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Monitoring is defined as ‘observing the quality of something over time’ with the intention of taking action if that quality declines. This distinguishes it from surveying, which is simply collecting information on something with the intention of assessing its quality.

Successful monitoring projects are very hard to find in ecology. The systems are complex and there is no culture of scientific investigation in the nature conservation sector. Traditionally, ecological management is experience-based rather than evidence-based and not formally reported. This is changing, with many organisations expressing a desire to move to a more empirical approach towards ecological management.

Prerequisites for monitoring

One cannot undertake a scientific monitoring exercise if one is emotionally or financially committed to a particular outcome. It is very difficult for a site manager to assess the quality of their own reserve, because of course they do not want to believe in a negative outcome. It is vital that monitoring exercises should be devised by someone without a vested interest in the outcome, and it is also vital that all such exercises should be open to discussion and debate.

If you find yourself believing passionately in any of the issues raised by a monitoring exercise, you are probably too involved to be able to give an unbiased opinion. Think of it as simply finding out how the ecosystem responds to an intervention. Try to leave the human factor out of it.

How to design a monitoring protocol

There are so many factors involved in any ecosystem that it is difficult to be sure what is the cause of any particular effect. However, we can design simple exercises such as measuring the abundance of species over a period of time, and experimenting to see which management regime produces the best outcome for that measure. To do this, one should think about scientific processe such as  experimental plots, controls and replicates. Including such features in a management exercise makes the monitoring potentially easier and more powerful.

The best monitoring exercises are designed in advance and in popular terms are perhaps best phrased as a bet with a bookie:

  • I bet there will be more butterflies in this field if we start cutting the grass.

That won’t do. The bookie would never take such a bet because it has no properly defined terms. You need to be more precise:

  • I bet that there will be more larvae of this particular species of butterfly at this particular date in three years time in this field if we cut the grass twice a year than in this other field where we don’t cut the grass.

The bookie might take that bet, because any fair-minded person could agree on the outcome. Of course there is a danger to you: a fire in your field might wipe out the butterflies in your field, and that has nothing to do with your management process. But barring incidents like that (which happen all too often) there is every chance that your monitoring protocol will succeed and an unbiased outcome will be achieved).

The trick, of course, is to come up with a question that is simple enough to achieve an unambiguous outcome whilst also being powerful enough to answer the question that you really wanted to ask.

Axiophytes and axiozoa

To monitor the conservation status of nature reserves and wildlife sites it is a good idea to have a simplified set of indicator species that signify overall favourable status. Axiophytes are these indicators - the plants that reflect high conservation value. We understand that the presence of many axiophytes will probably indicate that other, unmeasured, species will also be present. Therefore we can simply monitor axiophytes to get a good picture of the overall health of an ecosystem.

Axiozoa are intended to do the same for animals, but there is far less evidence of their value in this context. There are papers exploring the use of butterflies and other animals as indicators, but generally they are less easy to survey and less valuable in predicting ecological change. However, this is an area of active research.

One advantage of axiophytes is that they are already designed to answer a question, so you do not have to design a monitoring protocol in advance. You can monitor the conservation status of any site simply by counting the number of axiophytes present in a period of time (we recommend a decade). More axiophytes means it is improving for overall conservation value. Fewer means it is deteriorating. You can also compare sites and prioritise conservation actions using simply the number of axiophyte species present.


All monitoring exercises should be published in some form before they are undertaken. This idea of stating clearly what are your anticipated outcomes and how you will measure them is a very important one. If you only monitor retrospectively it is easy to forget what your original ambitions were and to design an experiment that measures what you already believe to have occurred. So all good monitoring protocols should be clearly dated and published before any action takes place and then reported on after the agreed period.

All information relevant to the monitoring exercise should be made fully available to the public, and ideally one should invite and welcome comment and criticism. All the feedback you can get can only help you to understand the subject better. If there is any hint of secrecy or exclusiveness (e.g. the use of obscure jargon) then one would be wise to doubt the validity of the exercise.

The role of SEDN

SEDN can assist in monitoring exercises by providing data, hosting for plans and reports on our web sites, and sometimes even surveys to support monitoring exercises. An example is at Bomere Pool, where we agreed to monitor the effects of management on the rare plants and the dragonflies. You can read the reports here. We would be pleased to hear from anyone who is interested in managing sites and species, monitoring them, or researching into monitoring.