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blog > An insight into Citizen Science with VWT

2nd May 2024

Citizen science is built into much of VWT’s conservation work on threatened mammals in Britain, Ireland and mainland Europe. It provides a way for anyone, regardless of experience and background, to get involved in the scientific process of research — at VWT, this is particularly through gathering information on the species we focus on.

Citizen science has not always been known as citizen science — or had the recognition it deserved. There are records from the 1800s of scientific research and findings based on information sourced from others. Charles Darwin himself appealed to others to share their observations via letters. It wasn’t until the late 1900s, however, that citizen science was used as a term and is now widely used where ‘citizen’ denotes a citizen of the world. Other terms include community science and volunteer monitoring. When VWT talks about members of the public or volunteers ‘monitoring wildlife’ for the purpose of study and research, we are talking about citizen scientists.

VWT’s own recognition of citizen science in its work has grown in the last decade. We celebrate this year’s Citizen Science month in April by writing about some of the current VWT citizen science opportunities, future opportunities and published research thanks to help from citizen scientists.

National Citizen Science Surveys

VWT runs National Citizen Science Surveys for certain species such as the polecat in Britain and the Irish stoat in Ireland where the input from citizen scientists is invaluable in building a picture of how some of these more elusive mustelid species are doing nationally. It would take a huge amount of time, resources and funds to have a prescribed national survey carried out by wildlife professionals. Instead, we can appeal to the enthusiasm and awe that people have when they have a wildlife sighting.

Many citizen scientists will share their general wildlife sightings with a national database such as the UK’s National Biodiversity Network and Ireland’s National Biodiversity Data Centre, or with local biological record centres. VWT’s National Citizen Science Surveys aim to encourage more people to submit records of specific species. By doing so we engage citizen scientists to contribute to our understanding of mammals of concern to VWT and together we can create a more detailed picture of how a species may be faring. The information is analysed to look at habitat use, population trends and current distribution, which can help to inform conservation recommendations.

VWT is currently running two national citizen science surveys: the Irish Stoat Citizen Science Survey across the island of Ireland and the National Polecat Citizen Science Survey in Britain.

Irish Stoat ©Carl Morrow


Polecat captured on trail Andy Lawson


Pine marten distribution and conservation

In recent years, records of pine marten sightings and targeted expansion zone surveys carried out by citizen scientists have provided valuable data on how the pine marten population in Wales is spreading out. Camera trap footage captured by volunteers and citizen scientists also provides evidence of pine martens breeding each year.

This has led to the Martens on the Move project, thanks to funding from The National Lottery Heritage Fund. One of the key elements to this project is to encourage the involvement of anyone, particularly those without a background in science and wildlife conservation, to participate in the monitoring and conservation of one of Britian’s rarest carnivores – the pine marten. We are excited to engage others to get involved in this project through volunteer monitoring. Find out more via our social media channels as well as the Martens on the Move website page.

Setting up trail cameras to monitor pine marten den boxes ©Victoria Chanin


Annual wildlife monitoring at bat reserves

VWT manages a number of buildings as horseshoe bat roosts, referred to as ‘Bat Reserves’. We carry out annual winter hibernation counts and summer emergence counts for lesser horseshoe bats and greater horseshoe bats at these reserves. These counts are largely carried out by VWT volunteers and feed into the National Bat Monitoring Programme, which is a citizen science initiative from Bat Conservation Trust.

In Ireland, where only the lesser horseshoe bat occurs, we will be delivering a workshop later in April for volunteers in County Kerry to encourage more people to get involved in monitoring these rare bats.

As well as feeding into national monitoring schemes, these surveys feed into VWT’s own research and informs future conservation recommendations. One such study investigated how work to enhance the buildings for horseshoe bats was having a positive impact on those populations of greater and lesser horseshoe bats compared to the populations in unmanaged sites. This research was published in 2022 in the Conservation Evidence journal.

Waiting for lesser horseshoe bats to emerge during an emergence count at Llangovan Church ©Dee Davey


Barbastelles – an acoustic-based method for locating maternity colonies

In 2021, fresh out of lockdown, we were able to offer volunteers an opportunity to get outdoors and survey local woodlands with static bat detectors and trial a method to determine the likely presence of barbastelle colonies. This was part of a PhD project funded by the University of Sussex and Vincent Wildlife Trust. A total of 77 woodlands across four different areas of England were surveyed with the help of volunteers within a limited seasonal window. The information collected was used to validate the use of an acoustic-based survey to identify high probability woodland sites for the barbastelle and was a great contribution to the success of the research, which was published in PeerJ in 2023.

This methodology is now being applied as part of VWT’s Natur am Byth! Barbastelle Project in Pembrokeshire, funded by The National Lottery Heritage Fund, which offers opportunities for people in Pembrokeshire, regardless of experience, to take part in the monitoring and conservation of this rare woodland bat. The project is another stepping stone to a wider-scale, long-term Barbastelle Monitoring Programme for citizen scientists!

Setting up acoustic detectors to locate barbastelle bat communities in Pembrokeshire.


There is no doubt that citizen science is growing. Opportunities are more widely available and accessible thanks to technology and the recognition of the important contribution of citizen scientists — and it is thanks to citizen scientists using this technology to record and submit data in the field that we can gather important information. Sometimes it just comes down to having eyes on the ground looking for pine marten scats on a transect survey or a chance wildlife encounter, but however it happens, together we can make a big difference to the understanding and conservation of mammals in Britain, Ireland and mainland Europe.

A huge Thank You to everyone, past, present and future, who contributes to the scientific study and understanding of mammals with VWT.

Useful links and resources

Book references for the history of citizen science

Cooper, C. 2017. Citizen Science: How Ordinary People Are Changing the Face of Discovery. Duckworth Publishers, London.

Hecker, S., Haklay, M., Bowser, A., Makuch, Z., Vogel, J. and Bonn, A. 2018. Citizen Science: Innovation in Open Science, Society and Policy. UCL Press, London.

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