Our nearby heathlands are at their best this time of year, with the lingering purple ling heather and the warm glow of the bracken and trees starting to turn gold. The autumn is one of our favourite times to be out on the heaths and it’s still a great time to spot plenty of wildlife and we’re starting to see all sorts of weird and wonderful fungi emerge!

As part of the Heathlands Reunited project, our friendly heathland ranger team monitor the wildlife and habitat conditions of the local lowland heaths, which are home to some internationally rare species. With a small team, and 2,197 hectares of specially protected heaths in the project area, there’s quite a lot of ground to cover, which is where you can help us by microvolunteering!

As part of the South Downs National Park’s wider Take action for Nature campaign, we’re encouraging everyone to get out and help us capture the wildlife on our precious heaths. Many of us now carry state of the art technology in our pockets and while it can be good to switch off from our phones, they can be a great tool in helping with wildlife ID and getting involved with citizen science.

There are various apps out there that offer to identify wildlife for you, either by uploading a sound recording or image and some which can even tell you in real time what you’re seeing or hearing. But how reliable are they? Most of these wildlife ID apps use artificial intelligence (AI) to identify what you’re seeing or hearing so they’re not always accurate. Many are global apps which might not take into consideration local data or populations and of course there are many species which can’t be identified by one photo or from one particular angle or sound clip. However, there are a few good apps out there which are a great place to start and can help us with logging species.

For bird identification, we recommend the Merlin Bird ID app. It’s been developed by Cornell University in the USA and uses your smartphone’s microphone to record bird song and can identify them in real time. Since it works all over the world, you’ll need to download the UK pack which has been developed with help from the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) so that you’re not picking up birds we don’t find in the UK. 

When you open the app and start recording, pictures of the suggested bird and name will pop up and be highlighted as they sing.

Heathland ranger Dan says: “It’s really useful to get you used to certain specific bird song, and really helpful at picking up some birds which are harder for the human ear to pick up like the goldcrest which we find here on our heaths. It’s not always accurate at identifying birds which have similar calls and not so reliable when there’s lots of other noise or on a windy day but overall, it’s a great, fun way to start to learn more common bird sounds and test yourself.”

Another app we love is iNaturalist, which is an online network of people sharing information on biodiversity and a handy tool for learning about and connecting with nature. It’s free, and once you’ve downloaded it, you can use it to record your observations, upload images and get help with identifications. On the app, you can find groups and join projects. Why not join our Heathlands Reunited project and start logging what you see? iNaturalist is a great way to connect with nature, and a brilliant way of volunteering and helping the project. It’s entirely up to you how much time you spend on it, whether it’s a quick photo of a caterpillar whilst out with the dog, or a specific walk to see how many different trees or fungi you can log.

If you’re considering a career in conservation then why not have a go at volunteering? The South Downs National Park run a variety of Youth Action Days aimed at young people to give them a taster of the day in the life of a ranger. Our very own heathland Ranger Maddy made the bold move a year ago to change careers completely and retrain as a ranger after working in a museum for 10 years, she loves her new role, splitting her time between the heaths in the summer, and land management tasks with the central ranger team in the winter.

We can also arrange corporate volunteering tasks, so if you’re a local business looking to give something back and help look after this unique and precious habitat, then let us know!

The opportunities to take action for nature and climate are endless, and there are a few days left to get involved with our competition and make your pledge to give nature a hand, you can find out more here: https://www.southdowns.gov.uk/pledge/

So if you’re interested in a career in conservation, or would like more information on how you can take action for nature on the heaths why not contact us at [email protected]

By Olivia French

Heathlands engagement officer, South Downs National Park Authority