Protecting Scotland’s Biodiversity: Monitoring in Action

On 2nd and 3rd October, over 100 scientists, policymakers and conservationists gathered at the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh for Protecting Scotland’s Biodiversity: Monitoring in Action, the second Scottish Biodiversity Conference. A joint meeting of the British Ecological Society, the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management and the Science and Technical Group of the Scottish Biodiversity Strategy, co-sponsored by the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science, this year’s conference focused on the technical and scientific challenges related to monitoring and data collection arising from the refresh of the Scottish Biodiversity Strategy.

Professor Bill Sutherland, President of the BES, set the scene on the Thursday evening with his introductory lecture: Conservation Scotland: New Problems and New Solutions. Central to Bill’s talk were two core themes that would re-emerge throughout the conference: the need to be able to put the evidence emerging from monitoring and ecological research to better use through making it more integrated, accessible and easy to interpret; and the opportunities afforded by new technologies, from drones to mobile apps, that enable greater citizen participation in monitoring, and offer new scope for filling gaps in our knowledge.

The first session of 3rd October set out to “demystify monitoring”: why do we need it, and what happens to all that data? Ed Mackey, of Scottish Natural Heritage, outlined the cross-agency Scottish Environmental Monitoring Strategy, which aims to improve coordination and prioritisation in order to more effectively address gaps in monitoring effort and inform policy. Ed and his SNH colleague Paul Watkinson then highlighted two ways in which monitoring data is being put to use: to draw conclusions as to the state of the environment in Scotland through the collation of biodiversity indicators to asses ecosystem health, and through the innovative new Natural Capital Asset Index, which provides a simple way of communicating the state of Scotland’s natural capital.

Collecting and curating the data is vital, but how does this effect on biodiversity conservation on the ground? The next session explored this question through three case studies. Mark Eaton, of the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science demonstrated how monitoring has enabled the RSPB to set conservation priorities, test and refine solutions and evaluate effectiveness, with examples of species success stories including the corncrake and red kite. However he also highlighted the ongoing gaps in data that hinder assessments of progress towards conservation goals, as illustrated in last year’s State of Nature report.



One potential way of filling in these gaps was showcased by Rob Ogden of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, who outlined the potential of eDNA techniques to revolutionise monitoring by extracting and identifying DNA samples from the environment, and thus decreasing our reliance on a diminishing supply of identification expertise. Finally Andrew Bachell of SNH raised some of the problems with current metrics and methods for monitoring and assessing favourable conservation status, arguing that the current system tells us little about species and habitats outside of protected areas, and does not align with landscape and ecosystem scale policy priorities.



After workshops exploring key topics in more detail, the final plenary session of the day returned to the question of the exciting new frontiers in monitoring opened up by digital technologies, and set a hopeful tone for the end of the conference. Tom August for the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology examined the pros and cons of citizen science, which while offering huge benefits in terms increased amounts of data and public engagement, also carries with it difficulties in terms of data verification and biases. Tools to cope with these challenges are being developed by the Digital Conservation strand of the dot.rural project, including the use of automated systems for verification and participant feedback, highlighted by Danny Heptinstall. Finally Scott Newey of the James Hutton Institute presented a timely reminder of the pitfalls of relying on technology, outlining some of the limitations of camera trap methods.

So what next for biodiversity monitoring in Scotland? The monitoring challenges are legion: the gaps in our knowledge and the limited resources available to fill them, the pressure to make data more accessible and able to inform policy, and the need to more effectively integrate existing monitoring schemes to better track change across the environment. Yet where there are challenges, there are also solutions. Running throughout the conference was a palpable sense that through an increasing openness to collaboration and dialogue, and the embrace of innovative new methods and technologies, Scotland is increasingly equipped to rise to the monitoring challenge.

If you are interested in engaging with biodiversity policy in Scotland, why not join the BES Scottish Policy Group?