How Community Scientists are caring for Peak District moors

4 July 2018

Joseph Margetts from Moors for the Future Partnership takes us through the important work being done to protect willdife by the winning project of the 2017 Park Protector Award #summerofbeauty

Moorland citizen scientists need to be a hardy breed. They scribble notes on waterproof paper, as their fingers and eyelashes freeze and the howling wind whips away body Monitoring on Marsden Moor by Alan Stopherheat in minutes. They take measurements, photographs and conduct surveys in the baking sun - in places where there are no trees and no shade. They show grit and determination to live by the 3 Rs (Record, Record, Record!) in some of the UK’s harshest but most drama-filled landscapes.

The scientists in question are a coalition of volunteers who have come together in the Peak District National Park and South Pennines, under the banner of a Heritage Lottery Funded project called Community Science, which I have been lucky enough to work for over the past 3 years. 

Monitoring on Marsden Moor. Photo credit: Alan Stopher

The project was initiated by Moors for the Future Partnership, which formed in 2003 to tackle the environmental catastrophe of the acres and acres of bare peat found in the region, which were eroding at an alarming rate (of which you can read more here).

The partnership also recognised the contribution which could be made by people who were regularly on the ground in the area (such as local communities, walkers, tourists, bird watchers, schools…) to measure how the moorlands and specifically their precious ‘blanket bog’ habitat is responding to climate change.

Are blanket bogs drying out? Are the plants growing here changing? Are certain species of wildlife decreasing in number, or perhaps moving in to the area? Are animals moving further up the hills where it should be cooler? These are just some of the questions that we hope to be able to answer in the future, and there’s only one way to find the answers. Record. Record. Record.

Since 2014 Community Science volunteers have been logging sightings of animals and plants in the area which might act as indicators of climate change. Species recorded have included the bilberry bumblebee, the green hairstreak butterfly and the UK’s largest wading bird the curlew.

Curlew in the Peak District by Tom Aspinall

Curlew ontop of a Peak District wall. Photo credit: Tom Aspinall

They have also provided context by recording the climate itself on eight moorland environmental monitoring sites. Volunteers have also used their monthly site visits to record other non-biological information such as the water table (how close to the surface the water sits) – which is a really good indication of the condition of blanket bog, where wetter means better.

All this information will be very useful to revisit and compare in 5, 10, 20 or 30 years’ time - in order to see if and how things have changed.  As such, we’ve recently summarised the first four years of data into a ‘preliminary results’ document, which you can read here. Because of the long-term nature of recording climate change and its impact, it is hard to pick out many patterns just yet, but here are a few key findings in the report:

  • Community Science butterfly and bird sightings collected shows a strong correlation with national datasets – confirming their reliability.
  • A significant relationship has been found between arrival of swallows in the Peak District and South Pennines, and winter rainfall in England – with wetter winters corresponding to later arrivals of these migratory birds which travel to the UK from South Africa in the spring to breed.
  • As expected, information collected so far on our ‘eco-labs’ has shown significant differences in both air temperature and soil surface temperature between sites. Both mean air and soil temperature show a significant decrease with an increase in elevation.
  • Rainfall data has shown a negative relationship between total autumn rainfall and the Easting of sites – meaning it gets drier as you move east. We have also shown that the number of dry days in autumn increases as you move west to east through the project area.
  • Community Scientists have helped to map the location of sightings of the ring ouzel in the Eastern Moors area of the Peak District, feeding into a more detailed survey by Eastern Moors Partnership aiming to locate nests and track breeding success. This is a nationally declining bird, so it’s really important to track its fortunes in the project area.
  • Community Scientists have recorded some of the first evidence of otters moving back into the area after their catastrophic decline during the 20th century.
  • Community Scientists have also mapped hundreds of sightings of mountain hares across the moorlands in the project area - which are the only places they can be found in England. ObservMountain hare in winter coat. By Tom Aspinallers also noted their coat colour (which changes to white in winter as camouflage against snow). This data should prove very useful to see if in future the places they can be found is changing, and whether they are spending more time ‘mismatched’ to their background if there is less snow during the potential warmer winters of the future.

These are just a few of the interesting research questions that volunteer power has begun the process of answering – and of course there are potentially many more questions which could arise in the future that the work put in now by this band of dedicated Community Scientists may help to answer.

By Joseph Margetts
Community Science Project Communications Officer
Moors for the Future Partnership

The Community Science Project won the 2017 Park Protector Award. Applications are now open for the 2018 award. Click here to find out more! 

Mountain hare in a winter coat. Photo credit: Tom Aspinall