Bashing the squares: the BBS and NPMS

NPMS survey plot

Like many UK naturalists at this time of year, last weekend I was busy playing my part as a volunteer - a citizen scientist if you like - monitoring the UK's biodiversity. Mid to late June can be a slightly anxious time for me as I study the weather forecasts hoping for a weekend morning with good conditions on the West Pennine Moors - the window of opportunity I need to complete the 'late' visit for my Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) square. (The BBS is partnership project between BTO, RSPB and JNCC.) On Sunday I was lucky and a leaden sky stayed its hand just enough for me to squeeze in my two-hour visit on the 1 km2 of moorland allocated to me for the BBS.

I've been Did I mention that I've done the BBS for 20 years?!monitoring that square for more than 20 years now - since the BBS started in 1994 in fact - and I've got the badge to prove it! I've only missed one year - 2001 when Foot and Mouth prevented access. Many times, when rousing myself at 6 a.m. on a Saturday or Sunday after a hard week at work, my motivation to stick at it has been sorely tested. The low points have come when I've done the hardest part - dragging my sorry butt out of bed and up onto the moor - only to find the cloud base too low to conduct the survey.

But oh, the high points! I wish I had the words to describe how these have made me feel; still May mornings with Snipe drumming, Curlews and Cuckoos announcing themselves, the near-constant chorus of Skylarks vying over airspace, squadrons of parachuting Meadow Pipits each adding, as Edward Grey, 1st Viscount Grey of Fallodon put it, their own “minute but perceptible contribution to the happiness of the day”. Moments of sublime stillness. They don't come every year and sometimes, like buses, several may come at once. That's what gets me out of bed. (That and knowing I'm doing my bit to monitor our biodiversity, obv!)

I've done my two BBS transect counts on that square, year in, year out, for 20 years (did I mention that?!) - about 40% of my life. It's part of me now; a sort of annual marker every bit as significant to me as my birthday. But I adhere to the axiom that it's never too late in life to start something new and this year was the first year - I hope the first of many - of my association with another national biodiversity monitoring scheme: the NPMS.

National Plant Monitoring SchemeThe NPMS is the National Plant Monitoring Scheme. I grant you, it doesn't exactly roll off the tongue to begin with, but say it often enough - N-P-M-S, enpee-emess, NpeaEmess - and your laughing gear soon starts to find its way around it. This is the first full year of the NPMS - a new habitat-based monitoring programme for flowering plants - run under the auspices of Plantlife, BSBI, CEH, BRC and JNCC.

I'm one of the lucky naturalists who earns a crust doing what I love - working in natural history - and I am tremendously proud that FSC's Tomorrow's Biodiversity project has facilitated a number of training courses in 2105, led by Plantlife's Hayley New, to introduce NPMS volunteers to the new monitoring protocol. But I'm also an NPMS volunteer in my own time.

In 2014 I piloted the emerging NPMS protocol on the 1 km square I surveyed in previous years for Wildflowers Count. Like my BBS square, this was on the West Pennine Moors. But selection of survey squares for NPMS 'proper', as with BBS, has followed a scientifically rigorous procedure and my old 1 km square was not on the final list: the square I was allocated was in the lowlands to the west on the Lancashire Plain in an area I know vaguely but not well.

So my first task, a fortnight ago, was to recce my allocated square and select locations for five sampling plots from a number of suggested locations marked on a map of my square sent to me by the NPMS organisers. This was quite a time-consuming and tricky task involving navigating to all the suggested plots and assessing the accessibility and quality of each. I found my smart-phone's GPS, used in conjunction with the map, a great help in locating the suggested plots. Maybe I was lucky, but I could not have hoped for better or more accessible sampling plots than those I found in my square. The plots I settled on were:

  • a 10 x 10 metre woodland quadrat in a local authority-owned park;
  • a 1 x 25 metre linear quadrat along a roadside hedgerow;
  • two 5 x 5 metre quadrats in some beautiful meadowland within a publicly accessible Woodland Trust reserve; and
  • a 1 x 25 metre quadrat along the margin of a gorgeous well-vegetated pond in the same WT reserve.

Part of the NPMS protocol is to identify which of the scheme's target habitats each of your plots belong to. The guidance for identifying the habitats is clearly and concisely written and I found this easy to do (though admittedly, my habitats are not the hardest to identify). The habitat associated with my plots are Dry Deciduous Woodland, Hedgerows of Native Species, Neutral Pastures & Meadows and Nutrient-rich Lakes & Ponds respectively. Although all this reconnaissance and set-up work is time-consuming, this is essentially a one-off task. Next year I will know where my plots are and how to access them from the get go.

On Sunday, after the dull morning in which I completed my BBS square, the afternoon brightened considerably and I set out to conduct my first ever NPMS survey. One thing to recommend the NPMS survey is that it doesn't require an early start! I had an extremely enjoyable and satisfying afternoon surveying my NPMS plots. Considering I was taking time to decide on the exact positioning of my plots, photographing them and drawing sketch-maps - all one-off tasks that I will not have to repeat for my second visit later in the year or in subsequent years - I got through the survey remarkably quickly. It took just a few hours.

  • This is my hedgerow plot. In the fortnight between the recce and the survey, the verge was mown as you can see! But the survey was relatively unaffected since the the width of the plot is 1 metre from the centre of the hedge and includes relatively little verge. Despite the mowing, it was my richest plot.

  • One of the grassland 5 x 5 metre plots marked out with canes and string. This one contained Southern Marsh Orchid.

  • Typical view of one of the grassland plots with, amongst other things, Red Clover, Yorkshire Fog, Red Fescue, Meadow Vetchling and Meadow Buttercup.

  • A very unexpected pleasure in one of the grassland plots was this Quaking Grass. I would have missed this if I had not been surveying the plot carefully. It's the first time I've found it anywhere close to where I live!

  • I could not believe my luck when I found this lovely pond with rich marginal vegetation during the recce. I surveyed a 1 x 25 metre plot along the margin on the far side.

  • A view into the pond margin plot. The Southern Marsh Orchid is actually just outside the plot, but the Yellow Flag is in along with Meadowsweet, Soft Rush and much more.

  • Branched Bur Reed with some Greater Reedmace in the background.

I'm no expert botanist, but I know my local flora well enough to survey my plots at the 'inventory level' which means that I recorded every flowering plant (including grasses etc) that I encountered within them. But another great thing to recommend the NPMS, particularly for beginners, is that you don't have to survey at this level. You can also choose to survey at 'indicator level' or 'wildflower level' - both of which involve recording a restricted set of the species present. These key species are listed in the survey guidance for each NPMS habitat. The 'wildflower level' is the easiest level and is great for those just starting to record flowering plants. But because the full list of species for any set of plots in an NPMS square will be reasonably short (I had around 30 species in my richest plot), beginners will rapidly find themselves getting to grips with most of the plants present in their plots over the first few years, so people are likely to progress rapidly from wildflower to indicator level (the NPMS 'target' level) and beyond.

Unlike many taxa that the Tomorrow's Biodiversity project focuses on, flowering plants do not want for people skilled in their identification and survey. However, as the the research and consultation phase of the project highlighted, there is a glaring gap in UK biodiversity monitoring when it comes to these incredibly important taxa. Other monitoring projects, such as the infrequent Countryside Survey, are neither regular or secure enough to provide the fine-scale monitoring that the NPMS could give us if it is supported by enough botanists - existing and new.

One thing I've learned during the years I've contributed to the BBS (20 if you recall) is this: two decades in the life of a man or a woman can just evapourate like dew. You look over your shoulder and, when you look back, your babies are grown. You drift into a springtime reverie and when you rouse yourself it is autumn. But 20 years in the life of the BBS or, let us hope, the NPMS is hard data; real currency. It never disappears - its relevance and value only grows as it ages. I very much hope that in 20 years time I am still involved as an active participant in the NPMS and that it becomes as much a part of my life, and of my annual calendar, as the BBS has.

(And just an early heads-up to the NPMS organisers: when I make that 20 year milestone, I'll be wanting a badge.)

Further Information

Botanical identification training has been a mainstay of the Field Studies Council natural history offering for some 70 years and we offer a full range of courses on botany every year. We also offers a full suite of bird identification courses, some of them run in association with the BTO.