Happy fifth birthday to OPAL surveys

Laura Gosling
OPAL evaluation and data manager

We have reached a big milestone for OPAL: this Sunday marks five years since we launched the first OPAL survey, the soil and earthworm survey.

It was an exciting time. No-one knew how the public would react – would people be interested in soil and earthworms? Would they take part? And if they did, would they submit their results?

Chris Packham at the launch of the soil surveyWell, it turns out you did and we now have records from more than 4,500 soil and earthworm surveys which include details on more than 7,000 earthworms! The survey was the largest public participation survey of soil and earthworms ever carried out in England.

But we didn’t stop there. Later that year, we launched the OPAL air survey, looking at lichens and Tar Spot of Sycamore as indicators of air pollution. The survey proved to be immensely popular, as people discovered that a) lichens are everywhere, they just hadn’t noticed them before and b) they are beautiful and unique organisms.

With 2010 came the UN International Year of Biodiversity and the launch of two more surveys. The OPAL Water Survey opened in May 2010 and saw people across the country dipping nets in ponds and lakes, discovering the creatures that lived there and what they could tell us about water quality. A few months later, it was followed by the OPAL biodiversity survey which focused on hedges, a vital habitat for wildlife in both urban and rural areas.

The OPAL climate survey came along in March 2011 and saw people blowing bubbles to provide an indication of air flow as well as looking for contrails in the sky. Bugs Count was next, launching in June 2011 and becoming a huge success from day one, with more than 3,000 sets of results flooding in during the first three months after it launched, overtaking some of the OPAL Surveys that had been around for much longer!

Finally, after securing some additional funding from the Big Lottery Fund, we were able to produce our seventh survey, the OPAL tree health survey, which looked at the general condition of the nation’s trees and asked people to look for pests and diseases that can affect them. More than 1,000 survey submissions were received in its first season.

In the last five years, we've printed and distributed a total of more than 300,000 survey packs and more than 100,000 copies of survey materials have been downloaded from our website. We've received more than 50,000 survey submissions and 90% of participants have told us that they had learned something new.

OPAL scientist Lucy working with members of the publicWe also learned something new with each survey. Many of our scientists found the process immensely rewarding, particularly working directly with people and telling them about the things that they are passionate about, such as earthworms, lichens and ecology. The scientists have also found the survey results valuable. The soil survey team found that some habitats have a higher number of earthworms than expected and that our gardens are hotspots for earthworms – something that gardeners know well but may not have been recorded in scientific literature before.

Summaries of findings from all surveys are published in the Community Environment Report (apart from tree health – a summary coming soon on that one!). A number of research papers based on the results you have all collected have been published in scientific journals and there are more in the pipeline. OPAL has shown that everyone really can contribute to environmental research.

So what happens next? Well, first, please keep taking part and submitting your survey results! We're still analysing the data you're collecting for us and it's all valuable. We'll be communicating more about what we are finding out and later this year, we'll be sharing all of the ecological records from OPAL on the NBN Gateway (where you can already view the soil and earthworm survey data).

Secondly, if you want to take part in more survey activities then please get in touch! OPAL is now a UK-wide programme and we can’t wait to start working directly with schools, organisations and individuals across Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England to educate and inspire people to discover more about the world around them.

Of course, the golden question is: will there be any more surveys? Well, only the future can tell but after the success of the previous seven, all of us here at OPAL are sincerely hoping so!