Who: Academics and volunteer naturalists
What: A tool for biodiversity exploration, education, and investigation
Why: Bristol's first ever BioBlitz provided an opportunity for academics and volunteer naturalists to combine knowledge and expertise with public engagement experience to deliver an exciting biodiversity event for local people
Where: Ashton Court Estate, Bristol
When: June 2009
The Bristol Natural History Consortium (BNHC) is an alliance between the city's two universities and nine local wildlife organisations and agencies. Building on the success of Bristol's Festival of Nature, BNHC launched the South West's first ever terrestrial BioBlitz event over two days in June 2009. A tool for biodiversity exploration, education, and investigation, the Bristol BioBlitz was a 30-hour race against the clock event where scientists, naturalists, students, members of the public, schools and community groups worked together to find, identify and record as much wildlife as possible in the Ashton Court Estate. The estate, on the edge of Bristol and North Somerset, covers 850 acres of woods and open grassland and contains a great variety of wildlife - the presence of rare woodland beetles earned the site SSSI status in 1998.
* The BioBlitz name and concept is not registered, copyrighted, or trademarked; it is an idea that can be used, adapted, and modified by any group to freely use for their own purposes.
Free to all, the aims of the Bristol BioBlitz were threefold:
- To find and identify as many different species as possible in a 30-hour period.
- To collect useful records, to be used by the Bristol Environmental Records Centre, the National Biodiversity Network and local and regional park authorities.
- To enthuse and engage the public with their local outside spaces, nature and wildlife recording.
The target audience was school children from Years 6–10 during Schools Day on the Friday, and local families and individuals on the Saturday. The event was a great success: over 70 naturalists worked with 500 members of the public over the two days to find and log 637 unique species.
Results and outcomes
What worked well
The event created a fantastic team spirit amongst all those involved. The scientists and naturalists valued being part of such an event, getting the chance to tell the public about their area of expertise and meeting like-minded people from across the UK. The schools valued the opportunity for their students to take part in a genuine scientific survey and learn and be enthused about science and nature outside the classroom. Offering free transport enabled students in a socio-economically deprived area to attend.
When the clock was stopped, it was thrilling to announce that this team effort had discovered 569 different species in just 30 hours (final tally 637), including: great crested newts in the Estate's ponds; 79 moth species and eight species of bat found during dusk surveys; three types of orchid, and 55 species that had not been recorded in the Avon district before. This information, carefully recorded by the BRERC, will help conserve the region's plant and animal life in future.
The BioBlitz was a completely new concept to all those involved in the event. BioBlitz 2009 was an incredibly valuable pilot for organisational procedures, what to do and what not to do to run it more efficiently and effectively in the future. With 2010 being the International Year of Biodiversity, BNHC are planning to link up with other BioBlitz events across the UK to create a high profile national programme.
"A great way to get people learning about biodiversity by getting in amongst it."
"We are an inner-city, multicultural school in an area of high socio-economic deprivation. Many of our children rarely leave Eastville. BioBlitz was a meaningful learning experience for our children. The event and activities were outstanding in terms of the quality resources, support staff and provision. We have been able to follow up the activities back at school by using your website and as an opportunity for numeracy and literacy. You have even inspired us to think about conducting our own BioBlitz in our school grounds next year!" Teacher Stuart Albery, May Park Primary School, Bristol
"The children and young people got to have some great outdoor experiences and the chance to get one to one with nature. And of course contribute to our tally of species. I feel we really enabled young people to engage who would have not otherwise thought twice about a shieldbug!" Ed, BioBlitz Naturalist
What didn't work well
For the most part the BioBlitz was a complete success in terms of achieving its public engagement and volunteer targets. What was thrown up on the day were a number of smaller logistical issues:
Scheduling: The BioBlitz was a completely new event format for BNHC, which made logistical planning quite difficult. Originally we had tightly scheduled each naturalist for allocated time slots. However, on the day of the event it became quite clear that the surveys would have to react to public demand, and thus we had to draw up a new schedule of rotating survey walks according to what naturalists were available, and how many people were in attendance. This actually worked very well, and in retrospect would have made planning much easier!
'Experts': Some key feedback we received was misunderstanding around the word 'expert' and preference in favour of the term 'naturalist'. Using the word 'expert' was felt to put pressure on amateur naturalists without encyclopaedic ID skills as well as belittle those amateurs who had classified themselves at 'guides'. This was not intended, and the term was used simply as an indication of who would be leading the surveys for the public. This will now change so that in future we will be working with 'naturalists' and not 'experts'!
Location: Though Ashton Court provided an excellent venue for scientific data with numerous habitats and hotspots of biodiversity, the size of Ashton Court meant some hiccups for the public. First of all the location of the Home Base was somewhat lost in the park estate, and out of eyesight for all main car parks. Though we branded entrances and put directional signs throughout the park, it was difficult to attract the passing public. The second issue was linking the public with surveys already in progress. Though each survey was recorded in a specific site by OS references and a detailed map, the distances were quite far for people to go, and thus sometimes they had to wait for the next walk rather than joining one in process.
As a public engagement opportunity for academics, the BioBlitz offers experiential learning opportunities for engaging with local people. However, the reasons more academics don’t get involved were perceived by those who took part to include: a lack of time, a lack of institutional or employer support, irrelevance to their own field of study and a fear of engaging with the public. These barriers could be overcome by engaging academics in the event development process; creating an easier environment for academics to work in, and offering them a ‘backroom’ rather than public-facing role and briefing sessions with school groups beforehand.
Delivery through Partnership
Funding from Science City Bristol, Defra and a charitable trust paid for a dedicated project manager for 80 days, 2 days/week from late September to the end of June, to put the event together. In addition to staff time, other major costs were office overheads, marquee and generator hire, catering, security and marketing and printing.
In-kind and financial support was key to the delivery of the project. Consortium members provided survey and media equipment and the City Council waived the event licensing fees. In addition, other organisations were involved in the 'Discovery Tent', providing activities and information on other ways to get involved in wildlife ID and recording. Volunteer recruitment and marketing of the event benefitted from the existing networks of Consortium members, who emailed relevant departments and organisations to encourage people (naturalists and volunteers alike) to attend. Posters were displayed throughout Bristol and at the four universities in the area, and adverts were placed in local events listings and newsletters (e.g. Bristol Naturalists Society).
Event sponsors IOP Publishing created a dedicated logo to brand the event (from which information maps for the site, banners, posters and T-shirts for the volunteers were created). The profile of the event was raised further through dedicated webpages linked to the main BioBlitz website. New technologies were deployed to extend the reach of the engagement exercise across the web, which explored how to use different media for this new model to offer visitors more opportunities for interaction, and a quick updating mechanism. The front page was linked to a free WordPress blog, an invaluable tool for reporting at the event on all the latest news, photos and tally. This was linked in with Flickr and YouTube (both also free to use) to bring the event alive with photos and videos.
An event of this size requires a Project Manager in post for at least 4 days per week for 6 months.
When recruiting scientists and naturalists to lead the surveys avoid using the term "expert" as this deters many suitable candidates. Define volunteers according to their level of expertise: "Naturalist" = good knowledge of certain species and a high level of ID skills; "Guide" = some interest in certain species but needs ID books to help identify species. But be aware that the terms, though clearly defined in all the recruitment literature, may still cause confusion with some volunteers assigning themselves to the wrong group.
Finish registration a number of weeks prior to the event to allow plenty of time to timetable everybody, answer questions and chase up schools to confirm numbers and reinforce staggered arrival times for smooth running of briefings.
Timetable each person’s activities and locations precisely. To avoid confusion and duplication a more rigid timetable and information system showing who is looking for what types of species and in what areas of the site is needed.
Source plenty of detailed ID guides – going down to species level, rather than more general books – you can't have too many.
Promote it as a "public" event at every opportunity, listing specific times that wildlife walks are happening.
When selecting a site be mindful of mobile phone and internet connections – these need to be able to cope with the amount of media being uploaded (BNHC were fortunate to have a dedicated satellite van available for the event).
Name: Savita Custead
Name of organisation: The Bristol Natural History Consortium
Telephone: 0117 9304926