Prediction of National Vegetation Classification communities in the British uplands using environmental data at multiple spatial scales, aerial images and the classifier random forest.
High-resolution vegetation maps are a valuable resource for conservation, land management and research. In Great Britain, the National Vegetation Classification (NVC) is widely used to describe vegetation communities. NVC maps are typically produced from ground surveys which are prohibitively expensive for large areas. An approach to produce NVC maps more cost-effectively for large areas would be valuable. Creation of vegetation community maps from aerial or satellite images has often had limited success as the clusters separable by spectral reflectance frequently do not correspond well to vegetation community classes. Such maps have also been produced by exploring correlations between community occurrence and environmental variables. The latter approach can have limitations where anthropogenic activities have altered the distribution of vegetation communities. We combined these two approaches and classified 24 common NVC classes of the Yorkshire Dales and an additional class 'wood' consisting of trees and bushes at a resolution of 5 m from mostly remotely sensed variables with the algorithm random forest. Classification accuracy was highest when environmental variables at low and high resolution (50 and 5-10 m, respectively) were added to aerial image information aggregated to a resolution of 5 m. Low-resolution environmental variables are likely to be correlated with the dominant vegetation surrounding a location and thus could represent critical area requirements or local species pool effects, while high-resolution environmental variables represent the environmental conditions at the location. Overall classification accuracy was 87-92%. The median producer's and user's class accuracies were 95% (58-100%) and 92% (67-100%), respectively. Synthesis and applications. The classification accuracies achieved in this study, the number of classes differentiated, their level of detail and the resolution were high compared with those of other studies. This approach could allow the production of good-quality NVC maps for large areas. In contrast to existing maps of broad land cover types, such maps would provide more detailed vegetation community data for applications like the monitoring of vegetation in a changing climate, the study of animal-habitat relationships, conservation management or land use planning.