The annual badger census in Oxfordshire's Wytham Woods, organised by Earthwatch scientists Dr. Chris Newman and Dr. Christina Buesching, revealed astonishing numbers of cubs for 2005. Volunteers spotted 52 cubs, suggesting a total of around 75 cubs born this year, and setting a new productivity record for the Wytham population.
Dr. Chris Newman and Dr. Christina Buesching (Oxford University's WildCru) are monitoring changes in the distribution and abundance of mammal species such as badgers, voles, mice and deer, on the Wytham Estate in Oxfordshire. Their findings will be used to determine best practice for estate management and to encourage the recovery of species like the bank vole through a clearer picture of how different species interact together.
Here, Dr. Newman explains how Earthwatch volunteers are crucial to the research:
What is it like working with an Earthwatch team?
It's fun! Part of it is work, but the other part is getting to know the rest of the people on the team and making new friendships. The "team" concept develops quickly and soon all the field tasks appear to be group challenges as much as individual ones with everyone having some strength and ability to offer.
I have no previous experience. What help could I be?
Science is nine parts labour and one part analysis. Nothing that we do in the field is especially complicated nor demanding and anyone can quickly become competent at surveying for field-signs or setting/checking traps with minimal training. The important thing is developing confidence in new abilities, with confidence everything is possible.
What do you think are the most important things that team members learn whilst in the field?
That they can be useful and make a real contribution to the collection of data and that these data ultimately feed into significant decisions on conservation policy. Frequently people see "science" as elite, but quickly realise that much of what goes on just requires hard work, commitment and a sense of humour. Volunteers also learn that there are many other people around who are trying to make a contribution to conservation and biodiversity monitoring - it's not always easy to collect data and affect changes, but all anyone can do is try.
In what ways could their time in the field be useful for people to improve the local environment back in their own community?
There are animals all around us in pretty much every community and many of these creatures come from groups of species found pretty much on every continent, for example "mice". It's amazing how much evidence animals leave of their presence, and by knowing how to recognise these signs it becomes straightforward to monitor the changing fortunes of populations with regard to changing environmental conditions. Even a small area of common-land or woodland, if managed and monitored effectively, can support a fascinating array of species, and from these islands of biodiversity and interest, the surrounding areas and the minds of others in the community can be ‘colonised' to further increase the opportunity for environmental enrichment. Why is your research important?
Why is your research important?
Mammals are often at the top of the food-chain. Even rodents rely on appropriate habitat management and a quality environment to thrive. Mammals thus act as ‘indicator species' and a lack of a member of a regionally typical mammal community can be indicative of a profound environmental issue. Mammals are also good indicators of change. The small rodent species breed quickly and numbers rapidly alter to reflect changing environmental fortunes. By contrast, some rarer species at the top of the food-chain can quickly disappear if there are problems in their habitats.
Mammals have also not been systematically monitored in the UK until very recently, so there's lots of work to be done.
Finally, mammals have an ‘incommensurable value', as quality of life indicators. We all like to think of animals being around in our environment, even if we rarely see them; without them the world would be a poorer place.
How important is the work of volunteers to your research?
We simply couldn't manage to monitor all the species we need to without the input of volunteers. Working with small rodent species requires setting hundreds of traps and volunteers provide a massive time saving.
Learning how to manage, train and deploy volunteers is also very important, both for our project and for conservation generally - there aren't enough professional academics to undertake all the work necessary to monitor and protect all our flora, fauna and their habits; volunteers are essential.
What have your main achievements been whilst working with Earthwatch volunteers?
Learning what is and isn't possible and optimising the amount of useful data that can be collected with a team, while trying to maintain a sense of task-diversity and fun. We were very gratified to be able to publish a paper on using volunteers for mammal conservation in Conservation Biology last year; a paper for which we've had almost 100 requests for reprints!
Join Dr. Newman in the field
Photo credits (top to bottom): © Chris Newman: © Laura Carr