Can volunteers’ data be used to monitor land cover change?

Crested Tit - Sarah Kelman
Citizen science is increasingly recognised as one of the most cost-effective means of achieving large-scale and long-term biodiversity monitoring. We’re quite familiar with this concept for birds and butterflies, but what about for habitat? Historically, changes in habitat or land cover in the UK have been recorded through two main approaches: professional field data collection and remote sensing using satellites. Both have major limitations: field surveys are costly and can only cover small areas, whereas remote sensing can cover the whole country but with less detail and greater uncertainties.

BTO scientists were keen to see if habitat data collected by volunteers for the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) could contribute to understanding how habitats have changed. Over 2,500 BBS volunteers have recorded the habitats along their survey transects since 1994, from city centres to mountain tops.


These data were used to quantify change over time in the reporting of different habitats in the British countryside. Increases in woodland cover were detected, in particular, mixed woodland, and declines in farmland cover, particularly livestock farming were also found. Whilst the estimate of habitat area matched existing data well, estimates of habitat change did not. 


These results are encouraging considering that habitat recording on BBS was not designed for the purpose of habitat monitoring. This work shows that volunteers can play a significant role in monitoring of habitats provided clear protocols are followed that have been designed with habitat monitoring in mind.

Related publications:

Martay, B., Pearce-Higgins, J.W., Harris, S.J. & Gillings, S. 2018
Monitoring landscape-scale environmental changes with citizen scientists: Twenty years of land use change in Great Britain Journal for Nature Conservation.
Link to publication (DOI: 10.1016/j.jnc.2018.03.001).

Recent BTO Research

Cuckoo - Edmund Fellowes

Cuckoos: England’s loss is Scotland’s gain

Woodcock - Graham Giddens

Understanding the influence of habitat upon breeding Woodcock numbers in Britain...

Nightingale - John Spaull

Counting songs: estimating the UK’s Nightingale population