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A partnership of 70 wildlife organisations, research institutes and government agencies has produced the third State of Nature report, the clearest picture to date of the status of UK plant and animal species. The 2019 report, which follows similar assessments in 2013 and 2016, has revealed average declines in distribution and abundance of five per cent and 13 per cent, respectively, since 1970. Dr Jack Hatfield of the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, one of the co-authors of State of Nature 2019, says volunteer recorders are essential to this comprehensive analysis of the health of our natural world…

The IPBES Global Assessment in 2019 showed clear evidence of global species declines with one million species are threatened with extinction. The new State of Nature report, which my colleagues and I at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH), have contributed to, helps provide insight into the changing fortunes of species in the UK. At CEH, we work with more than 80 recording schemes and societies, supporting the collection and analysis of biological records of thousands of species of plants and animals.  

CEH was responsible for analysing over 60 million biological records informing us how the geographic distribution of species are changing over time, and these data underpin the distribution trends in the State of Nature report. In addition, my CEH colleagues Colin Harrower and Marc Botham work closely with partner organisations to analyse trends in abundance of moths and butterflies which also contribute to the report.

Where do these records come from?

The UK has a long history of engagement with nature especially when it comes to recording and the vast majority of sightings of species are made by volunteers.

Infographic detailing volunteer contribution to biological recording in the UK

People record wildlife in a variety of ways. Most biological records come from highly expert and dedicated naturalists who spend a large amount of time surveying and identifying a wide range of plant and animal species.

The wider public also has an important role to play. Maybe you are walking home from work, exploring your local green space or sat in the garden and you encounter something interesting – a bird, a beetle or a wildflower, for example. A few quick clicks later and you have a photo on your camera phone and have captured the date and exact location. Next comes the identification, which is possible at the time of sighting or later, as experts review the picture submitted by the recorder.

The resources available for species identification are ever increasing, including dedicated websites (most notably the various national recording schemes – discussed below) and social media channels. Once identified and submitted this is a 'biological record' – a species observation at a given time and place. Sometimes people may go to a particular place and record everything they see; other times it may be the incidental record from a single encounter.

"Most biological records come from highly expert and dedicated naturalists who spend a large amount of time surveying and identifying a wide range of plant and animal species."

In the UK we are incredibly fortunate to have a huge number of expert volunteer wildlife recorders, who are supported by dedicated National Recording Schemes and Societies. The National Recording Schemes play a vital role in the collation and verification of the records generated by the volunteer recorders, ensuring quality control of the data and providing feedback to recorders. These biological records then play a crucial role in monitoring and research, helping to generate a clearer picture of what is happening with our wildlife, enabling us to assess the state of nature.

What did we do with the data?

We combine the records using recent methodological advances, so that we can calculate distribution trends, such as those found in the State of Nature report, and monitor important groups such as pollinators. Records for less well-known species and areas with fewer visitors are especially important in making trends as representative as possible. This is why having such a wealth of records is vital as they provide unparalleled coverage in terms of species, location and time span.

"Records for less well-known species and areas with fewer visitors are especially important in making trends as representative as possible. This is why having such a wealth of records is vital..."

My colleagues Gary Powney, Björn Beckmann and I compiled the distribution trends in the State of Nature report and calculated that there has been a five per cent decline, on average, across all species with data of suitable quality since 1970. These were based on models produced by Charlotte Outhwaite (University College London), Oliver Pescott (CEH) and Frazer Coomber (The Mammal Society). The models drew on the wealth of available biological records from locations across the country and representing 6,654 species. This is only made possible by the tremendous efforts of recorders, so we are indebted to the volunteers who contribute records and coordinate recording schemes.

Getting involved has never been easier

There are numerous schemes and organisations that help to coordinate and support recording efforts, many of which contributed to the State of Nature report. This includes running a wide array of events and training activities to help people get involved.

Recording has also never been more accessible with a range of smartphone apps now available to help. Many organisations are now using apps to facilitate volunteer involvement and CEH works with a number of partners on a wide array of apps.

Poster showing mobile recording apps created by CEH and collaborators

There are also more structured schemes such as the National Plant Monitoring Scheme and the Pollinator Monitoring Scheme. These contain different sampling activities to fit a range of time commitments and experience. With this wide array there are many ways to contribute to wildlife recording. There are opportunities for everyone to take part, enjoy the natural world, learn more about our wildlife and provide the evidence needed to research and monitor changes in our environment.

Click here for a summary of the State of Nature 2019 main results (PDF).

Jack Hatfield

Additional information

For a full copy of the State of Nature 2019 report, see www.nbn.org.uk/stateofnature2019

The 28 authors of the report, from various organisations, included CEH scientists Björn Beckmann, Colin Harrower, Jack Hatfield, Oli Pescott and Gary Powney.

CEH’s research for the State of Nature Report was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC). The work was undertaken within the Biological Records Centre (BRC) which supports national recording schemes and societies. Additional thanks go to Tom August, Nick Isaac, David Roy, Helen Roy and Martin Harvey for their support.