Date Published: April 26, 2019
Publisher: Public Library of Science
Author(s): Oliver L. Pescott, Kevin J. Walker, Felicity Harris, Hayley New, Christine M. Cheffings, Niki Newton, Mark Jitlal, John Redhead, Simon M. Smart, David B. Roy, Suzannah Rutherford.
Volunteer-based plant monitoring in the UK has focused mainly on distribution mapping; there has been less emphasis on the collection of data on plant communities and habitats. Abundance data provide different insights into ecological pattern and allow for more powerful inference when considering environmental change. Abundance monitoring for other groups of organisms is well-established in the UK, e.g. for birds and butterflies, and conservation agencies have long desired comparable schemes for plants. We describe a new citizen science scheme for the UK (the ‘National Plant Monitoring Scheme’; NPMS), with the primary aim of monitoring the abundance of plants at small scales. Scheme development emphasised volunteer flexibility through scheme co-creation and feedback, whilst retaining a rigorous approach to design. Sampling frameworks, target habitats and species, field methods and power are all described. We also evaluate several outcomes of the scheme design process, including: (i) landscape-context bias in the first two years of the scheme; (ii) the ability of different sets of indicator species to capture the main ecological gradients of UK vegetation; and, (iii) species richness bias in returns relative to a professional survey. Survey rates have been promising (over 60% of squares released have been surveyed), although upland squares are under-represented. Ecological gradients present in an ordination of an independent, unbiased, national survey were well-represented by NPMS indicator species, although further filtering to an entry-level set of easily identifiable species degraded signal in an ordination axis representing succession and disturbance. Comparison with another professional survey indicated that different biases might be present at different levels of participation within the scheme. Understanding the strengths and limitations of the NPMS will guide development, increase trust in outputs, and direct efforts for maintaining volunteer interest, as well as providing a set of ideas for other countries to experiment with.
Vascular plants are one of the most important indicators of the health of the environment, providing vital benefits to other taxonomic groups such as pollinators, granivorous and phytophagous invertebrates, as well as numerous other ecosystem services . Due to the efforts of thousands of amateur and professional plant recorders, more is known about the vascular plant flora of the United Kingdom (UK) than probably any other country. This information has come mainly from the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI) who collate data from ‘opportunistic’ surveys of plants made by volunteers . These observations have been summarised in two national atlases which document changes in the distribution of all native and non-native species since the mid-19th Century [3,4]. This dataset currently (2018) comprises over 35 million occurrence records and these have been used extensively to analyse changes in species frequency [4–8], assess species conservation priorities [9–11], and improve our understanding of the impacts of major environmental drivers such as nitrogen deposition , climate change [13,14] and invasive non-native species .
The core aim of the NPMS is to sample plant communities within habitats of conservation value using small plots. In what follows, the larger scale sampling framework within which these plots are located is described first, proceeding to the component parts of the method (habitats and species chosen, plot selection methodology etc.), power, pre-launch field trials and consultations, data capture, and initial investigations into data collected in the first two years (2015–16). Nomenclature for vascular plants follows the New Flora of the British Isles, 3rd ed. . Volunteers seek permission before surveying on private land, as per survey protocols. Species are not sampled during this study, only attributes (e.g. plant cover) are recorded by volunteers.
This paper has outlined the process through which a new UK plant monitoring scheme was designed, implemented, and assessed for its ability to achieve a variety of goals. As well as being created to detect and provide for the interpretation of changes in semi-natural habitat quality through the use of plant indicators, a significant part of scheme design was focused on providing a relatively simple and enjoyable survey method that would be attractive to a wide range of volunteer plant recorders, and which would also serve to develop expertise [40,41]. The inclusion of volunteers in scheme design, and frequent consultations, was a key part of the process, and resulted in numerous initial researcher-led proposals being adjusted or amended. The result is a monitoring scheme that is flexible for volunteers, but built to a rigorous specification.
It has been observed that it may not be possible to “unilaterally define” success for citizen science programs ; from our perspective as scheme organisers and analysts, success is clearly the continuation of the scheme with adequate volunteer participation to enable the creation and use of reliable and scientifically robust indicator metrics for our habitats and species of interest. This success, however, will necessarily entail many other successes in encouraging, supporting, and improving the skills of botanists engaged in the scheme, as well as in highlighting local conservation and ecological stories, and ensuring that the scheme provides adequate opportunities for volunteer development of many different types. Lawrence  found that her recorders underwent personal transformations in spite of participation in largely top-down projects. Establishing an ongoing dialogue with participants is a key part of our ensuring that volunteers have the opportunity to point out where our focus on their personal development could be improved, for example through our peer mentoring scheme, our species and habitat identification workshops, through regular opportunities for feedback and more formal reviews, and through newsletters and articles in more popular journals e.g. . Finally, and in addition to our recognition of the potentially diverse needs of our participants, a number of measures are being put in place to ensure that the NPMS is embedded within different government conservation and land management organisations. For example, embedding the survey in large land-owning organisations through staff training and development will reduce scheme vulnerability, and should also help to improve coverage of the remoter parts of the UK. The position of the NPMS within a much broader network of plant recorders and conservationists in the UK will also continue to provide a diversity of perspectives and skills for the scheme to build upon [2,8,67,99]. We also expect, and hope, that all of our stakeholders will continue to challenge us to provide the best evidence base possible for plant conservation in the UK.