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Using citizen science to promote biodiversity on farmland

Dutch Butterfly Conservation
12-DEC-2023 - How do we enhance biodiversity on farmland? To do this, farmers need to be motivated to care and promote it. But it also requires people who can monitor the developments through their observations and counts. Citizen science is indispensable in this regard. A new article lists the experiences with different approaches.

Only a small proportion of flora and fauna data stems from agricultural areasThe first week of December was 'Week of the volunteer' in the Netherlands. Volunteers are also the foundation of citizen science: collecting data that help to increase our knowledge. That is, of course, primarily a task for researchers. But they cannot achieve this on their own, for various reasons. Such data collection is often not groundbreaking enough to find the required research funding. Scientific research projects also  mainly focus on relatively short timeframes – a few years only –for data collection (PhD students and postdocs have short-term contracts, after all...). And finally, the number of researchers is small. Citizen science lends itself perfectly to generating a lot of data over a long series of years.

For biodiversity data, the Netherlands have the highest density of citizen scientists in the world. The National Database of Flora and Fauna now grows by more than 12 million observations every year. But only a small proportion come from agricultural areas. So the question is: how do we get good observations from farmland? And how can we involve farmers in this effort? This would be of added value, because involvement also provides motivation to promote biodiversity. This constitues a challenge in the Netherlands, and on a European scale the challenge is even greater. That is why we investigated existing approaches involving citizen science to record biodiversity in agricultural areas. This was quite an undertaking, because many of the examples had to be found outside the scientific field.

Volunteers prefer counting flora and fauna in nature reservesFrom the overview of 106 projects, eight different approaches were extracted. Three approaches do not focus specifically on the farmland, but often take part of it into account. The disadvantage then is that farmland is typically poorly covered, because observers are more likely to choose nature reserves where more species can be seen. The eight approaches differ in their method: 'opportunistic observations' without fixed method or place of observation; standardized methods of observation but free choice of location; and standardized methods of observation with pre-selection of sites. In the Netherlands, the platforms and provide an example of the first approach and the Ecological Monitoring Network largely follows the second approach. The third, most systematic approach is used, for example, in the British Breeding Bird Survey or the Catalan Butterfly Monitoring Scheme.

The same three methods are also used in projects that are specifically aimed at farmland. Their major advantage is that observers can be involved in the need to learn more about how biodiversity develops on farmland. The effects of biodiversity-enhancing measures, such as flowery field margins or thicket hedges, can also be investigated. In the Netherlands, the monitoring networks for farmland birds and the moth monitoring of BIMAG are relevant examples. Farmers participate in the collection of the observations but not in the analysis and reporting.

In the BIMAG project farmers count morths on three locations on their farmsAn important advantage of adopting standardized methods of observation is that they also provide insight into the abundance development of species. The advantage of a free, 'opportunistic' method is, of course, the much larger data flow of observations. But because these do not provide information about recording intensity, they only provide a good view of the distribution of species, not of how abundant they are.

The last two approaches identified by the review concern projects that are started by farmers themselves or are co-created by farmers in design and implementation. This includes both projects with standardized observations or without a fixed method. In the latter case, the main goal is to increase involvement and motivation for farming with biodiversity. In the former, specific practical questions can also be addressed.

In conclusion, there are different approaches to involve citizens in farmland biodiversity. The choice of one method or the other depends on the trade-off between quantity and quality of the data and the extent to which they are specifically targeting farmland and involving the farmers themselves. In order to promote biodiversity through learning-by-doing, it is important that both the involvement of the observers and the quality of their observations are given sufficient attention.

The study was carried out as part of the EU project SHOWCASE, which highlights synergies between agriculture, biodiversity and ecosystem services to help farmers integrate biodiversity into agricultural practices. The project aims to provide new insights and innovative tools that facilitate the transition of the agricultural sector to more sustainable farming, thereby helping to address wider societal needs.

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Text: Michiel Wallis de Vries, De Vlinderstichting (Dutch Butterfly Conservation)
Photo’s: Jurriën van Deijk (lead photo: BIMAG project in action); Kars Veling