Citizen science; the people behind the data

Citizen science is a really important part of our work. Like all of our volunteers, these specially trained groups include people from a wide range of backgrounds who all share one thing in common- a passion for nature and the outdoors.

Together, they take part in training courses and events, learn about the natural world around them, then use their skills to collect data for us. This data can then be used to influence everything from woodland creation to farmland habitat schemes to barrier removals. As the eyes and ears of the catchment, our citizen science groups are often the first to notice patterns in data, changes to rivers, and issues.

It works both ways though. Whilst we get valuable data and evidence, each citizen scientist gets all the training and equipment they need for free. Plus, many of our citizen scientists have noticed big improvements in their health and wellbeing. Improved mood, increased relaxation, and better physical health are just some of the benefits.

Over the last few survey seasons the Ribble Trust team have made some big improvements to the way we train and keep in touch with volunteers. By making data more accessible, standardizing methodologies, improving health and safety practice, and communicating more effectively we’ve managed to improve the experience for our citizen scientists.

Currently, our five main citizen science groups are;

Priority habitat surveyors

As part of the HEAL project Ribble Rivers Trust have recently teamed up with the Freshwater Biological Association to provide Priority Habitat training. The surveys that our volunteers carry out help to form a picture of river naturalness. A more natural river is generally a healthier river which is capable of supporting a greater range of biodiversity. Sites that score badly can potentially be improved with links to future and existing projects, whereas sites that score well might benefit from maintenance rather than active work.

These surveys look at four naturalness factors; biological, chemical, hydrological, and physical. These are the same four factors that make up a Water Framework Directive score, so are comparable to findings by the Environment Agency.

Bat surveyors

This group monitors bat populations across the catchment. Although bats and rivers might not be a common association, they do have a very strong link. Mainly as rivers produce lots of insects, which is a bats staple diet. So, you can often find bats flitting up and down rivers and streams at dusk. The healthier a river, the more insects, and the more insects, the more bats. Additionally, rivers with tree cover see even more bats, as the trees and vegetation encourage river insects to stay close to the water rather than drifting away.

Our citizen science volunteers monitor bat populations before and after we complete projects. Plus, they record bat presence across the catchment to assess habitat quality.

Otter surveyors

As the name suggests, otter surveyors look for signs of otters. These once critically endangered and heavily persecuted mammals were once close to extinction, but are happily making a slow and steady come back. Again, otters rely on healthy river systems for food and homes. Although otters have quite a wide territorial range, they also need a lot of food. A large otter population reflects a large fish, amphibian, and crustacean population, which means that rivers must be healthy and well-functioning ecosystems.

Otter surveyors don’t actually look for otters, they look for evidence of otters. This is usually spraints (poo), anal jelly, footprints, holts, and leftover food or signs of foraging.

Riverfly monitors

Riverflies are another important part of a healthy ecosystem. These tiny insects form the basis of all river ecosystems, providing food for everything from other insects to fish to birds. Of course, these then go on to provide food for other, larger animals. Riverflies are easy to collect and count and as our volunteers only have to identify eight species to group level, it’s relatively easy (with a little practice!).

The riverfly monitoring scheme was one of the Trust’s first attempts at gathering and using data through citizen science. Over 130 sites have been monitored since 2010 with almost 2,000 results submitted. These results have helped us to identify pollution incidents and discovered invasive species never reported in the catchment’s rivers.

Barrier surveyors

 The fifth survey in our citizen science arsenal is barrier surveys. Barriers such as dams and weirs prevent wildlife from moving up and down rivers to feed and breed. This is particularly problematic for fish such as salmon and trout, who need to move upstream to breed, and for mammals such as otters who will often attempt to move upstream by crossing roads at night when in river barriers can’t be passed.

Each barrier surveyor identifies barriers then assesses the barrier type (e.g. weir from a mill race), as well as age, size, how passable the barrier is, and it’s condition.

If you would like to take part in any of our future training sessions please drop us a line here.