20 October, 2017
The Irish Wildlife Trust and ‘citizen science’
Posted: 19 July, 2017
Pádraic Fogarty is campaign officer with the Irish Wildlife Trust. His book ‘Whittled Away – Ireland’s Vanishing Nature‘ is published by Collins Press and is now available in book shops.
In the early 2000’s the Irish Wildlife Trust began using ‘citizen science’ to learn more about the distribution and ecology of Ireland’s only native reptile – the viviparous lizard.
In the days before smartphones, people emailed us their sightings so that we could establish, for the first time, that these small lizards were widespread in Ireland and found on a range of habitats from mountain bogs to coastal sand dunes. It was also a useful tool in raising awareness among the general public that Ireland had a native lizard, something which came as a surprise to many. Since then the Irish Wildlife Trust has used similar methods for smooth newts, until then a little-studied amphibian, as well as ladybirds and, most recently, Irish reptiles (not only the viviparous lizard but the even lesser known slow worm).
Since 2016 we have also been using citizen science to track the extent of wild fires in Ireland. Until then, apart from knowing that wild fires are annual and widespread, very little data had been gathered on their locations, dates or extent. With two years of figures now on our database it is clear that wildfires are a national problem and that half of them are in areas protected for nature conservation.
Allowing people to use their phones to participate in data gathering schemes such as these is not only useful for conservation in the traditional sense, but it empowers people to bypass traditional routes (e.g. by appealing to their local authority or politicians) in taking action to protect their environment. Citizen science is now firmly established as a powerful force in conservation and is widely employed by a range of state bodies and non-governmental organisations, like the Irish Wildlife Trust.
The importance of these schemes should not be underestimated. The National Biodiversity Data Centre, for instance, now has 10 years of data on butterfly distribution and abundance – something which has highlighted worrying declines in certain species such as the orange tip and speckled wood. Indeed, the work of scientists across Ireland, of the professional as well as the citizen variety, provides us with an unprecedented view of our natural environment.
From the discovery of deep sea coral reefs and the status of fish stocks by the Marine Institute, the preparation of ‘red data lists’ of threatened species by the National Parks and Wildlife Service, to the detailed analysis of water quality across our rivers and lakes by the Environmental Protection Agency – never before have we had such an abundance of information at our fingertips about the condition of our natural heritage. And across the board the picture that is being painted is not a good one. On average, a third of all species groups which have been assessed are at risk of extinction; half of our water bodies are polluted; half of our fish stocks are overfished. Its seems to me that we are documenting Ireland’s vanishing nature with ever higher levels of precision. The overriding challenge of our times, and a task for all citizens and scientists, is to ensure that our law makers can engage with research – ignoring it should not be an option.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in our guest blogs are the author’s own, and do not reflect the opinions of the Irish Research Council or any employee thereof.