A PhD student at the University of Leeds has developed a fast, accurate and inexpensive method of creating detailed vegetation community maps over very large areas.
Working in partnership with the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority, Ute Bradter from Leeds' Faculty of Biological Sciences, has collated existing data (such as soil type, altitude, slope and aspect) and using a sophisticated statistical model, predicted the distribution of plant communities at a high resolution in the Yorkshire Dales, over 1600 km
Her results, published today (01 June) in the British Ecological Society's
showed an accuracy of up to 92 per cent, comparable with the traditional mapping method of on-site surveys conducted by trained ecologists.
Detailed and high resolution vegetation maps noting species distribution are a crucial resource for land management, conservation planning, environmental monitoring and research. But manual mapping is a slow and expensive process, and faster, reliable methods are much needed.
Automatic mapping using aerial or satellite photography has been attempted, but until now, achieving reliable degrees of accuracy has proven difficult.
"What Ute has achieved is remarkable," says her supervisor and co-author Professor Tim Benton. "To put it into perspective, it would take sixteen years of day-in, day-out sampling for one experienced ecologist to replicate this particular mapping exercise by hand."
Vegetation in an area is classified into different communities depending on the range of species and their abundance. Communities can be described in detail, for example there are 22 vegetation communities on British heaths alone.
The Leeds research combined information and datasets from a range of readily available sources, such as soil maps, standard ordnance survey maps and aerial photography. The predictions were categorised into 24 National Vegetation Classification groups (plus an extra catch-all category of "wood") to a 5m resolution.
"The statistical model is highly accurate because of the diverse range of information we used," says Bradter. "The high resolution aerial photography gave us added colour and texture - for example to differentiate wooded areas from other areas - but we incorporated additional physical information into the model, such as topographical measurements of slopes and elevation, and information from different spatial scales."
"Our approach shows that even for relatively complex vegetation classifications it is possible to produce accurate maps over hundreds of square kilometres. We're particularly pleased given that some vegetation communities are difficult to distinguish even using trained field workers," she adds.
If further research confirms that the method performs as well in other environments, such as lowland areas, Bradter is confident that it could be used to accurately assess the conservation value of land in other regions and countries where similar datasets are available.
Co-author and Senior Wildlife Conservation Officer at YDNPA, Dr Tim Thom, says: "This method also has the potential to be used for a wide range of other environmental purposes, such as identifying rare habitat, or where drainage ditches are grown over and so pose a flood risk, or where erosion-risk is high in areas of bare peat. What's most exciting is that if we can map the plants accurately, we can also make a better guess what animals live there too, so we could also remotely monitor biodiversity across the farmed habitat or predict the potential value of setting aside pockets of land for conservation as part of agri-environmental schemes."
The research was funded and co-supervised by the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority.
Photo copyright Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority.
Ralf Richter, David Brockwell, Eric Hewitt, Jessica Kwok, Emanuele Paci and MAPS/FMH, BBSRC (Jun 2017), £600,000
Eric Blair, Adrian Whitehouse, Nicola Stonehouse, Alison Baker, Richard Bayliss, Joan Boyes, Ryan Seipke, Sally Boxall and MAPS/FMH, BBSRC (Jun 2017), £376,000
Stefan Kepinski, Yoselin Benitez-Alfonso, Tom Bennett, Michelle Peckham, BBSRC (Jun 2017), £331,000
Roman Tuma, Lars Jeuken, Paul Millner, Sheena Radford, Peter Stockley and MAPS/FMH, BBSRC (Jun 2017), £222,000
Vas Ponnambalam, Darren Tomlinson, Stephen Wheatcroft, BHF (May 2017), £107,878
Graham Askew in collaboration with Bangor University, BBSRC (Mar 2017), £477,383
Stephen Muench, BBSRC (Mar 2017), £132,945
Nic Stonehouse, MRC (Mar 2017), £906,341
Bill Kunin, Steve Sait, BBSRC (Mar 2017), £602,831
Adrian Goldman, EU (Mar 2017), £546,576
Sheena Radford, Wellcome Trust (Mar 2017), £1,836,482
Beatrice Filippi, Royal Society (Mar 2017), £15,000
Jamie Johnston, Royal Society (Mar 2017), £15,000
Tom Bennett, Royal Society (Mar 2017), £15,000
Ryan Seipke, BBSRC (Feb 2017), £52,116
Mary O'Connell, BBSRC (Feb 2017), £46,986
Hannah Dugdale, NERC (Feb 2017), £504,138
Anastasia Zhuravleva, EPSRC (Jan 2017), £100,792
Richard Bayliss, Cancer Research UK (Jan 2017), £1,600,000
John Barr, EU (Jan 2017), £339,000
Mark Harris, Royal Society (Jan 2017), £250,000
Alison Dunn, NERC (Jan 2017), £105,000
Alex Breeze, Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund (Jan 2017), £180,000
Alison Dunn, NERC (Dec 2016), £18,000
Lisa Collins, BBSRC (Dec 2016), £1,681,835
Brendan Davies, Leverhulme Trust (Dec 2016), £247,555
Alan Benson, Mark Drinkhill, Ed White, British Heart Foundaion (Dec 2016), £217,223
Adrian Goldman, Royal Society (Dec 2016), £82,999
Lisa Roberts, Alex Breeze, Brendan Davies, Timothy Devinney, Oliver Harlen, Joseph Holden, Anthea Hucklesby, Pamela Jones, Philip Mellor, RCUK (Nov 2016), £484,172
Lisa Roberts, Alex Breeze, Brendan Davies, Timothy Devinney, Oliver Harlen, Joseph Holden, Anthea Hucklesby, Pamela Jones, Philip Mellor, Wellcome Trust (Nov 2016), £119,343
Katie Field, Rank Prize Funds (Nov 2016), £20,000
Jessica Kwok, Royal Society (Nov 2016), £14,948
John Ladbury, Cancer Research UK (Oct 2016), £4,250
Miriam Wittmann, Martin Stacey, Edward Vital, Lupus UK
(Oct 2016), £34,010
Valerie Speirs, NC3Rs
(Oct 2016), £90,000
Nicola Stonehouse, Morgan Herod, David Rowlands, BBSRC
(Sep 2016), £436,424
Joseph Cockburn, Wellcome Trust
(Sep 2016), £100,000
John Barr, Public Health England
(Sep 2016), £94,471
Helen Miller, DSM Nutritional Products A/S
(Sep 2016), £54,680
Steven Clapcote, Vitaflo International Ltd
(Sep 2016), £39,285
Juan Fontana Jordan De Urries
, Royal Society
(Sep 2016), £21,793
Jing Li, Sarah Calaghan, Mark Drinkhill, British Heart Foundation
(Sep 2016), £117,585
Sheena Radford, Alison Ashcroft, BBSRC (Sep 2016), £457,216
Patricija Van Oosten-Hawle, An-Jung Chen, David Westhead, NC3Rs
(Sep 2016), £354,456
Glyn Hemsworth, BBSRC (Sep 2016), £1,024,034