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.
Helen Miller, Innovate UK (Apr 2018), £999,960
Elisabetta Groppelli, David Rowlands & Stanley Lemon (University of North Carolina), Medical Research Foundation Fellowship (Apr 2018), £293,494
Nikesh Patel, Medical Research Foundation fellowship (Apr 2018), £290,976
Jessica Kwok & Ralf Richter, Leverhulme Trust (Apr 2018), £298,273
Julie Aspden, Royal Society (Apr 2018), £20,000
Liz Duncan, Royal Society (Mar 2018), £14,602
Alex O'Neill & Ryan Seipke, BBSRC (Feb 2018), £45,489
Jim Deuchars, Royal Society (Feb 2018), £16,300
Stefan Kepinski & Netta Cohen, Leverhulme Trust (Feb 2018), £320,387
Lisa Collins, BBSRC (Feb 2018), £49,950
Lars Jeuken, BBSRC (Feb 2018), £30,000
Nikita Gamper, BBSRC (Feb 2018), £30,000
Alison Baker, BBSRC (Feb 2018), £30,000
Scott Bowen, Leducq Foundation Grant (Feb 2018), £28,470
Jessica Kwok and Ronaldo Ichiyama, International Spinal Research Trust (Feb 2018), £94,450
Alex O'Neill, Oxford Drug Design (Jan 2018), £86,098
Dave Lewis and Colleagues in South Africa, HEFCE Global Challenge Research (Jan 2018), £48,000
Sarah Calaghan, Ed White, John Colyer, Isuru Jayasinghe, BHF (Jan 2018), £128,308
Christine Foyer and Alison Baker, HEFCE GCRF Grant (Jan 2018), £71,158
Alison Baker, Yun Yung Gong and Lindsay Stringer and ICRISAT India, HEFCE GCRF Grant (Jan 2018), £27,000
Graham Askew, Simon Walker, BBSRC (Jan 2018), £699,781
Jennifer Tomlinson, Royal Society (Jan 2018), £512,801
Alison Dunn, NERC (Dec 2017), £18,000
Jennifer Tomlinson, Royal Society-Research Fellows Enhancement Award (Dec 2017), £94,681
Helen Miller, AB AGri Grant (Dec 2017), £73,600
Simon Walker, Royal Society Enhancement Award (Dec 2017), £10,000
Carrie Ferguson, Bryan Taylor, Harry Rossiter, The Physiological Society (Dec 2017), £7,392
Ralf Richter, Royal Society (Dec 2017), £6,000
Christine Foyer, British Council Newton Fund (Dec 2017), £49,840
Adrian Whitehouse and colleagues in School of Chemistry and University of Liverpool, MRC (Nov 2017), £622,319
Michelle Peckham, Neil Ransom, MRC (Nov 2017), £495,159
Dave Lewis, British Council India (Nov 2017), £22,540
Elton Zeqiraj, Royal Society (Nov 2017), £15,000
Hannah Dugdale, Royal Society (Nov 2017), £15,000
Shaunna Burke, Cancer Research UK Innovation Grant (Nov 2017), £20,000
Alex O'Neill and colleagues in Chemistry, BBSRC (Nov 2017), £431,865
Jessica Kwok, Wings for Life (Nov 2017), £87,365
Tom Bennett, BBSRC (Oct 2017), £523,679
Neil Ranson, Darren Tomlinson, BBSRC (Oct 2017), £494,318
Nikita Gamper, BBSRC (Oct 2017), £490,426
Amanda Bretman and colleagues from UEA, NERC (Oct 2017), £430,886
Juan Fontana, Rosetrees Trust consumables grant (Oct 2017), £22,500
Helen Miller, DSM Nutritional Products AG (Sep 2017), £69,988
Neil Ranson, Juan Fontana, Mark Harris, Michelle Peckham, Ralf Richter, Peter Stockley, Patricija Van Oosten-Hawle and colleagues in Engineering, FMH and MAPS, Wellcome Trust Equipment Call (Sep 2017), £418,000
Jamie Johnston, Physiological Society (Sep 2017), £10,000
Frank Sobott, Adrian Goldman, Mark Harris, Andrew Macdonald, Stephen Muench, Sheena Radford and colleagues in FMH and MAPS, Wellcome Trust Equipment Call (Aug 2017), £415,000
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