Woodland supports the highest diversity of life, so it’s one of the best habitats to see our wonderful British plants and animals. While walking through woods, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll see some of the characters that live there. You might discover interesting insects climbing tree trunks, roe deer running through the undergrowth or a sparrowhawk zooming through the canopy.
Yet much of this wildlife is under threat in Britain. At around 13% tree cover, the UK’s current woodland habitat is often fragmented, isolated and at risk. That’s why wildlife surveying is so important.
We work hard to protect and expand British woodland and tree cover for people and wildlife. There are lots of ways you can help. One of the most popular activities is surveying the wildlife in our woods.
Recording wildlife at Smithills
At the Smithills Estate, Woodland Trust volunteers have been surveying and recording wildlife since 2016. As of 2018, people can sign up as official wildlife recorders – a volunteer role set up specifically to encourage the recording of local wildlife.
Rob Ball is one of those volunteers. Through this role he has developed a great love of finding and recording all sorts of wild animals, plants and fungi.
What is wildlife surveying and why is it important?
Surveying wildlife is simply the recording of the animals or plants you might see during a walk. It goes a long way to helping us conserve nature in our woods and surrounding habitats. Recording the what, where, when and how - from orchids to foxes - can give us some great insight into the ecosystem.
The data from your woodland trek is really useful. It can be used to shape our management of each wood and help us verify which species are present and – importantly - which may be missing.
Gathered over a number of years, more and more records can reveal changes in local populations. This acts as an early warning system. If we can see a certain species is declining year-on-year, we can investigate why it’s happening and crucially, how we might reverse the decline.
It also shows how positive management of woodland can increase local biodiversity, which benefits both nature and humans alike.
Do you need to be a wildlife expert?
You don’t need to be an expert to get started. If you can recognise something as simple as two rabbits bouncing through the ferns in February, or a lonesome frog in November, that’s a valuable record.
To help surveyors improve their knowledge, we’ve been running wildlife workshops at Smithills for over two years in partnership with the Greater Manchester Ecology Unit. Each workshop has focused on a different wildlife group – we’ve had some on winter trees and others that have listened carefully for birdsong.
The Woodland Trust runs similar workshops across the UK, with lots of opportunities to learn more about how you can identify British flora and fauna. Check out our events page. They offer the perfect way to learn about and record native wildlife while meeting other enthusiasts.
As well as going to a workshop or two, you could practice taking records in your own back garden. A good method is to watch for an hour and note down the birds you see. To avoid counting the same bird twice and creating inaccurate records, it’s best to make a note of the highest number of a single species you see at one time. This will give you your maximum population. Your record could be:
Blue tits: 4 adult birds seen on 16/10/18. Grid Reference: SE 31369 71374
This is the bare minimum you need to create a record. But you can add other details if you see them. This gives a little more information that can be very useful in years to come. For example:
Blackbirds: 3 adults (1 male and 3 female) seen on 16/10/18. Grid Reference: SE 31369 71374
Once you’re ready to take the next step, there’s plenty of help at hand.
Recording common species is important
It may seem impractical to survey species like blue tits and blackbirds. But we don’t know what the future holds for our wildlife – it’s impossible to say that any species will always be as common as today. And if for some reason their populations decline sharply, we need to be able to refer to records for clues on their decline.
In short, sometimes it’s the records of the most obvious and common species that can be the most important.
Other ways to record wildlife
There are lots of ways you can help us record British wildlife. Some of them only take a couple of minutes and you can do as much or as little as you like. Every record is important to us!
Nature’s Calendar tracks the effects of weather and climate change on 69 different species. These records are an invaluable source of information for researchers across the world trying to understand the impact of climate change. Records don’t take long to add and you can upload one or 100!
The Ancient Tree Inventory (ATI) is a live database of more than 160,000 ancient and notable trees. It helps us identify ancient tree hot spots, monitor threats and losses and keep these trees safe. Each record only takes a couple of minutes to upload and people can add as many or as few as they choose.
A bioblitz is a quick but focused survey of all living species in a given area. It takes place in a single day and anyone of any age can join in. The woodland trust holds several across the country as public events, including at Smithills and Coed Ffos Las.
Big Bluebell Watch runs each spring to take a snapshot of the status of the UK’s bluebells.
Recording schemes run by other wildlife charities include the:
Big Butterfly Count (Butterfly Conservation)
Big Farmland Bird Count (Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust)
National Bat Monitoring Programme (Bat Conservation Trust)
Big Garden Bird Count (RSPB)
So why not become a wildlife surveyor? The more records we have, the more knowledgeable we all become about what is happening to British wildlife - and the more we can do to protect it.