The question ” How do community groups decide which monitoring method to use?” is the starting point for the Biodiversity Monitoring Guide for Auckland Community Groups (a new resource being funded by Auckland Council). To see whether we are on the right track with developing the draft Guide, Peter Handford (Groundtruth) and I ran a focus group meeting with six Auckland Council (AC) staff. We then caught up with Derek Craig, Restoration Manager for the Kaipatiki Project for further input. Notes on the previous AC workshop and interviews with community groups can be found here.
The role of our small team – Peter Handford (Groundtruth) and Karen Denyer (National Wetland Trust) and me (people+science), is to develop the text for the Biodiversity Monitoring Guide and provide pointers for how the content may best be presented (by the end of December 2017). We have nearly finalised the list of c.60 standard monitoring methods to be included across Auckland’s main ecosystem types i.e. forest and scrub, wetlands and estuaries, lakes and streams, and dunes and beaches. We have also fleshed out sections including Getting started; Key restoration activities (e.g., pest animal and weed control, and replanting with native species); Determining your monitoring questions, Writing a monitoring plan; and Reporting on the data. As straightforward as we are attempting to make it, monitoring is still a big, technical subject.
Printed vs online content
The final format of the Guide is still in discussion. Printed material and online material differ greatly in how content can be accessed and worked through. It’s likely to take some time to develop a fully functional online interface for the Guide, so a printed version will have to cater both for community group and AC staff needs. The best mid-term scenario would be a slim printed version with supplementary information (e.g., summaries of individual monitoring methods) downloadable from a website – so watch this space.
Unpacking the decision-making process
The Guide has a dual purpose: help both groups and AC staff systematically decide on the most suitable monitoring methods for each project. Often, groups will contact AC and staff will talk through the necessary steps for developing and implementing a monitoring plan to suit the group’s project objectives.
The focus group was tasked with laying out the steps for designing a personalised monitoring programme for a community group. Here is a summary of the discussion they have with groups:
STEP ONE: Collect background information from community groups
Determine group and site characteristics
AC staff systematically go through a list of questions to build a foundation for the group’s restoration project. This includes basic information on the site (size, location etc), determining project objectives and the level of resourcing and skills a group has – this if often overestimated. Existing commitments also need to be taken into consideration. Groups’ financial status will open opportunities to use contractors for monitoring e.g., to save volunteers’ time, fill skills shortages or use technical equipment the group does not have.
Set goals (and use terminology consistently)
Understanding why the group wants to conduct monitoring and what their wider goals look like is also part of the conversation. There is a tension here in the use of technical language with groups e.g., activity vs outcome monitoring. On one hand, new terms enhance group’s familiarity those commonly used by AC staff ensuring consistency in messaging while some groups may feel the terms are a barrier. Overall, the Guide is an opportunity to make the terminology clear and consistent across stakeholders and to provide supporting documentation via a glossary.
Define project success
In questioning what groups want to monitor (e.g., if there are target species), another approach is to ask what project success looks like both in the intermediate and longer-term. Further questions include: Have any other restoration activities been tried anything before? How has existing monitoring progressed – have any lessons been learned?
Keep good records
Existing restoration and monitoring activities need to be recorded as both activities may change over time. Quality records will also help groups communicate with other group members and e.g., with funders and government agencies.
The discussion here includes the rigour/validity of data and the applicability to the project, along with the expected timeframes to get answers from monitoring. How and where the data will stored, as well as who will have access to it are further dimensions.
STEP TWO: Form monitoring questions and select the best monitoring methods
AC staff determine groups’ wants vs their needs, taking the group’s skills sets into consideration. Further considerations are monitoring the known limiting factors in an ecosystem (e.g., pest numbers) vs the outcomes of site restoration (e.g., increases in desirable bird spp.). The latter is important given groups’ growing interest in quantifying their restoration gains through meaningful indicators. There are opportunities to provide groups with different monitoring methods that can be done at a local/small scale e.g., bird counts and weta boxes.
AC staff will play a vital role in helping groups understand monitoring protocols included in the Guide and in applying general ‘rules of thumb’. A greater level of detail on each of the Guide’s monitoring methods will be online. Either way, the monitoring methods recommended to each group need to fit multiple criteria for the group to sustain their monitoring efforts. Also consider data comparability across groups/projects.
STEP THREE: Implementation and support
Given the iterative nature of monitor-review cycle, AC staff can streamline groups’ review processes and help them to adapt their monitoring programme to reflect review outcomes (this may include re-calibrating equipment). To level the playing field both across diverse groups and degree of council engagement, ongoing monitoring workshops should be considered which would also provide groups with an opportunity to share their knowledge. This raises the question of the level of initial and ongoing support that AC can provide groups with their restoration projects.
- Contractors/Tenders where groups have funding in lieu of volunteer labour
- Guide needs to help draft a plan and provide necessary templates
- Provide for different data expectations at different project phases
- Highlight monitoring as an engagement tool
- Provide a pathway/walk-through to help groups with bigger picture decision making
- Acknowledge the difference between projects in urban and rural settings
- Health and Safety requirements
- Case studies to put monitoring into real situations
The practicalities of monitoring water
Groups monitoring streams (irrespective whether they are urban or rural) are challenged by the high number of variables that affect water quality. Reference sites can be used to discuss a long-term plan for change, and AC staff can raise awareness of the extended timescales needed to see changes in some parameters. Other practicalities include:
- Moving beyond monitoring the problem to monitoring the outcome of management activities
- Placing water chemistry monitoring in the context of what groups are interested in from a biodiversity perspective
- Helping groups develop monitoring programmes over factors they have influence over
- Including ecological monitoring (e.g., fish, mahinga kai as a driver, macroinvertebrates etc)
- Picking the right thing to do at the right habitat point, e.g., riffles are a priority for water quality sampling while runs/pools are best for spotlighting fish
- Consider the equipment and calibration needed
- Monitor the bare minimum and interactions to complete the picture (timescale considerations)
The Kaipatiki Project
Restoration manager for the Kaipatiki Project, Derek Craig underscores the importance of using simple stories to inform local residents of the health of the native bush and streams in the Witheford and Eskdale Reserve Network (Birkdale/ Glenfield, Auckland). Developing basic observation skills (framed around a simple story) is the first step toward engaging residents in the restoration activities and monitoring:
If you see two fantails that’s ok, but if you see four, that’s a family
It took a year of meetings between Kapatiki Project staff, AC and community members to choose which control and monitoring methods to use in the local reserves and how best to set up the experimental design. Long debates took place to find socially acceptable solutions for pest animal control: whether to use poison or not, live traps vs. kill traps. With the help of Craig Bishop (Auckland Council Research and Evaluation Unit), peanut butter filled chew cards made from corflute were chosen as the monitoring method. The cards are a basic tool primarily for mapping the distribution of rodents and possums. They’re cheap, and only need a hammer and a nail to set up, and produce results that are mostly easy to interpret – ideal for volunteers with varying skill levels. This meant that a network of 1000 cards were able to be deployed across some 70 ha of local reserves.
Where to from here?
Our team will run another round of meetings with AC staff and community members in October to gather feedback on the next draft of the Guide. The final text version will be produced by the end of the year. Then it’s over to AC graphic designers to work their magic on the content and the Biodiversity/ Biosecurity team to negotiate space on the Council website to house online components of the Guide.