Citizen Science Project
Don't under-estimate the value of your reports. Your input makes a difference!
In November 2020, Black Foxes UK became members of the National Biodiversity Network (NBN) and in August 2023, we moved our reporting system over to iRecord, allowing us to collaborate and share data with other organisations through the NBN Atlas, increasing the impact of our citizen science projects.
We formally began assisting silver foxes and collecting reports in 2015 when such biological recording systems were not yet readily accessible, using our own closed system to collect data. After collecting reports for 8 years, we have 1000's of records of both escaped silver foxes and wild melanistic or anomalous foxes.
Our initial study (2015-2023), will be available for public viewing on ResearchGate, once published. Historical data entry onto the NBN system will occur in due course. A special thank you to all those who assisted with our initial project, we wouldn't be here without your support!
"Biological data collected and shared openly by the Network are central to the UK’s learning and understanding of its biodiversity and are critical to all decision-making about nature and the environment"
What is Citizen Science?
Citizen science refers to the involvement of the general public or 'citizen scientists,' in scientific research and data collection. This participation can take various forms, such as observing and recording natural phenomena, collecting samples, classifying images, transcribing historical documents or even participating in online research activities.
It is a collaborative approach that empowers non-professional individuals to participate in scientific research, enhancing data collection, public engagement and scientific discovery across various fields.
What is Biological Recording?
Biological recording is a form of natural history recording that involves the systematic collection and documentation of information about living organisms and their interactions within ecosystems. This practice contributes to our understanding of species distribution, behavior and abundance, as well as changes in biodiversity over time.
Biological recording can include various activities, such as;
- Species Observations - Individuals observe and identify different species of plants, animals, fungi and other organisms in their natural habitats. These observations are then documented with information about the location, date and other relevant details.
- Photography and Documentation - Photographs, videos, and audio recordings are often used to document species and their behaviors. These visual and auditory records can provide valuable insights into the natural world.
- Specimen Collection - In some cases, specimens may be collected for closer examination and identification by experts. This can be particularly important for confirming the identity of rare or unusual species.
- Data Collection - Recorded information includes details about habitat types, environmental conditions and interactions between species. This data can help scientists study ecological relationships and better understand the factors influencing biodiversity.
- Mapping - Geographic information systems (GIS) and mapping tools are used to visualize species distribution patterns and analyze the spatial relationships between different organisms.
- Long-Term Monitoring - By consistently recording observations over time, researchers can track changes in species populations, detect shifts in migration patterns and identify potential impacts of environmental changes.
- Community Engagement - Biological recording involves engaging the public in data collection, promoting awareness of local ecosystems and fostering a sense of responsibility for conserving biodiversity.
What are the Benefits of Participating with the Research?
Monitoring a species through online biological record systems and citizen science offers many benefits, particularly in the context of biodiversity conservation, ecological research and understanding ecosystem health, some key advantages include;
- Early Detection of Negative Trends - Monitoring allows for early detection of population declines or negative trends and is crucial for implementing timely conservation measures to prevent further issues or extinction.
- Conservation Planning - Data collected from species monitoring help conservationists and policymakers make informed decisions about how to allocate resources, prioritize conservation efforts and design effective strategies to protect vulnerable species.
- Assessment of Management Actions - Monitoring provides a way to evaluate the effectiveness of conservation interventions or management actions. It helps determine whether efforts like habitat restoration, captive breeding programs or anti-hunting measures are having the desired impact.
- Understanding Ecosystem Dynamics - Species are integral components of ecosystems and changes in their populations can indicate shifts in ecosystem health. Monitoring species interactions and population dynamics contributes to a deeper understanding of how ecosystems function.
- Data for Scientific Research - Long-term species monitoring provides valuable data for ecological and scientific research. It enables scientists to study species behavior, reproductive patterns, migration routes and responses to environmental shifts.
- Climate Change Impacts - Monitoring a species' responses to changing climate conditions can help scientists better understand the effects of climate change on ecosystems and species distributions. This information is essential for adapting conservation strategies.
- Engaging the Public - Monitoring a species can engage communities and citizen scientists in conservation efforts. Local communities often feel a stronger connection to the environment when they actively participate in species monitoring, leading to increased awareness and support for conservation.
- Educational Opportunities - Species monitoring programs offer educational opportunities for students, researchers, and the general public. Observing and studying species in their natural habitats fosters a deeper understanding of biodiversity and ecological processes.
- Preservation of Cultural and Traditional Knowledge - In some cases, species monitoring involves collaboration with historical societies and local communities. This allows for the preservation and integration of traditional ecological knowledge into conservation efforts.
- Legal and Policy Frameworks - Monitoring data can be used to advocate for stronger legal protections for threatened or endangered species. Robust monitoring can provide evidence for designating critical habitats and implementing conservation regulations.
- Inspiration for Conservation Action - Success stories due to conservation efforts, can inspire people to become more proactive in conservation and take collective action to protect species and habitats.
How do Foxes Help our Ecology?
While foxes are considered the enemy of farmers and landowners worldwide, they play an important role in maintaining the health of ecosystems. A healthy ecosystem exists when there is a balance within the environment. An entire system could collapse following the absence of just one species, know as a 'keystone species' (which are commonly, but not always, predators).
"A keystone species helps define an entire ecosystem. Without its keystone species, the ecosystem would be dramatically different or cease to exist altogether."
Feeding on small prey like rodents, insects, and reptiles, fox behaviour is beneficial in many ways, most notably by keeping populations of those prey species under control. Without predators, these species could grow to levels that can quickly overwhelm and deplete the resources of an ecosystem. This phenomenon has a cascading effect that can result in the disruption of many other species, meaning the presence of carnivores like foxes, is necessary for the balance of food webs and ecological systems.
The benefits of foxes to an ecosystem include;
- The regulation of small, herbivorous species provides reduces the occurrence of overgrazing and disease and provides urban areas with natural pest control.
- The red fox's frugivorous tendencies aids seed dispersal. The seeds are transported to other areas via fox excrement, allowing plants to take roots in other areas.
- Fox dens can serve as homes for other animals, including; rodents, rabbits, badgers, and other foxes. Their digging activity may also benefit soil productivity by aerating and nutrient loading the soil, which they deposit through their excrement and cached prey items.
- Competition from foxes against other predators (e.g. badgers and birds of prey), ensures balance and population control among predators, aiding ecosystem balance.
- The foxes historical relationship with humans allows us to observe and interact with them in relatively close proximity, presenting opportunities to conduct research and develop coexistence projects.
In 2022, a study published in Ecosphere, revealed that trees growing on and around the sites of fox dens, especially long-established fox dens, grow faster than trees without vulpine intervention;
"Recent climate warming is expected to increase tree growth and productivity, substantially altering ecological function and boundaries in northern ecosystems. Although climate largely determines the range and growth of trees in any biome, variations in microsite conditions can influence growth on a finer scale.
Red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) are found in most terrestrial ecosystems and are considered ecosystem engineers through their denning activities. Added soil nutrients from prey remains, feces, and urine could benefit tree growth on dens in subarctic regions by alleviating soil nutrient limitations.
We examined growth in white spruce (Picea glauca) trees growing on eight red fox dens and paired control sites at the Arctic treeline. Radial growth was 55% higher for trees on dens than on control sites between 1897 and 2017, despite similarities in tree ages and densities.
This enhanced growth was more pronounced in younger trees, consistent with the decrease in growth with age among all trees. By promoting tree growth near the treeline, red foxes may act as hotspots for tree reproduction. Although the impacts on tree growth largely depend on the spatial distribution of dens, predators can create distinct microhabitats across the landscape, leading to increased vegetation productivity, persisting over many decades."
In India, because the red fox predates on wild boar piglets but is now extinct in the mountain regions it once roamed, the fox is being protected, bred and released in a management plan dubbed, 'Operation Red Fox', in order to help curb the increasing wild boar populations that are damaging crops and menacing locals;
"In Uttarakhand, the Forest Department is preparing a plan that will help farmers get rid of the problem of wild boars. In fact, the forest department in the state has drawn up the plan for 'Operation Red Fox'... this time, an all-time solution has been taken up to save the farmers' crops.. the plan is to increase the numbers of extinct ed fox in the state under 'Operation Red Fox'. Foxes prey on the young wild boars. The red fox is very important to control the numbers of wild boars. A sudden increase in the number of wild boars is also claimed to be due to the extinction of the red fox."
Not only do foxes benefit ecosystems, but they benefit humans too, by protecting them from financial losses, as well as from rodent and tick-borne pathogens;
"In a more urban context, the predation of rodents serves as a form of pest control, such as decreasing the abundance of rats in city areas. In rural communities foxes feed heavily on rodents and other animals that can be considered pests to farmers’ crops including fawns with impressive breeding capacities like the muntjac in Britain.
Red foxes specifically are linked to studies that purport the foxes’ predation on rodents prevents the spreading of Lyme disease attributed to wild tick populations. Lyme disease is the most common tick-borne infectious disease in the United States. It is transmitted to humans through the bite of infected black-legged deer ticks. Healthy fox populations generate a benefit for public health by decreasing the population of infected rodents, limiting the chances of public contact with infected ticks."
Citizen Science and biological recording are essential for effective conservation, informed decision-making, scientific research and the overall well-being of ecosystems and the species they support. With your help, scientists will be better able to understand native fox ecology, track changes, adapt to the challenges and make positive contributions to the preservation of the nations historical and growing biodiversity.