Making Earth Observation work for UK biodiversity
Monitoring UK habitats
The UK supports a wide range of habitat types, encompassing a
great variety of biodiversity and its associated benefits.
There are a number of statutory designations protecting the natural
environment under both national and international law, and
government policy drivers. A key to the conservation of
priority habitats is a robust system for surveillance of the extent
and condition of these areas.
Recent reviews (JNCC, 2008) have demonstrated that there are
significant opportunities to contribute to the knowledge on,
location of, and changes to important, less common and more
intricate habitats, particularly those that fall outside the UK’s
network of protected sites. These include many EU Habitats
Directive Annex I and BAP Priority Habitats, which have a
legislative requirement to report on their status (every six years
for the Annex 1 habitats, for example). Due to their distribution
and comparative rarity, these higher priority habitats are
particularly difficult and expensive to map and monitor using
traditional ground survey techniques.
The UK country conservation agencies are considering how to meet
these demanding requirements for habitat surveillance within
tightly constrained resources in future. Recent research and
inventory programmes have shown that the improving technology and
capability of Earth Observation (EO) techniques, together with the
development of geoinformatics, may supplement traditional ground
survey for mapping and monitoring biodiversity.
‘Earth Observation’ can refer to any system that collects data,
from a distance, about the Earth’s surface or atmosphere – these
include true-colour and infrared aerial photography, as well as use
of LiDAR and radar, generally from sensors mounted on aircraft or
EO techniques and approaches have potential to assist current
surveillance and monitoring requirements and deliver cost
efficiencies, both by adding new knowledge and guiding existing
effort. Large areas of the country can be analysed
systematically, allowing fieldwork to be targeted to assist with
habitat protection and in the reporting of biodiversity and
ecosystem goods and services.EO can also measure useful attributes
thatcannot easily be measured in the field, such as productivity,
to assist with condition monitoring.
There are a variety of EO-related projects underway by
conservation bodies at a range of scales, from local to EU and
global; some examples are discussed briefly at the end of
this section, to put this work area into context.
JNCC and DEFRA have implemented a three-phase project to assess
the potential of EO and geoinformatic techniques and technologies
for habitat surveillance, within existing resources. The work
aims to identify parameters for priority habitats and ecosystems
that earth observation approaches could measure more efficiently
than is currently achieved by, more widely used methods,
particularly for monitoring and reporting against the Habitats
Directive and the UK Biodiversity Action Plan.
The project intends to provide cost-effective EO methods that
can be used by the country conservation agencies to close high
priority gaps in biodiversity surveillance; further, it will
identify the skills, knowledge and technology transfers necessary
for the integration of EO techniques into operational surveillance
tools for UK biodiversity conservation. In line with current
strategic thinking, the project will also consider how EO can
assist with surveillance and monitoring needs for assessment of
habitat and ecosystem services.
Phase 1: Review and scoping potential.
The aim of Phase 1 of this project was to review recent
activity, reporting on the potential of using EO techniques for
operational biodiversity surveillance of terrestrial and freshwater
habitats. The review report summarises the current use of
such techniques by UK country conservation agencies, and identifies
their potential as a cost effective solution to current
surveillance and monitoring needs.
There is strong evidence that EO and geoinformatic techniques
together have a valuable role to play in an integrated approach,
offering a more efficient and cost-effective means of surveillance
for many habitats and contributing to effective targeting of field
survey for habitats that will continue to require field survey for
A range of recommendations were made for future actions to
promote best practice and facilitate uptake of the most promising
techniques, grouped using key themes originating from the
As well as describing the current state of
use of EO in biodiversity conservation, Phase 1 also developed the
Crick Framework. This provides a tiered method to explain how
well EO techniques can be used to identify particular features on
the ground (e.g. many features of grassland habitats can be
identified with EO and clarified with field survey, but subtidal
habitats are very poorly characterised by current EO
techniques). The framework goes on to give detailed
information on the use of EO techniques for identifying BAP
Priority habitats and Habitats Directive Annex 1 habitats,
including what techniques have so far been developed, what the
potential of EO is for that habitat and what contextual data is
like to also be required.
Phase 2: Pilot Project
This work builds on the work of Phase 1 and has reviewed the
detailed content of the Crick Framework, including having an
independent peer review of that content. It is also carrying
out a pilot project aiming to develop new techniques for
identifying Annex 1 and BAP Priority Habitats.
Project area – Norfolk
The main Phase 2 pilot project focuses on
testing the Crick Framework approach for using EO for operational
habitat surveillance and monitoring. The pilot uses a range of EO
techniques, testing the transferability of existing methods within
Norfolk, examining which BAP Priority and Annex 1 habitats can be
found and where the approaches are repeatable. Analyses of
the data collected in this project are also being used to explore
techniques for assessing habitat condition.