Biological recording – the value of volunteers

Here in the UK we have an enviable number of volunteer naturalists, whose dedicated contributions of time and expertise help us to understand the state of nature and to assess the effects of environmental change.


Generating datasets that allow robust trends in species populations to be identified and understood requires investment and support – from the design of volunteer recording schemes and co-ordination of effort to the collation of results. In the UK, contributions to this required investment are made by partnerships comprised of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) [1] , the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), Statutory Nature Conservation Bodies [2]  and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH).  


There are several structured recording schemes following defined methods, which monitor:

– Birds (British Trust for Ornithology’s (BTO) Breeding Birds Survey (BBS), Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS) and Demographic Monitoring; The Rare Breeding Birds Panel (RBBP); The Goose and Swan Monitoring Programme (GSMP))   

– Butterflies (UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme (UKBMS))

– Bats (National Bat Monitoring Programme (NBMP))

– Plants and Habitats (National Plant Monitoring Scheme (NPMS))

Other, less structured recording efforts by a range of organisations covering a broad spectrum of taxa are supported through a Biological Recording, Analysis and Interpretation (BRAIn) partnership contract between JNCC and CEH. Investment in the NBN in addition to these recording efforts enables the maintenance and development of an effective collation and dissemination mechanism for species data [3]. 


In total, these species surveillance efforts from the UK’s volunteer naturalists contribute to UK trends for over 2700 species. This figure will increase in the next few years due to the recent launch of the National Plant Monitoring Scheme. The total annual financial investment by all partners to support the generation of this substantial body of knowledge is approximately £2.5million. A breakdown of this investment in different schemes by different partners is shown in Figure 1. 

Figure 1: Annual financial contributions to species surveillance schemes (including value contributed by volunteers) [4]

Figure 1 also depicts the results of a recent investigation undertaken by JNCC into the approximate value contributed to each of these schemes by volunteers. Calculations were based on the number of records undertaken annually, the average time to generate records within each scheme, and the Heritage Lottery Fund’s method for valuing volunteer time.
The value of volunteer time contribution across all structured schemes is estimated at around £8.6million annually, dwarfing the financial investment by government and NGOs. Furthermore, this £8.6million estimate is extremely conservative, with large confidence intervals, as it only includes the time taken for volunteers to undertake and travel to the structured surveys. Volunteers input vastly more to monitoring in unquantified contributions by leading workshops, entering data, undertaking internships, and funding their own travel. In addition, this £8.6million does not include the value of all of the unstructured records submitted to the NBN. This is a very challenging figure to generate accurately because of the difficulties in estimating how long it took volunteers on average to collect each of the 4.5 million annual data submissions. Despite the uncertainty, rough calculations indicate that it is reasonable to suggest that the NBN volunteer contribution value may be 8 figures, and is off the scale of Figure 1.
These recent calculations clearly indicate the effectiveness of a comparatively modest financial investment by government and NGOs in helping to support highly valuable biodiversity data collection. The partnerships supporting the schemes are using a successful model to work together and efficiently invest public and voluntary sector funding.  This study also particularly highlights the great importance of the goodwill and generosity of volunteer naturalists in helping us to understand the UK environment.
  NBN Research Remember that the NBN Secretariat is currently running a recorder motivation survey, so please do get involved and help out Ben Brown with his research too.  


[1] E.g. the British Trust for Ornithology; the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds; the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust; Butterfly Conservation; Bat Conservation Trust; Plantlife; the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland.

[2] Natural England; Scottish Natural Heritage; Natural Resources Wales; Northern Ireland Environment Agency.

[3 For more information on any of these recording schemes, see Annex 1 of this recent JNCC Committee paper “JNCC terrestrial surveillance: evaluation and developing a future strategy”.

[4] Note that the estimate for BRAIn recording only includes volunteer contributions from those volunteers organising the 85 schemes supported by the contract. The volunteer record collection supported by the investment in BRAIn is included in the unquantified NBN contribution.


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