Countryside Survey - measuring change in our countryside
What is the UKCEH Countryside Survey?
UKCEH Countryside Survey has been monitoring the countryside of Great Britain since 1978, recording status and trends that inform decision-making. Since 2019 the monitoring has transformed into a NERC funded research platform that utilises an annual rolling program to measure soils and vegetation that will repeat ~5 years. This makes the program more resilient to annual weather events such as flood and drought.
Countryside Survey provides a uniquely powerful lens on the way common plants are distributed across the countryside and how they have changed in abundance over time. Common plants are important because they make a disproportionately large contribution to ecosystem functioning and therefore to the delivery of services that benefit humans (grassland agriculture, carbon storage, alleviating flooding downstream, nectar provision, soil stabilisation, noise mitigation, air pollution and lowland flooding reduction and provision of a breeding habitat for many bird species). Rare species are the jewels in the crown, but the more common plants are the heavy lifters that freely deliver many aspects of human life support. It is therefore vital to know how they are changing and why.
Soils grow our food, store more carbon than forests for combating climate change, contain a quarter of global biodiversity and provide important resources such as antibiotics but are vulnerable to human activity and degradation. Monitoring the state and trend of soils is the only way to assess their condition and protect this valuable resource. Caring for soil and the ecosystems they support must rank alongside air, water and biodiversity for maintaining earth's life support systems and our nation’s heritage.
Why observe changes in soils and vegetation?
The robust statistical design of the survey, that co-locates plant and soil measurements, offers opportunities to study how the plant-soil-system is responding to climate and land use change. Combined with UKCEH air and water quality monitoring, it enables us to determine impacts of pollutants on vulnerable systems. For example, air pollutants impact soils and plants directly and indirectly. Being able to simultaneously measure their changes can answer questions about the recovery of soils from historically high sulphur deposition and whether these wider, external drivers have held back or facilitated land management for food and timber production or to foster other public goods such as nectar production and habitat restoration. Moreover, the data provides input to other national initiatives such as the Office for National Statistics environmental accounts. Internationally, it provides a response to the United Nations F.A.O. call to monitor the status and trend of soils, and the IPBES.
Because Countryside Survey is an unbiased sample of the soils and common plants of the wider countryside it also tends to focus on those habitats that occupy the largest land area. These constitute the rural factory floor of the British countryside. They have attracted billions in agricultural support and agri-environment funding, produce respectively 52% and 30% of the nation’s annual demand for food and wood and provide the ecological fabric within which rarer habitats and species as well as human settlements are embedded. Countryside Survey provides a unique evidence base.
This website provides the latest information on the Countryside Survey for the public, students, scientific researchers and policymakers. It also provides access to the findings, reports, data and analyses from the earlier Surveys.