In this issue of Sphere we cover agri-environment monitoring, coastal monitoring and how we are helping to enhance environmental protection in the Caribbean. As we approach the bat survey season we take a look at some recent work. Lastly we review how drone data capture is making an impact in agricultural applications.
LANDMAP – A National Landscape Resource for Wales
LANDMAP is an all-Wales digital landscape resource where landscape characteristics, are recorded and evaluated in a nationally consistent data set. LANDMAP spatial datasets are named as follows the Geological Landscape, Landscape Habitats, Visual & Sensory, Historic Landscape and Cultural Landscape. Importantly since it was established LANDMAP has been used by Local Planning Authorities in numerous areas of activity from Local Development Plans to Local Landscape Character Assessments. In short it has become indispensable and continues to evolve.
Environment Systems has been contributing to LANDMAP for over thirteen years, specifically in creating the landscape habitat layers, sitting on the LANDMAP steering group as Landscape Habitats expert and helping to design and implement the LANDMAP monitoring system. At the beginning of 2018 we carried out further work to fill in gaps in the data for Cardiff and Swansea. At the end of 2018 we embarked on a project to create a new Cultural Service layer, a response in part to recent legislation, such as the Well Being and Future Generations Act (2016) and the Environment Act (Wales). Cultural benefits are often perceived as being difficult to measure or access information about, as a result they are often overlooked and are not always integrated into decision making. This omission reduces understanding about the benefits that people gain from the natural environment. For this project we drew data from all the existing LANDMAP data layers, statswales.gov.uk data on nationality and Welsh language, National Park boundaries, dark sky reserves, Wales tranquil areas and Wales Heritage sites. The new classifications resulted in a number of new maps and associated data that make up the start of the new Cultural Service layer. This is the first phase of a multi-phase project which will result in a rich set of information about the cultural heritage of Wales. Future phases might include collecting data about or from communities themselves.
In addition to this work we have been working on a LANDMAP Landscape Habitat assessment for the whole of Wales and for the six NRW operational areas. This delivers a statistical analysis with maps and graphs, essentially to make the LANDMAP data more accessible for professionals.
Coastal monitoring frameworks to map coastal and terrestrial habitats along the English coastline were established in 2012. The maps are used by Local Authorities, the Environment Agency and Natural England as part of a long term program for operational and strategic shoreline management and also contribute to reporting and monitoring requirements for Natura 2000 sites. Specifically they contribute to:
- Identification and quantification of regional coastal change
- The assessment of losses and gains for the Environment Agency’s Regional Habitat Creation Programme
- Identification and strategic consideration of coastal flood and erosion risks
Since becoming a preferred supplier in 2012 Environment Systems has carried out projects in the North West (2014), the South West (2015-16) and the South East (2017). In 2018/19 we are delivering re-surveys of the South West including the Isles of Scilly. More recently we have won the contract for the terrestrial and intertidal ecological mapping of a section of the North East coast running from the Scottish border to Flamborough Head. The project covers the mapping of all coastal and terrestrial priority habitats from aerial photography captured in 2017 and aerial photography due to be captured in 2019. In addition we will be creating a new habitat map of the same area from a dataset of black and white orthorectified photography created in the late 1940s by the RAF. This will enable the authority to assess the change that has taken place over the last seventy years.
Enhancing Environmental Protection for the Turks & Caicos Islands and British Virgin Islands
In early March Environment Systems Ltd ran a workshop involving staff from the government of the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI) and the National Parks Trust of the British Virgin Islands (BVI). Delegates studied techniques to uncover the hidden value that the environment is providing in terms of essential services, such as water, food and flood resilience. They also learnt how to explore environmental indicators and how they can be developed to monitor any changes that impact long-term environmental sustainability.
During the workshop delegates learned how to use new types of data such as satellite imagery to analyse, monitor and assess environmental risks. This will enable them to identify opportunities in the future, that both safeguard and enhance the islands’ environments and ensure their resilience. This has been brought into particular focus by the recent hurricanes. New IT equipment has also been delivered as part of this project to ensure its long-term impact. The staff involved will benefit from the continuous and up-to-date stream of Sentinel satellite data delivered direct to their computers.
Now that staff are able to generate the mapping and modelling themselves, the islands can really start to benefit from these new techniques and sources of data. This will also improve the capability of officials by enabling them to present evidence in their day-to-day work. The workshop was funded by the UK’s Darwin Plus program.
Agri-Environment Monitoring and Evaluation
We have been working as part of a consortium with CCRI (Countryside and Community Research Institute) and LUC, an environmental consultancy.The consortium has recently been successful in winning three agri-environment monitoring and evaluation projects under the Defra/Natural England ESME framework. Agri-environment schemes are important because they set out to provide funding to farmers and land managers to farm in a way that supports biodiversity and enhances the landscape.
In one of these projects we are looking at SSSIs (Sites of Special Scientific Interest). These sites are ‘special’ because of their habitats, species or geology. Agri-environment schemes have an important role to play in ensuring that they are maintained and protected. SSSIs contribute to a government goal of restoring 75% of over a million hectares of terrestrial and freshwater protected sites to a favourable condition securing their wildlife value for the long term. SSSIs represent some of the best of England’s biodiversity sites and it is important to Defra and Natural England to be able to evaluate the contribution that agri-environment schemes make in delivering for biodiversity when they occur on SSSIs. Our task was therefore to evaluate the evidence of change in condition, assess the evidence of the relationship between agri-environment schemes and changes in SSSI condition and understand what motivates owners and occupiers to manage their SSSIs.
One of the other projects won under this framework seeks to quantify the retention and loss of grassland established through ‘arable reversion.’ Arable reversion occurs when farmers are paid a subsidy to lay aside arable land to grassland in the interests of biodiversity, enhancing landscape quality and conserving wildlife. This task uses the existing ‘CROME’ crop map of England and other data and compares it against current Sentinel satellite data, available directly from our own Data Services. Through spatial analysis it is possible to identify those parcels which have reverted to ploughing. When asked, farmers suggest that they will maintain arable land converted to grassland once the subsidy has ended but analysis suggests that this is not always the case. Understanding the motivation behind these decisions is important.
Over the past twelve months we have been involved in numerous projects, including two large-scale wind farms, a gold mine, various barn, church, bird hide, house conversion and renovation projects. The wind farm projects have involved our surveyors walking numerous bat activity transects covering over 270 km of heathland, bog, coniferous and broadleaved woodland, pasture and grasslands. Sound recordings confirmed at least eight clearly identifiable bat species.
At the gold mine we have just finished completing the hibernation surveys and before this we carried out a combination of automated remote detector surveys at the mine’s working entrances (adits) combined with harp trapping and mist netting surveys. The swarming surveys that were carried out clearly identified the most used mine entrances. The surveys demonstrate how the mines are being used in close proximity to nearby designated sites for lesser horseshoe bats. This enabled us to assist in the preparation of a European Protected Species license application and method statement for the remedial works to several parts of the mine. Without the bat survey work it is not possible for the other environmental and structural survey works to be completed. A planning application is currently in preparation and will be submitted later this year to re-open the mine.
The volume of data recorded during these projects (800 GB+) meant we had to follow a rigid quality assurance process when assigning species prior to statistical analysis. Taking a statistical approach (using R-Studio analysis software), delivers more robust and useful information to the wind farm and mine engineers.
Drone Data Analysis
UAS/UAV or as some prefer to call them, drones, are providing us with a significant source of data primarily for agricultural applications. Over the past 5 years we have developed an impressive capability of data analytics based on the use of rotary and fixed wing platforms, multiple sensors and data processing workflows. In the UK Environment Systems has an established network of qualified and agriculturally focused operators that regularly carry out targeted flights and capture data to our own tight specifications and quality assurance procedures. We help our clients select the appropriate platform and sensor solution to meet their precise requirements.
Depending on the platform, flying at heights of up to 400 feet drones can capture up to 100ha per flight and depending on the sensors, at a ground sampled distance (GSD) of 3cm. In other words very high resolution. The sensors themselves vary too. RGB sensors deliver 3cm GSD while the multispectral sensors required for detailed crop analysis deliver 10cm GSD.
We have been extensively involved in agricultural crop trials, weed mapping, crop growth stage monitoring and modelling for yield forecasting. Many of our clients have benefited from the use of high resolution vegetation indices such as such as OSAVI, NDVI, NDRE, and GDVI for monitoring growth and development of crops at a sub-trial plot or sub-field level.
Weed or invasive species mapping such as black-grass, provides a good example of what can be achieved. We have now developed a suite of algorithms and an operational workflow for black-grass detection in winter wheat. Initially developed at trial plot level, the algorithms have been fine-tuned and scaled to function at a field-scale. The algorithms have an operational ‘sweet spot’, where best results are achieved when the black-grass is heading over the crop canopy at a significant density so that it can be detected from the imagery.
These data can be made available to suit a wide variety of farm management and other application software platforms.