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Monitoring or monitoring? Do you know the difference?

Updated: Feb 16, 2021

One of the common misconceptions in conservation is that biodiversity monitoring and conservation project monitoring are the same thing. In fact, they are very different things, with different purposes however, occasionally the two do overlap. As a conservationist, it's important to understand the distinction between each of these in order to ensure your own investment of time and resources into monitoring is both useful and cost-effective.

Biodiversity monitoring

Biodiversity monitoring is likely to be exactly what you picture in your head. The monitoring of any biodiversity over a given time period fits into this category. The data might be used for a paper, a report, submitted to a biological records centre or an online database. Biological recorders may monitor biodiversity for a given conservation charity, or simply as a hobby.

Biodiversity monitoring is well established across the world and incorporates many taxonomic groups. In the UK there are numerous record centres, naturalist groups and citizen science monitoring projects that undertake biological monitoring regularly. This interest in recording the natural world (which exploded in the Victorian era), has led to a wealth of expertise amongst 'amateur' naturalists, many of whom have dedicated their lives to obscure taxonomic groups.

So what is project monitoring?

Project monitoring differs slightly from biodiversity monitoring and although it will (and should) utilise the pool of techniques and expertise described above, project monitoring is limited and designed specifically around wildlife conservation project goals.

For example, imagine you manage a beaver reintroduction project which has an aim to improve water quality. It's likely you would monitor freshwater invertebrate diversity as an indicator of water quality. However, you're unlikely to need to monitor breeding birds as (despite the additional information being of interest) it does not tell you whether you have successfully achieved your aim. The distinction here is in the need for the data.

Many projects make the mistake of collecting too much information, which seems harmless but it can be a pretty effective way of a project manager wasting time and resources. It's critical that if you are running a project - which in 90% of cases will be running on limited funds and resources - to collect the data you need to show to your team, the public, politicians and potential donors whether your project is actually working.

Finally, project monitoring is not limited to monitoring wildlife alone. Most conservation projects nowadays have a human element which might be improving knowledge, changing attitudes or engaging new groups of people in accessing natural spaces. All of these project aims must also be monitored by the project if they are to demonstrate that the project is working.

Choosing what to monitor

In an ideal world, long-term and consistent monitoring of all biodiversity would be the norm. But in today's world that is simply not possible.

When choosing what to monitor as part of a project, managers can be spoilt for choice and it's tempting to simply go with the latest techniques or lean on your strengths (for example you already have a great birder monitoring your breeding birds at your site), but you should always be objective and choose things relevant to your project.

A really good way of choosing (and sticking to) your monitoring targets is to create a monitoring plan for your project. A monitoring plan defines what to collect as well as how and then to collect project data. A monitoring plan will even define who in your team of staff and volunteers is responsible for collecting the data you need. My quick and easy steps to creating a monitoring plan are covered in another Vision Wild blog, or you can learn more about monitoring through my various services such as the 'grow' or 'nourish' programmes.

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