Conservancy organisation maps Flanders’ most vulnerable species


To assess environmental policies, conservancy organisation Natuurpunt is seeking volunteers to conduct counts of endangered plants and animals across Flanders

‘One of the most comprehensive studies of its kind’

Over the next five years, volunteers working with Flemish environmental organisation Natuurpunt will conduct counts of endangered animals and plants in Flanders. The data, collected with the assistance of the Institute for Nature and Forest Research (Inbo), will be submitted to the European Commission and used to assess existing environmental policies.

“Our volunteers are very enthusiastic about this project,” says Hannes Ledegen, project co-ordinator at Natuurpunt. “It’s a recognition of their efforts, and it offers them a chance to learn more about the species and to collect information that will be put to actual use.”

As part of the European network of nature protection areas, Natura 2000, Flanders is required to report the status of certain plant and animal species to European authorities. Until now, this task was carried out by Inbo, which has developed standardised methods for monitoring the state of flora and fauna in Flanders.

But with its vast network of volunteers, Natuurpunt says it can go a step further. “We don’t limit ourselves to the species covered by Natura 2000,” Ledegen explains. “Our goal is to include a number of species that are not protected under European regulations, but that are very useful to monitor, because they can tell us about the state of plants and animals in Flanders. We can then determine if current environmental policies are effective.”

This year some 40 species will be monitored; the number will double by 2018. Natuurpunt has also added bats and birds to the list, even though their count is already under way. Altogether, the project, dubbed Meetnetten (monitoring networks), covers some 650 sites, with more to be added, and is scheduled to run for five years.

Volunteers needed

“This is one of the most comprehensive studies of its kind,” Ledegen says. “There are already long-term counts of bats and waterfowl, but this project is far more ambitious.”

The monitoring networks will identify overall trends across the region, “such as which species are in decline and which are recovering,” says Ledegen. “This is very useful in determining whether or not Flemish environmental policies are achieving the desired results. The project also serves as the scientific foundation of our demands for more protective measures.”

The project is a great example of citizen science, where ordinary people can conduct valuable scientific research

- Hannes Ledegen

The conservationists didn't limit themselves when determining which species to monitor as part of the project. In addition to the plants and animals protected by Natura 2000, others were chosen to reflect the diversity of Flanders’ flora and fauna. Inbo will oversee the counts, ensuring they stick to the strictly defined methodology. The field work ranges from collecting the remains of dragonfly larvae to looking for signs of otter activity.

The project relies on Natuurpunt’s team of volunteers. Anyone can register to be part of the monitoring network, and most counts, says Ledegen, can be conducted with the most basic understanding of nature.

“Certain measurements do require specialised knowledge, like identifying similar-looking plants or interpreting mating calls of amphibians,” he says. “And some of the research might be carried out in less accessible areas.”

To attract amateur researchers, Natuurpunt provides skills training, in addition to on-going support and follow-up assessments. “We still need more volunteers,” says Ledegen. “Especially as we expand the number of species and locations over the next few years. This project is a great example of citizen science, where ordinary people can conduct valuable scientific research.”

Photo: Fire salamander, found in East Flanders and Flemish Brabant, is categorised as vulnerable on Flanders' red list of threatened species

© Iwan Lewylle