Why we need your data

The Environment Agency needs your information about rare wildlife. We regulate others and we impact the environment ourselves. To carry out our business, to protect and enhance wildlife, one of our most fundamental needs is for information about where rare species and habitats are.

We collect information ourselves with two regular survey programmes:

  • our Biological Monitoring Programme – which looks at species assemblages in rivers and tells us about water quality,
  • our fisheries surveys – which tell us about the health and status of fish.

These surveys concentrate on gathering information to understand trends and assess the overall ecological health in rivers. Intermittently we also carry out targeted surveys for a handful of protected species – ones most closely associated with rivers. Records for protected species, from all our surveys, were loaded on to the NBN Gateway in August 2012.

How do we use your data?

Information provided by the local records centres and national schemes and societies is central to our role as a:

  • regulator issuing permits for activities like abstracting water or spreading waste to land;
  • developer when we build flood defences or a river gauging station;
  • environmental champion working towards environmental targets set by the Water Framework Directive, for example.

As a regulator

The variety of permits we issue reflects the many ways individuals or businesses affect the environment. Examples include operating waste sites, disposing of pesticide washings, pumping water from a construction site, installing an anaerobic digester, stocking fishing lakes, irrigating crops and so on. It’s a big list.

For every permit we consider the potential for an impact on all wildlife, including local wildlife sites, and an extensive list of vulnerable species and habitats. Without data from local records centres and national schemes and societies and many others we would not be able to do this.

In 2005 the Hampton review, commissioned by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, directed us to reduce the burden of regulation on business, and we changed the way we regulate. We pulled together and simplified permits with the least risks, giving them standard rules that applicants had to adhere to. These became Environmental Permits, and by 2007, screening for their impacts on the environment, was automated.  The result has been considered a success; providing faster and cheaper permitting where it’s appropriate and allowing experts to concentrate on complex permits.

We have developed a Geographic Information System (GIS) with computerised OS maps overlaid with distributions of protected species and habitats. It has a risk based screening tool to identify permits that require a conservation and wildlife assessment before they can be determined. The screening tool was a runner up in the 2009 IEEM ‘Best practice awards’.

The screening tool takes account of the varying sensitivities of each species and habitat, so the distances searched differ. For example, Tassel stonewort Tolypella intricate is searched for up to 200m from an application to discharge 20ml sewage to surface waters, but 50m for burning waste at docks. For Greater water-parsnip Sium latifolium the distances are 100m and 0m respectively. If any of the protected species or habitats we believe could be affected have been recorded within the zone of influence of an application, then the application may need to be modified or could be turned down. We always attempt to allow permits and often give advice before they are submitted so that wildlife is taken into consideration before an application is made.

As a developer

We build a variety of structures; flood banks and walls, gauging stations, flood relief channels, fish passes, flood gates etc. These developments may involve construction of; access roads, housing for telemetry equipment, weirs or constrictions to moderate flow, and also often include activities we permit for like abstractions or storing waste.

As the ‘developer’ we consider the possible impacts of these activities on all protected species, since we have to consider the checks that apply to permits plus the checks that apply to activities that fall under planning law. As well as protecting them from effects of our actions, we also look for opportunities to improve conditions for wildlife.

We use our GIS to screen our own activities, but staff will review all the sensitive wildlife in the proximity rather than using the set distances of the screening tool.

As an environmental champion

Where we have taken on responsibilities to reduce or halt the loss of species and habitat, all the information available is reviewed to set appropriate targets and design projects. Viewing the distributions of the target species or habitat, and others it has close relations with, will be one of the first steps. Our projects often result in us working in partnership to improve our surveying.

GIS layers

To create the maps we use in our GIS, we take copies of data sets from many sources in many formats and create GIS ‘layers’ for protected species and habitats. It means we ‘glue together’ records from volunteers and professionals, our own survey and from collaborations.

These layers are held on secure servers at our offices. Each record is tagged with; the data owner, and the restrictions that apply to sharing the record. No records are shared with other organisations or individuals unless we have permission.

Recorder and determiner names are an important part of a biological record, and are handled securely in accordance with our duties under the Data Protection Act.  We use codes for a handful of species that sources have asked us to treat with special attention, due to the fact they are extremely rare or subject to illegal activity. Only Technical specialists in Permitting Teams and our local Fisheries and Biodiversity staff have access to the codes.

Producing these GIS layers is resource intensive. Imagine identifying all the sources for great crested newt data in Cambridge say, negotiating access, handling the various formats and then picking and amalgamating current records.  This would take days. We do this for 100s of species and habitats and for the whole of England and Wales. Across the Environment Agency this costs in the region of £100,000 every year. For many species we can now approach a single source: the NBN Gateway, and receive a single format at a scale set specifically for us, for the whole of England and Wales. In fact, we couldn’t use the volume of data we do now without it.

Working in partnership with data providers and NBN

Our aims are to have more maps for rare species and habitats, which we could rely on for screening. And that means we need records that reliably and accurately describe the occurrence of rare species and habitats for the whole of England and Wales. We need to be able to say they are not out of date, and that we haven’t missed important data.

Ideally we would like to encourage:

  • greater access: we are asking local records centres and national schemes and societies to encourage all recorders to allow their records to be put onto the NBN Gateway, giving us full access to the records but restricting public access if necessary. We rarely take records greater than 1km into consideration, as we can’t use them to inform a decision.
  • more frequent updates: many records, once they are collected, aren’t available to us for many months resulting in ‘protected’ species going unscreened. The development of integrated online recording will enable records to be verified and made available for use much more efficiently. Importantly for us, this could make it possible for a record to be taken into consideration from the day it is made, and we are keen to promote this way of working;
  • improvement of attributes to describe life stage, numbers, signs of presence etc. This will allow us to treat records of adult otters and holts, for example, differently;
  • currency: as records age, their relevance in decision making reduces. We have a rule to pick out current records and we will be sharing this in future in the hope the community of experts can help us to refine it;
  • management of gaps: we are beginning to look at increasing our use of the tools that can predict areas where you could reasonably expect a species to occur in order to fill some gaps in data.

Lastly a thank you to everyone who has given the Environment Agency access to their data via NBN Gateway. We have a long history of supporting local records centres and national recording schemes, and we are indebted to them for enabling us to carry out the work we do that protects wildlife. We remain committed to supporting them in their work on data provision.

Written by Marina Flamank, Environment Agency