Technological answers to the challenges of conservation in National Parks

Becky Falkingham, ecologist at the National Trust, reflects on recent work in the Lake District and takes a look at the need for technological solutions to the many challenges facing the work of conservationists in National Parks.

The Lake District National Park is well known for its rugged, open terrain, calm freshwater lakes, and green hills dotted by wandering sheep. But look closer and the landscape has value beyond the stunning vistas. The habitats found across the Lake District include acid grassland, shrub heath, blanket bog, valley mire and deciduous woodland. These support a diversity of insects, mammals and birdlife species, many of which are scarce or threatened.

Despite the sheer size and beauty of the Lake District, its habitats are fragile and sometimes undervalued.  Striving to better understand the coverage and condition of these habitats through biological survey work is vital for being able to conserve nature and wildlife for future generations to enjoy. But given the vastness of our protected spaces surveying this beautiful landscape can be a daunting challenge.

Part of what makes the Lake District landscape beautiful is also what makes it difficult and time consuming to survey, as was made clear to me during my work there! Trekking over hectare after hectare of blanket bog is no easy feat! With each step I didn’t know if I would be ankle deep in sphagnum or turning my ankle on tussocks of purple moor grass - not to mention the steep climbs we took to get to the top of the fells. No wonder we hardly saw another soul all day; common sense tells you you’re not going to get far fast on this terrain. Nonetheless, the feeling of achievement at the end of each day was worth the effort.

Blanket Bog in the Lake District National Park

The current condition of many areas remains largely unknown due to the high levels of survey effort and expertise required to cover the ground. Without this information, it is difficult to give management advice to landowners - even where they are keen to contribute management for the benefit of wildlife.

Blanket Bog in the Lake District National Park

Photo credit: Becky Falkingham

The challenges are clear”

 

The challenges are clear but one way in which these problems are being faced is through the use of technology to increase the area which can be surveyed. Technology is increasingly being used to survey wildlife, using recording apps such as iRecord, which are becoming increasingly popular with the public for use in citizen science. Conservation organisations are beginning to tap into these tech developments to speed up formal survey process in order to meet conservation targets, and help to improve the coverage and update the currency of habitat data. At the National Trust, habitat recording apps are currently in the early stages of trial and development, to create something which meets the requirements at the survey, data analysis and management advice stage.

One aspiration for the future in nature conservation is the use of drone technology alongside remote sensing and GIS for use in surveying large areas of land. They have the potential to provide visual representation of the landscape, not only in our visual spectrum, but also using infrared and LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) data. These could create additional layers of information which is currently unavailable through aerial photography, unlocking new information without having to spend week after week in the field.

Whilst drones and remote sensing have potential for increasing the frequency and coverage of survey work, we do not yet understand the full picture on the ground. Individual species cannot be picked up, so rare and unusual specimens are easily missed. Furthermore, drone technology is, at present, cost prohibitive for conservation charities.

Heathland in Ullswater Valley, Lake District National Park. Photo credit: Becky Falkingham

Nonetheless, it is an exciting avenue for the future. We only need to look to the field of climate science to see how remote sensing technology can transform our understanding of the natural world. Biological survey and conservation deserves the time and investment that climate science has received.

With time, effort and commitment, our understanding of habitat change could be transformed with the use of remote sensing and other technologies on a local, regional and national scale. Given the extent of the threats to our wildlife this kind of vision is needed more than ever.