Alex Cripps – Conservation Graduate Trainee
Having worked at the North York Moors National Park Authority for just over a year now I’ve been lucky enough to get the opportunity to develop a variety of new skills. During my second year I’m really keen to increase my botanical skills and so I recently attended a Phase 1 Habitat Survey course at Plas Tan y Bwlch – the Snowdonia National Park’s Study Centre in North Wales. The course was led by Hilary Wallace, an expert in botanical surveys.
A Phase 1 Habitat Survey is a widely recognised survey type used to classify and map habitats over large areas of countryside, relatively easily and quickly. It’s a useful way to conceive a habitat inventory of an area.
The Phase 1 mapping technique has been used across the UK since the 1980s. Using a standardised method means that results are consistent and comparable across the country. The technique involves a trained surveyor mapping habitat according to vegetation onto an Ordnance Survey map at a scale of 1:10,000. Around 90 specified habitat types are used to classify all terrestrial and intertidal habitats, and each habitat type has its own specific colour and alphanumeric reference code. Interesting points of detail can also be added as target notes, for instance drawing attention to rare species found.
Grasses, sedges and rushes are key species to help classify particular habitat types, although they are sometimes not the easiest to identify! Having familiarised ourselves with some specimens in the classroom, we improved our id skills in the field by following through vegetation keys. Identifying these species allowed us to determine what habitats we were looking at – was it an acidic or neutral grassland? semi-improved or improved*? and what were the dominant species?
Out in the field we used the short alphanumeric reference codes on our maps, but back in the classroom we added the colour system, making it easy to see the distribution and extent of the different habitat types we had just mapped.
A Phase 1 Habitat Survey is designed to be a rapid survey covering between 1 to 6.5km per day. We were somewhat behind this initially, as it took us a whole day to map one farm holding. But with rain for most of the day and many different habitat types to learn, not to mention trying to identify a blade of grass through a hand lens in the wind and rain, I think we did quite well!
We have a Phase 1 Survey from the late 1980s which covers the whole of the North York Moors National Park (143,600 hectares). The maps were coloured by hand and the effort that went into it must have been huge. It is unlikely to be redone any time soon. So instead it is updated on a piecemeal basis.
Phase 1 maps are extremely useful for identifying areas of conservation importance, areas that may benefit from more detailed surveys and areas where to focus conservation work. I am currently working on our Habitat Connectivity programme which involves assessing priority areas to create better and bigger areas of good habitat and connecting these together to help wildlife move freely through the landscape. Our Phase 1 map provides the initial overview of habitats and an indication of where to concentrate my efforts, which I can then follow up on the ground.
All in all it was a fantastic course with a great mix of classroom based work and site visits to enjoy the beautiful Welsh countryside…even though it turned out to be a wee bit damp, but that’s what makes the countryside the way it is!
*improved in this context means land which has been heavily altered by grazing, drainage and/or the addition of fertilizer, herbicides, manure etc. and so only limited diversity remains.