It is one of the world’s most precious natural resources and is vital for growing the food that we depend on for survival.
But how much do you know about the soils beneath your feet and the creatures that make their home there?
As milder temperatures begin to arrive, it’s the perfect time to discover the world beneath your lawn by taking part in the OPAL soil and earthworm survey.
As well as learning how to identify the different worms in your school, garden or park, your results will help our scientists learn more about these often overlooked creatures.
You may also see some invasive species which eat our native earthworms and are slowly spreading across the UK.
The New Zealand flatworm, which arrived in Northern Ireland and Scotland during the 1960s, is dark brown, grows up to 17cm long and is covered in a sticky mucus which can cause reactions among those with sensitive skin.
The Australian flatworm, which is smaller and orange in colour, was first found in the Isles of Scilly in 1980 and has since spread through south west England.
Both of these species have become quite established in certain regions of the UK, but you can help to prevent their further spread by following a good biosecurity routine.
Plant scientist Dr David Slawson has been appointed as the new Director of OPAL, based at Imperial College London.
Dr Slawson, who previously worked at the Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera) and was involved in the development of the OPAL tree health survey, took up his new role on 10 March 2014.
He replaces Dr Linda Davies, who masterminded the creation of OPAL and spent six years at the helm of the project before stepping down at the end of 2013.
We caught up with Dr Slawson to find out a bit more about his goals, his advice for budding scientists and his passion for the Welsh coast.
What was your previous role?
Previously, I worked at Fera where I've undertaken a number of roles, including Principal Plant Health & Seeds Inspector with responsibility for managing national surveillance and outbreaks, including high profile campaigns such as Phytophthora ramorum; Head of Plant Protection Programme which delivers all statutory diagnosis, research and consultancy on plant health; and, most recently, Head of Plant Health Public Engagement where I've led some fun projects such as the Stop the Spread show garden at the 2013 RHS Chelsea Flower Show and the OPAL tree health survey.
In the last 18 months, I've been heavily involved in the Government’s response to the Chalara ash dieback crisis, where I have acted as an official adviser to the Secretary of State’s Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Taskforce and have helped to draft the new plant health strategy that will be published shortly.
What do you hope to achieve at OPAL over the next three years?
First and foremost having won the three-year, £3 million Big Lottery Fund project to extend OPAL to the rest of the UK, the small OPAL team must build relations with a new group of partners to successfully deliver the project. We recently met all the new partners and the energy and enthusiasm that they demonstrated makes me confident that this is the start of something special.
In addition, I must make it my mission to secure OPAL’s long-term future. My predecessor Dr Linda Davies started something special when she developed the OPAL concept and the baton has passed to me to make it sustainable.
What are you most looking forward to about working at OPAL?
Having worked closely with them on the tree health survey, I am most looking forward to working full-time with the OPAL team. They are enthusiastic and have such a great can-do attitude. I really want to see them flourish and fulfill their potential.
Also, having seen first-hand the landscape-changing damage that pests and disease can do to our woodlands and countryside, I am eager to raise people’s awareness of these and other threats to nature and inspire them to help protect our environment for future generations.
What advice would you give to people considering a career in plant science?
Follow your passion. There is a huge range of opportunities available for all interests. If you are happy never ‘leaving the cell’, then go for high-tech CSI molecular biology, but if you like being outside concentrate on ecology, woodlands or gardening which offer scope for more fieldwork.
And I know that it sounds boring but we also need policy-makers and administrators. Believe me, the cut and thrust of negotiating in Whitehall and Brussels can generate a real buzz too. Finally, there is a growing recognition that what is really important is the interaction between natural scientists and people. This opens up the world of social science, media and communications.
Where is your favourite place to enjoy nature?
I am never happier than when walking around or splashing about in the sea off the Welsh coast (‘splashing about’ is a fair description of my feeble attempts at surfing). Pembrokeshire is a real family favourite but if I had to pick one place it would be the majestic Mawddach estuary with the brooding Cader Idris on its southern shore. The area is fantastic for both coastal and glacial geography.
Shropshire County Council ran a field studies centre in the area and I was lucky enough to spend a week there when I was about 13 years old and then two further weeks during my A’ levels. I really hope that OPAL and our partners, such as the Field Studies Council (of which I am a life member), can inspire the same life-long passion in today’s youngsters.
How do you relax outside of work?
My main passion outside work, other than my family, is rugby. Since the age of 11, I have spent Saturday afternoons running around a rugby pitch, first as player and later as a referee. Sadly the legs are less willing these days but I am really lucky to have become an RFU-qualified referee coach.
We have a development squad of young, talented referees in Yorkshire and I act as a coach to two or three of them each year. This again gives me the opportunity to do my bit to enable youngsters to fulfill their potential. In addition, I do get the occasional ticket or two to watch England at Twickenham but I am not sure that that counts as relaxation!
Mawddach Estuary photo by Flickr user nualabugeye, some rights reserved.
Did you take part in the OPAL tree health survey last year? We need your feedback!
We're opening a two-week public poll today to find out what you liked and didn’t like about our seventh national citizen science survey, launched in May 2013.
It will take just a few minutes and participants will be entered into a prize draw to win a fantastic guide to British trees and a host of OPAL goodies.
We particularly want you to tell us about anything that prevented or discouraged you from submitting the results of your survey to OPAL.
The tree health survey will relaunch across the UK this spring and our feedback survey will help to make sure it’s easy for you to take part and send scientists vital records about our trees – from healthy specimens to those that might harbour pests and diseases.
One lucky winner will receive:
- a copy of the Collins Complete Guide to British Trees
- a tree ID poster for your wall
- OPAL guides to lichens and mosses that grow on trees
- an OPAL USB stick with all the resources you need to take part in other OPAL surveys
- a hand lense to examine plants and wildlife
- a selection of OPAL stationary.
The feedback survey is open until 14:00 GMT on 25 March 2014. Only participants submitting their feedback before this deadline will be eligible to win the prize. Only one entry per person. Read the full terms and conditions.
Just a few weeks remain to send in your results for our climate survey, including your contrail observations.
The survey, which was launched in spring 2011 in partnership with the Met Office, will draw to a close on 31 March 2014.
Activities 1, 2 and 3 from the survey will come to an end as Met Office experts analyse the results you have sent in during the last three years, including more than 3,200 full surveys and a staggering 23,000 contrail observations.
The findings from these results will be published on the OPAL website later this year.
But you’ll still be able to take part in our thermal comfort activity (PDF, 264KB) to help us learn about how we could be adapting to our climate, and find a wealth of information about weather and climate on our website.
With the UK marking Climate Week from 3-9 March, there’s never been a better time to get involved, complete your OPAL Climate Survey and send the results to our experts.
The OPAL tree health survey has been recognised at Defra’s annual Team Awards, winning the department’s Civil Service Reform Award.
The project was praised by Defra as a "unique, highly innovative partnership" and Sir Bob Kerslake, Head of the Civil Service, presented the award to OPAL and Fera staff at the central London ceremony.
Thousands of people across the UK signed up to take part and survey the health of trees in their neighbourhoods, while checking for evidence of potentially harmful pests and diseases.
Roger Fradera, OPAL Portfolio Manager, said: “We felt really honoured just to be nominated for the award; to win was well beyond our expectations but it is a real credit to everyone that was involved in the OPAL tree health survey.
"That includes our partners who helped us develop the survey, various experts from organisations passionate about trees, all the OPAL staff across our network, and in particular, the members of the public who gave up their time to carry out the survey spotting invasive pests and diseases that are such a threat to our natural heritage."
The Fera plant health team will need to clear even more room on their mantelpiece, after also taking home the Innovation award for their ‘Stop the Spread’ garden at last year’s Chelsea Flower Show.
2013’s hot summer gave wildlife a much-needed boost, National Trust specialists have said.
After six consecutive years of poor summers, the sunshine of July and August helped many species – particularly insects such as butterflies, bees and grasshoppers – to flourish.
Many plants and grasses also had a successful year and there was “an explosion of nuts, berries and seeds” later in the year.
The late arrival of spring caused difficulties for some species such as owls, frogs and mammals coming out of hibernation, but the National Trust observed that many birds and animals recovered well once summer was underway.
“The way our butterflies and other sun-loving insects bounced back in July was utterly amazing, showing nature’s powers of recovery at their best,” said Matthew Oates, the Trust’s specialist on nature and wildlife.
He added: “Importantly, we have seen more winners than losers in our wildlife year, which is a tremendous result, considering where we were last year.”
‘Winners’ in 2013 included the tree bumblebee, which continued to spread across the UK. You can help track the tree bumblebee’s progress in 2014 with our Species Quest.
Schoolchildren in London will be able to get hands-on with nature thanks to a new award set up in memory of OPAL’s deputy director.
The Gill Stevens Award, which will run for five years, will enable seven school groups each year to visit one of the Royal Parks for a fieldwork session led by an experienced tutor from the Field Studies Council (FSC).
The OPAL-funded scheme is named after Ms Stevens, a core part of the OPAL team in its early years, who died from cancer aged just 45 in January 2011.
FSC tutors will use activities linked to OPAL’s national surveys to show schools what can be achieved in the parks near them and encourage them to incorporate more outdoor learning into lessons.
Funding will be targeted at schools in London which are among the 20% most deprived in England.
To find out more and to apply, contact FSC London on enquiries [dot] ldn [at] field-studies-council [dot] org (subject: Gill%20Stevens%20Award) / 020 3130 0469.
The UK’s largest tree celebration is back for another year to officially launch the start of the winter tree planting season.
National Tree Week, organised by The Tree Council, is a chance for communities to get involved in tree-related events and plant new trees.
Voluntary bodies, local authorities and thousands of Tree Wardens around the country will be organising events that you can get involved in.
If National Tree Week inspires you to get more involved in protecting the UK’s trees, you can also sign up to take part in the OPAL tree health survey in 2014.
You data could help scientists learn more about the health of our trees, and about the pests and diseases that can affect them.
Photo by Flickr user Colin Campbell, some rights reserved.
Members of the public have now sent in more than 30,000 sets of results for OPAL’s seven national surveys.
Your data about your local environment has been flooding in since the launch of the first survey, on soil and earthworms, in March 2009.
When these survey results are added to the many contrail observations you have sent in as part of OPAL’s climate research, the number of records from citizen scientists in our database has reached almost 53,000.
The most popular survey so far has been the Bugs Count survey, which has attracted nearly 8,500 sets of results.
All of OPAL’s surveys are continuing to accept results. You can enter them online using our simple web forms, or post your answer notebooks to our freepost address.
Scientists from across Europe gathered in Brussels this week to hold talks on the fledgling European Citizen Science Association (ECSA).
The meeting was the first that has been held since ECSA was officially launched at EU Green Week in June.
More than 50 experts from 12 countries shared information on citizen science initiatives and voted on governance arrangements for the association, which is currently led by OPAL Director Dr Linda Davies.
Delegates voted to establish four committees which will help to drive the association forward:
- Fundraising, membership, communications, promotion and marketing
- Policy, strategy, governance and partnerships
- Standards and principles, sharing best practice and capacity building
- Projects, tools, data and technology.
The next meeting is expected to be held in Copenhagen in April 2014.