Plugin the gap...reflections on teaching QGIS for the FSC. Guest blog by Matt Davies

Matt Davies, FSC Associate Tutor

Matt Davies teaching QGISI like maps. I always have. I can thank both my father, a town planner, and the Scouts for nurturing my interest. With such a background, it’s no surprise that that during my university degrees I developed an interest in GIS! After periods mapping coastal and marine habitats at the Joint Nature Conservation Committee I moved into urban conservation at Greenspace information for Greater London. In 2015 I became a freelance consultant and in 2016 began as an associate tutor for FSC. Since that time, I’ve been supporting the project, broadening the scope of QGIS training on offer and helping FSC reach a wider audience. In this article I wanted to reflect a little on my time as a tutor, on QGIS, and on the wide range of people who have come on the courses. If you thought GIS wasn’t for you, think again!

QGIS interfaceFor those of you who haven’t come across QGIS it’s a freely available open-source Geographic Information System (GIS) that matches the functionality and usability of commercial products like MapInfo and ArcGIS. It has been adopted by governments, businesses and NGOs around the world. QGIS is revolutionising access to high-level GIS amongst professionals and amateurs alike and biological recorders are becoming aware of the rich set of tools it offers them to display, interpret and query biological records.

QGIS plugins are extensions to the QGIS program created independently of the core software and made available through the QGIS Official Plugin Repository. They can be accessed and installed from the QGIS program itself by any user. The Field Studies Council Tomorrow’s Biodiversity project developed one such plugin specifically for biological recorders. The plugin  is designed to address two things to make working with biological records in QGIS much easier for UK users: a. dealing with Ordnance Survey grid references and b. data structured as biological records (who, what, where & when). The plugin is so well regarded it won the Best Practice Knowledge Sharing CIEEM Award in 2017. The tool allows users to create OS grids and map species records from a spreadsheet with ease, and also map species records directly from the NBN Atlas, using webservices.

A QGIS course in actionI must say, I thoroughly enjoy teaching QGIS with the FSC. What an experience. I’ve delivered the ‘Holistic and Practical Introduction to QGIS’ at four sites so far: Juniper Hall, Slapton Ley, Malham Tarn and Margam Park. Each has its own character and charm, though the food is universally scrumptious. Although we cover a lot of material on the course and inevitably spend much time at our laptops, we do always get to enjoy the setting too. I hear again and again how it helps to go somewhere new to learn, something about the new perspective opens minds.

All sorts of people come on the courses. It always amazes me. From recent gradates who go on to become FSC tutors to university butterfly researchers. From county recorders producing a species atlas to landscape architects. From volunteer managers to agricultural specialists assessing grant applications. The age range is also fantastic, from teenagers to retirees. It’s great to bring such a range of people together and to learn from each other’s experiences. The key to retaining knowledge is to apply the lessons as soon as possible after the course. To this end, I always make time in the final session to a. return to any aspect of interest and/or b. to work with data that participants (optionally) bring with them. I find this helps give people confidence when they get back to the office, home or lab-bench.

Matt DaviesI firmly believe there has never been a better time for those interested in the UK environment to get started with GIS. QGIS is powerful yet user friendly, free, and comes with plugins designed with you in mind. So if you are an ecological consultant, wildlife professional, biological recorder or recent graduate and would like to learn how to use QGIS to visualise, explore and analyse spatial data, I have some courses coming up (see links below) that may be of interest. The plugin will be covered in-depth on both.


Upcoming courses

Juniper Hall, Surrey, Wednesday 29 August to Friday 31 August 2018

FSC offers a range of training courses in QGIS that provide a holistic and practical approach to using these tools for biological recording.  More details on upcoming QGIS courses, along with other courses to improve your surveying, mapping and recording skills, can be found on the FSC website


Matt Davies

Matt Davies is a professional ecologist and geographer with 20 years’ experience in the UK environment sector. He is a associate tutor for Field Studies Council and CIEEM, providing QGIS training. He is Managing Director & Principal Consulatant at