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‘Eyes on the river’ – How River Action funding has supported citizen science

Earlier this year, River Action launched a campaign to support the remarkable work of citizen scientists. The fundraiser raised over £34k to support a number of volunteer groups working specifically in the Wye Valley. Here we talk to David Mullin from the Radnorshire Wildlife Trust. David gives us a first-hand account of the work of citizen scientists and what our funding has helped achieve.


Tell us a bit about yourself and how you became involved in river protection?

My background in archaeology has led me to work both in the field and as a university lecturer. Moreover, I have always been interested in the interaction between people and landscape and how identity is informed by place and belonging.

To clarify, one aspect of research which I carried out for my PhD involved the way in which people in the past perceived and used wetlands and rivers. I have a particular interest in the River Severn and River Wye. Having visited the River Wye frequently with students, everything seemed normal. However, it wasn’t until I saw George Monbiot’s Rivercide documentary that the poor condition of the river became truly apparent. So, when an opportunity arose to contribute to the citizen science programme, it seemed like an obvious, and necessary, way to help.


Why is the work of citizen scientists so important to saving UK rivers?

The statutory regulators for rivers in the UK are chronically underfunded and understaffed. Therefore, citizen scientists’ role as data gatherers has developed and become fundamental. Their work allows the collection of much more detailed and focussed information about the state of rivers than regulatory bodies can carry out. This sort of detail allows us to identify which parts of the river system are in particularly poor state. This also gives us an understanding of how this might change over time. In addition, citizen scientists act as ‘eyes on the river’. In other words, they are able to see physical and other, more subtle, changes to the overall environment.


How has River Action funding helped citizen science and Radnorshire Wildlife Trust’s work?

Funding from River Action has allowed us to take the pressure off the unpaid volunteers from Friends of the Upper Wye (FoUW) and Friends of the Lugg (FoL). Both groups have so far successfully trained nearly 200 citizen scientists. Now, we can help them with organising training, maintaining the results database and dealing with enquiries from potential new volunteers.


Tell us about your day-to-day work with Radnorshire Wildlife Trust

Every day is different! Work can vary from going out to visit volunteers and helping them sample the river, to the slightly more mundane (but no less important). For example:

  • Keeping databases and paperwork up-to-date
  • Making sure volunteers are supplied with the equipment they need
  • Helping organise events – such as a recent day-long music, poetry, art and science event at the castle in Hay-on-Wye 
  • Writing handbooks – for instance, on the use of Hanna Phosphorus Testers
  • Attending meetings about how we use results gathered so far and what to test for in the future


How can further funding support citizen scientists?

There is much to be done to reverse the effects of river pollution. Ongoing funding will be fundamental to help with such matter as:

  1. Building synergies

Within the Wye catchment there are at least six organisations collecting data, with no overall oversight or coordination. In addition, there are two national regulators, with different levels of funding and staffing. A new alliance of organisations is being formed. But, there are still opportunities for greater synergy and wider collaboration between citizen scientists, academics and professionals.


     2. National level action

Similarly, there could also be coordination of river campaigns and citizen science projects at a national level. As a result, this will cause a bigger impact and recognition that the majority of British rivers are in poor condition, for a variety of reasons.


     3. Specialist advice buy-in

There is an emerging need for more long-term support and development of on-line results databases and mapping. Results processing and presentation is often undertaken by individual volunteers. who need specialist input into interpretation and the significance of results. 


     4. Future research and findings

Ideas about how we measure the health of rivers are continually developing. We may need to start looking at biological pollution, microplastics and pharmaceuticals, amongst others. Firstly, more needs to be done on assessing the sorts of things citizen science can examine. Secondly, how the network of citizen scientists can operate most effectively. 


What is further needed to stop UK river pollution?

It takes sustained action, backed by long-term funding, to ensure that our rivers are healthy. Regulators also need to be adequately funded, supported by strong legislation, and enabled to take necessary action.

Everything is connected: river health cannot improve without addressing climate change, food production and wider infrastructure. There needs to be a wider focus on nature-based solutions and a rejection of industrial-scale, intensive farming.



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