OPAL: Open Air Laboratories, Tree Health and Enthusiasm

Could you identify these trees? My neighbour reckons the one in the middle is ash.

Could you identify these trees? My neighbour reckons the one in the middle is ash. The OPAL tree health survey will help people identify local trees as well as spot some of the pests and diseases affecting our trees.

The focus of my current research is enthusiasm, citizen science and tree health. Little did I know that 2 weeks after starting my new job I’d be attending a meeting about a citizen science tree health survey being developed by OPAL (Open Air Laboratories) in collaboration with Forest Research and The Food and Environment Research Agency.  For the past four months, I’ve attended working group and advisory group events as the teams work together to develop and launch the survey in May 2013. I imagine most of you will have heard of OPAL but if not, here is a short introduction. OPAL, which stands for Open Air Laboratories, started in 2007 and is funded by the Big Lottery with the aim of

developing a wide range of local and national programmes to encourage people from all backgrounds to get back in touch with nature. The project also generates valuable scientific data concerning the state of our environment.

By bringing scientists, amateur-experts, local interest groups and the public closer together, lasting relationships are being formed and environmental issues of local and global relevance are being explored. (from the OPAL website)

Since 2007, OPAL have developed 6 surveys in collaboration with their 15 partner organisations on themes as varied as:

  • Soil and earthworm
  • Air survey
  • Water survey
  • Biodiversity survey
  • Climate survey
  • Bugs Count

An evaluation and results of these surveys can be found in the recently launched Community Environment Report by OPAL.

The 7th survey focuses on tree health and is being developed in the same way as the previous surveys with Forest Research and The Food and Environment Research Agency helping to frame the ‘science questions’.

Since the first meeting I attended in early October, tree health has become headline news with the Chalara Ash Dieback outbreak. In turn, the significance of the survey has been recognised at the highest levels with OPAL being mentioned DEFRA’s Interim Chalara Control Plan (6 December 2012), specifically objective 3:

Objective 3 – encouraging citizen, landowner and industry engagement in surveillance, monitoring and action in tackling the problem

  • Fund a pilot study to accelerate the development of the ObservaTREE, a tree health early warning system using volunteer groups
  • Develop a plant health network of trained people to support official surveillance and detection
  • Support work by industry groups to develop a charter mark for plants of UK origin
  • Continue to work with the OPAL consortium to develop the OPAL survey on tree health for launch in May 2013
  • Support a biosecurity themed show garden at next year‟s Chelsea Flower Show(from the report available here)

The reports contains further details:

OPAL (Open air Laboratories citizen science project) 2013 survey on tree health

Defra, Fera and Forest Research will continue to work with the OPAL consortium to develop the OPAL survey on tree health to be launched in May 2013. Included in the survey will be an activity to survey ash trees for pests and pathogens, including Chalara. Although the survey is currently planned for England only, work is underway with the Scottish and Welsh Governments to extend it to Great Britain.

This survey forms the basis for my first phase of fieldwork, mapping and understanding how tree health is governed in the UK, as well as how citizen science surveys are developed and tested. It’s been an exciting few months. Most recently, I have just returned from a few days in York talking to some of OPAL’s community scientists who will be involved in rolling out the training behind this survey, as well as officials and researchers at FERA tackling plant health issues and biosecurity. Looks like a week in the field with some plant health inspectors might be on the cards. Watch this space.

2 thoughts on “OPAL: Open Air Laboratories, Tree Health and Enthusiasm

  1. I would love to take part in your survey and in others of OPAL’s. Cardiff Organic Gardeners members amongst others too are most interested. You will have spotted the present difficulty, ie our location!
    It sounds like you are doing some great work. Hoping that we can soon contribute to that in Wales,
    with best regards,

    • Hi Louise, Great to hear from you. You will be delighted to hear that there are plans to roll out the survey in Wales!! The survey and details of support are still in the process of being finalised. You can however complete the survey and from what I’ve seen of previous surveys the online form will accept your data – so it won’t be wasted. It will still be mapped and feed into the database even beyond the funding confines of England only. Cardiff Organic Gardeners sounds like a great initiative. I suggest you register interest with OPAL directly and I am sure they will keep you up-to-date on plans for rolling the survey out. Thanks, Hilary

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