Without these volunteers, we simply would not have the information that is needed. A similar message emerged from the recent run of programmes on BBC Radio 4 looking at “citizen science”. This American term is used to describe the way in which ordinary “citizens” participate as volunteers in projects organised by scientists to collect information at a scale that could not be achieved with paid professionals. If you are out in the countryside, collecting information on plants, bugs, birds or bees, then you are doing your bit of citizen science and helping the nation’s conservationists and researchers.

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