Ablaze with colour in autumn and carpeted with bluebells in spring, native woodlands are one of Britain's most prized natural treasures. New research is showing that the public together with scientists can play a vital role in their protection.
A study, carried out by scientists at Forest Research and Rothamsted Research in the UK, involved a survey of the Acute Oak Decline (AOD) disease which has affected oak trees across England and Wales. AOD reduces oak trees' ability to take up food and water, and has the potential to kill trees in 4-6 years. This threatens indigenous woodland and the many species of plants and animals that rely on oak trees for food and protection.
To make the survey even more far-reaching, the researchers also gathered sightings of AOD reported by concerned public volunteers. These 'citizen scientists' followed online instructions, and some even had training from Forest Research professionals on how to identify disease symptoms and to take non-destructive swab samples for experts to verify. The confirmed public sightings were compared with those of the scientific survey to determine how reliable they were.
This research provided a unique opportunity not only to map the known extent of AOD in the UK but to compare the results from historical and current records held by FR which were submitted by citizen scientists to that of data from a systematic and scientifically robust survey.
The results showed clear similarities between reports gathered from the scientific survey and those verified from the public volunteers. Both volunteers and scientists found AOD in central and southern England, whereas it was rare in Wales and in more northern and southwest areas of England. Help from the public can therefore play an important role in informing policy and management of woodland conservation, such as in helping scientists to predict which areas are at risk of AOD and other tree diseases, and preventing their spread.Consequently the researchers want to continue to involve citizen scientists in their work:
Observatree, an EU-funded citizen science project led by Forest Research which is training volunteers to identify and report tree pests and diseases. This approach can provide an efficient early warning system for pests and diseases, and our findings suggest volunteer detections can also be used to define the distribution of affected woodland.