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Recent advances in technology are bringing many benefits to a national soil and vegetation survey currently being carried out by the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) as part of our UK-SCAPE programme. CEH Land Use Group Data Manager Claire Wood explains more…

Recording data electronically in the field is nothing new for CEH. We first used tablet computers during fieldwork back in 2007 when we carried out sampling during the last major Countryside Survey (the most comprehensive field study to date of the natural resources of Britain). Technology has moved on apace, including more powerful computers, bigger data storage and the development of apps such as iRecord and Plant Tracker which have proven their worth for collecting biological records, particularly from citizen scientists.

Until this year, however, new online tools and apps had not been used in earnest for the collection of environmental monitoring data in a large-scale field campaign.

What is our field campaign?

CEH is currently undertaking a national field survey as part of the UK-SCaPE programme. The data collected will provide essential information to measure change and assess the status of the nation’s biodiversity and soil health. 

Teams of surveyors have been out in the field over the summer, collecting soil samples and vegetation data across the UK, revisiting 1km squares included in the last Countryside Survey.  In 2019, a fifth of a total of 500 sites have been surveyed, with an additional 100 sites planned to be surveyed in each of the next 4 years.

Fieldwork is carried out across all major landscape types (at sites across GB selected by an initial sampling process) in order to gain a national picture.  Soil samples are taken from 5 plots at each site in order to measure important metrics such as pH, soil carbon concentration, total nitrogen and total phosphorus.  Soil sampling is accompanied by comprehensive botanical surveys at each plot location.  Data will be comparable to results from previous surveys, allowing us to detect the changes and explore drivers of change that occur in the UK’s countryside over time.

We are taking advantage of the launch of ESRI’s ArcGIS Online and its associated data-capture tools, using GIS capabilities already proving successful in other professional spheres, from operating in disaster zones to police incident management.

Prior to fieldwork getting underway we planned how we would manage our data collection and trained our teams of surveyors. We are using the ArcGIS tools Survey123 and Collector for navigation and plot recording, and plan to use SWEET for the mapping of ecological features in associated surveys next year.

Benefits for data collection

These new ArcGIS tools have brought a range of benefits to data collection, in comparison to previous field campaigns.

In terms of software, the apps are small and easy to install, compared to the time-consuming installation of desktop software used previously. Besides the Windows 10 tablets in this year’s survey, the apps can also run on lightweight tablets and smartphones. The apps can be easily configured by anyone with the right skills to do so, and can be updated quickly to fit the demands of changing requirements

For the surveyors, data are easily submitted straight into the central database, including GPS locations, photos and edited maps, making the need for an additional camera and associated photo transfer redundant, and minimising post-processing for office staff.

Soil samples are being tracked using barcoding in the field, helping laboratory staff manage and process samples more efficiently.

In terms of monitoring the survey, staff back in the office can keep a keen eye on how the teams are progressing in the field via the Operations Dashboard and Photo Viewer Apps.

This project continues CEH's tradition of field-based monitoring data, first collected in 1978 as part of the Ecological Survey of Great Britain, later known as the UK Countryside Survey and last undertaken in 2007. It is part of the UK-SCaPE National Capability programme, funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).

Watch this space for more updates from the project.

For more information about field data collection contact Claire Wood or the national field survey contact Bronwen Williams.

Claire Wood

Additional information

UK-SCAPE national capability programme