Study shows citizen scientists can help protect native woodlands

by | Dec 15, 2015 | Featured Slider, Latest, News


Ablaze with colour in autumn and carpeted with bluebells in spring, native woodlands are one of Britain’s most prized natural treasures. Now new research is showing that the public – as well as scientists – can play a vital role in their protection. Work presented at the British Ecological Society Annual Meeting in Edinburgh this week, shows that citizen scientists can accurately and efficiently report disease outbreaks in our native trees.

The study, carried out by scientists at Forest Research and Rothamsted Research, involved a survey of the Acute Oak Decline (AOD) disease which has affected oak trees across England and Wales.

AOD reduces oak trees’ ability to take up food and water, and has the potential to kill trees in 4-6 years. This threatens indigenous woodland and the many species of plants and animals that rely on oak trees for food and protection.

To make the survey even more far-reaching, the researchers also gathered sightings of AOD reported by concerned public volunteers. These ‘citizen scientists’ followed online instructions, and some even had training from Forest Research professionals on how to identify disease symptoms and to take non-destructive swab samples for experts to verify. The confirmed public sightings were compared with those of the scientific survey to determine how reliable they were.

According to Dr Nathan Brown, the author of the study: “This research provided a unique opportunity not only to map the known extent of AOD in the UK but to compare the results from historical and current records held by FR which were submitted by citizen scientists to that of data from a systematic and scientifically robust survey.”

The results showed clear similarities between reports gathered from the scientific survey and those verified from the public volunteers. Both volunteers and scientists found AOD in central and southern England, whereas it was rare in Wales and in more northern and southwest areas of England.

“The end result of this research is that citizen science makes a meaningful contribution to spotting AOD and can be helpful in monitoring its spread,” he says.

Help from the public can therefore play an important role in informing policy and management of woodland conservation, such as in helping scientists to predict which areas are at risk of AOD and other tree diseases, and preventing their spread.

The researchers plan to continue to work with citizen scientists on future tree disease surveys. An example, Brown explains, is: “Observatree, an EU-funded citizen science project led by Forest Research which is training volunteers to identify and report tree pests and diseases. This approach can provide an efficient early warning system for pests and diseases, and our findings suggest volunteer detections can also be used to define the distribution of affected woodland.”

The project was started while Dr Brown was at Forest Research and is continuing in collaboration with Rothamsted Research and the University of Salford; it receives funding from Defra and the Forestry Commission.

Dr Nathan Brown will present the results of the team’s research at the British Ecological Society annual meeting at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre on Tuesday 15th December 2015.