Wednesday 22 May 2019

National Plant Monitoring Scheme: interview with Volunteer Manager Dr Rachel Murphy

Rachel applies a hand lens to help ID that plant
Wildflowers are bursting into bloom, the sun is shining and for hundreds of plant-lovers across the UK this is the time to start planning survey days for the National Plant Monitoring Scheme (NPMS). BSBI is proud to be a partner in this habitat-based plant monitoring scheme which aims to collect data to help us understand more about how our wild flower populations are changing year on year.

The NPMS recently appointed a new Volunteer Manager, Dr Rachel Murphy. I caught up with her to get her take on this important citizen science scheme.

LM: So Rachel, you were appointed last October and started in post in January. I bet your feet have hardly touched the ground since then! Before you tell us about the scheme and how you support the volunteer surveyors, can you tell us about yourself – what were you doing before you came to the NPMS?

Rachel in her previous role, with MARINElife
RM: Yes, it has been a real whirlwind over the last few months but I have thoroughly enjoyed getting to know the ins and outs of the scheme and of course the friendly and dedicated volunteers that make it possible.

Before starting with NPMS I spent five years as the Conservation Science Manager for MARINElife, a Dorset based marine conservation charity with a national and European reach. I coordinated and reported on a number of volunteer research programmes, including nationwide monthly ferry surveys, regional small boat programmes and public and partner driven photo-ID studies. All carried out with the support of hundreds of trained and enthusiastic volunteers, providing monitoring evidence and advocating the value of volunteer data for conservation and management. The main difference of course, we were monitoring cetaceans and seabirds, which have a habit of diving under the water or flying away when you’re trying to ID or count them!

Rachel keeping a firm grip on a seabird!
Flowers are much more obliging -
they stay still while you count them!
Prior to this I studied for my PhD in Population and Community Ecology at Leeds University, namely studying the behavioural ecology of seabirds. So I’m now very much enjoying bringing my experience in citizen science and volunteer management to this role, and getting stuck in to this exciting and important scheme. 

LM: Ah, so lots of opportunities to build up all those transferable skills you need in order to support the hundreds of NPMS volunteers! What would you say was the main thing that attracted you to your new role?

RM: I’m a huge advocate of the value of citizen science and volunteer data for monitoring, conservation and management. Together with the right methodologies, guidance and training, citizen scientists can make an excellent contribution to both society and scientific understanding, along with the importance of this work in public engagement and community pride in local natural history. I was incredibly impressed with not only the development of the scheme, with the partners and volunteers working together to create an accessible and inclusive scheme, which is very robust and maintains scientific rigour, but also the engagement and reach of the scheme which is still relatively young. There is clearly an appetite for volunteers wanting to share their experiences in a meaningful way and contribute to our knowledge and understand of national species trends and status.

One of many NPMS training sessions held
each year around the UK
Image: D. Price
LM: Can you remind readers what they need to do if they want to get involved in surveying for the NPMS, and how you support the volunteers at each of those stages?

RM: Its really easy for folk to get involved and hopefully start surveying with the NPMS. By going to the website you can find out about the scheme, take a look at the various resources and guidance on offer and then check the “Squares near you” map to see where there are currently scheme survey squares available for volunteers to adopt. There are currently almost 3,000 squares (1,300 still available) nationwide, so there is every likelihood there is a square awaiting allocation in your area. Registering to become an NPMS volunteer takes just five minutes and once signed up you can request an available square of your choice from the map. Allocated volunteers are then sent our survey and guidance pack by post. 

The NPMS survey and guidance pack
This contains a really helpful colour species identification guide book, survey guidance notes, a species list of those species we record within the scheme and recording forms so you can get started. Once you register there’s a whole host of great (free) training sessions you can sign up for nationwide, from an introduction to the scheme and methodologies, plot and survey set up to species and habitat specific field ID courses. There's also a network of mentors on hand to lend support along with of course myself, and the raft of resources and guidance available to volunteers on the website. At every stage, there’s support on offer to help you contribute, you don't need to be an expert to get involved – in fact beginners are very welcome!

LM: How about the role of social media? What support is available there for NPMS volunteers?

RM: The NPMS has a busy page on Facebook acting as a useful noticeboard showing the scheme’s activities and news,and at the end of last year we set up the NPMS support group on Facebook. It is a closed group of registered NPMS volunteers and mentors -  a friendly platform and point of contact between volunteers and a great space for sharing your experiences and advice. Membership of this group has tripled just since the launch of the spring season! There are plans afoot to set up an Instagram account for the NPMS and there’s also an active and friendly community of volunteers, mentors and partners on Twitter which you’ve been leading on, Louise – go on, tell the readers about that!

NPMS training session at Ranscombe Farm
Image E. Bramley
LM: It’s true, as part of BSBI’s partnership on the NPMS I’ve been helping out with the NPMS Twitter account. You can follow us @theNPMS and check out hashtags #NPMS or #NPMSvolunteers - you don’t need a Twitter account to see what people are talking about, you only need an account if you want to join the conversation. But let's get back to you Rachel: can you tell us how many people have signed up for the scheme this year, and how many NPMS surveyors are there in total across the UK?

RM: The scheme has a tremendous 1,344 volunteers currently allocated a square across the UK, each surveying between 1-5 squares. Over 1,500 1km2 survey squares are currently allocated to volunteers. It’s a huge effort! Just in the last year (since April 2018), over 1,300 volunteers have registered with the scheme and around 450 volunteers have been allocated a square in that time. Over 200 of these allocations have happened just since the start of January this year, really showing the building momentum and engagement in this scheme.

NPMS training session, Pewsey
LM: Are there any parts of the UK where you’d really like to see more people getting involved?  

RM: We would love to see greater uptake of volunteers and square coverage in Scotland, namely the West coast, South west Scotland and also the highlands. Unsurprisingly these areas shown as “blue” on the map comprise some remote and tricky terrain, so we have been building relationships with the likes of the Cairngorms National Park and the South West Scotland Environment Information Centre (SWSEIC), among others to help us to promote the scheme and train in these areas. Other regions include North East England, i.e. the North York Moors and Northumberland, Central Wales, Lincolnshire and Norfolk. We’re building great relationships on many of these areas with stakeholders and landowners such as the National Trust, the MoD and a number of the National Parks. So we’re all ready for new volunteer surveyors when they register!

Rachel uses the NPMS species ID guide and
Rose & O'Reilly's Wildflower Key
to identify the plants in her plot 
But we don’t just think about regions when it comes to increasing coverage. There are certain habitat types we would like to see better represented within the scheme, such as coastal habitats, bogs and fens and montane habitats.

LM: There are three different “levels” at which people can take part in the scheme, from ‘Wildflower’ level, where you are just looking for 25-30 species (all fairly easy to ID) and which is ideal for the less experienced botanist (taking part in the NPMS is actually a great way to build up your ID skills!) right up to ‘Inventory’ level – that’s where you record all the plants you can spot - which is maybe more suited to experienced botanists. Is there any other way that more experienced botanists can contribute to the scheme?

Marking out a 10m x 10m woodland plot
Image: H. New
RM: That’s right, the level system means that the scheme is inclusive and there are plenty of opportunities to learn and develop your skills. There are certainly other ways more experienced surveyors can help with the scheme also. Within the NPMS we have regional volunteer mentors offering advice to other, less experienced volunteers on anything from survey set up to species ID. This can be in the form of contributions to discussions on our Facebook group or by becoming a regional point of contact someone that volunteers in their area can contact with queries about their survey. While there is a raft of guidance and resources on the NPMS website, we appreciate that often it’s easier to just to talk to someone thorough your query. And while I’m more than happy to take queries via phone and email, I understand that sometimes a local perspective can be most helpful or a more experienced botanist is required for a particularly puzzling specimen! 

Marking out a 25m x 1m linear streamside plot
The mentor programme is something we are planning on developing this year, by filling regional gaps and offering more support to mentors and regional volunteer groups to really help build that volunteer community feel. We certainly don’t want volunteers to feel that they are carrying out their surveys in isolation, but are very much part of a bigger group working together. 

NPMS mentors will be really important in this aim, however much (or little!) time they may be able to contribute.

LM: What about when it comes to entering our data? Even if surveyors manage to find and identify the wildflowers in their square, uploading data can be a bit tricky for those of us who are not very tech-savvy! Is there help available for anyone who gets stuck? Fore-warned is fore-armed!

RM: I certainly wouldn’t be put off by online data entry. Once you’ve done it once you’ll know for future submissions. Plus, we have lots of help and support on this front -  our volunteers have made the effort to go out and record on their plots so we want to make sure they can submit that all important data so that it can be used! The resources page on our website has guidance as to how to set up plots on your online profile as well as how to submit data, including Youtube videos that walk you through the process. I think often watching it being done makes a real difference. Once at the point of data entry, the online forms themselves try to replicate the recording forms used in the field as much as possible, so that it’s just a case of transferring the information over. 

We also now have an NPMS mobile App available for download for both Apple and Android phones for those volunteers wishing to use one. This means that once your account and plots are set up on your desktop, you can record your survey data there and then in field. If you still have any trouble at all, we are here to offer help and support by email or phone. No question is too small!

LM: And what exactly happens to the NPMS data once it has been submitted?

Representatives of the NPMS partner organisations
back in 2013, testing the methodology.
Spot Oli Pescott (CEH), Pete Stroh & Bob
Ellis (BSBI) and Felicity Harris (Plantlife)
Image M. Pocock 
RM: Once data is submitted it goes through a clever automated verification process within the database and records are also shown on iRecord for regional verifiers. A volunteer can access their own submitted data via the website at any time. Each year the NPMS data will be made available via the NBN Gateway and published each year as a dataset via the NERC Environmental Information Data Centre. You can find out more about the dissemination of NPMS data by visiting our Data Access policy. NPMS data undergoes robust and reviewed analyses to assess trends in the abundance and diversity of plant species within communities in the United Kingdom, with the aim of providing an annual indication of change. This data helps to detect pressures on different habitats, which may include land use/management, nitrogen pollution, invasives and climate change.

LM: I know that later this year you’re planning to interview Kevin Walker, BSBI’s Head of Science, about the data and research aspects of the scheme, so we’ll find out more then. Meanwhile, how about any scientific papers already published?

RM: There are already a number of scientific papers and reports published about the scheme, including some in high impact journals. This includes our recent publication in PLoS ONE “The design, launch and assessment of a new volunteer-based plant monitoring scheme for the United Kingdom” which highlights the great collaborative effort in the scheme by the scheme partners, BSBI, Plantlife, CEH, JNCC and now Daera-NI, along with the volunteer surveyors. Like any long term monitoring project investigating trends, it requires a number of years of data, making this fifth year of the scheme a pivotal moment and surveys from the first four years are already providing much-needed data on the abundance of indicator species on a regional scale. You can find all our publications and reports to date on the Conservation & Research page of the NPMS website.

LM: Well it sounds like all bases are covered and there’s help on hand for NPMS surveyors at every stage. So, two questions to finish: firstly, if anyone is still wondering why it’s important to get involved in the NPMS, what would you say to them?

Marking out a 5m x 5m grassland plot
RM: Currently we still don’t have a good measure of changes in plant populations nationwide, yet as we know, plants are the foundation of our habitats and ecosystems. By taking this large and systematic approach with the help of volunteers across the country we can build a much better understanding about how our wild plants are changing and responding to different pressures. This is a key fact-finding exercise to help inform policy makers and conservation management decisions to help care for and protect our habitats and ecosystems. And of course beyond that, it is a way for our volunteers to “do their bit” and contribute valuable data while also becoming engaged with their local environments and of course develop their own plant ID skills and understanding of the wildflowers in their local area.

NPMS training session - learn how to
 set up your survey plots and meet
some of your fellow plant monitors
LM: And finally – do you have any goals you’ve set yourself for the year ahead? Would you like to see the scheme reach a certain number of volunteers registered, or squares allocated? When we get to the end of the season, what would make you sit back and think yes, job well done? Be honest now!

RM: I do have certain goals and aims regarding the number of squares allocated and volunteers registered of course, we want to see greater coverage. But truly, I strongly believe that the importance of supporting volunteers with adequate training, guidance, development opportunities and feedback is incredibly high, in keeping volunteers engaged, excited by our work and ensuring they are seeing results and outputs from the hard work and time they have invested. So for me, I’d like to see high levels of volunteer retention, repeat surveys and data submission for those allocated squares – all of which we are more able to quantify now as we hit our fifth year.

Rachel Murphy: all set to support NPMS surveyors
(she's really helpful and friendly!)
I’d also love to see the relationships we are already starting to develop with stakeholders continue to grow and for the NPMS to become part of other organisations’ monitoring programmes. 

LM: Rachel, thank you so much for talking to us about the NPMS, what it means to you and why we should all get involved. And for any readers who haven’t yet registered for the scheme, head over here now and join the NPMS community! 

Watch this space for more interviews with the people behind the NPMS: but coming up next, we follow a first-time NPMS volunteer as she gets to grips with setting up her plots and carrying out her very first NPMS survey.

Photographs on this page courtesy of Rachel Murphy/ NPMS unless otherwise stated.

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