New University of Leicester-led research project to monitor wetlands from space

Satellite (Sentinel-2) image of Rutland Water

Image contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data (2018)

A new Earth observation for wetlands project led by the University of Leicester, in conjunction with the Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust, will enhance monitoring of Rutland Water and the Soar and Wreake River Valleys for nature conservation.

The project is being led by Dr Sarah Johnson, Research Fellow in the University of Leicester’s School of Geography, Geology and the Environment. Funded by the Natural Environmental Research Council, Dr Johnson will work with the Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust to monitor its wetland nature reserves using satellite imagery.

Wetland areas provide key habitats for many unique and protected species of plants, birds, animals and insects. They also provide essential services to human beings, such as water supplies, flood regulation, climate regulation and recreational opportunities.

Monitoring wetland areas can be challenging and time-consuming due to access limitations and ground-based surveys only provide limited local-level information. A broader view of the landscape is therefore needed.

Dr Johnson said: “This project will use satellite imagery to assess the state and elements of wetland landscapes in Leicestershire and Rutland and how they change over time.

“This will include combining Earth observation satellite imagery with ground-based surveys of plants and animals to reveal more about habitat conditions, assessing the functioning of river flood plains, and monitoring factors which influence water quality in lakes and rivers.”

The work will focus particularly on the Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust’s nature reserves located on the Soar and Wreake floodplains, as well as Rutland Water, which has been managed by the Trust in partnership with Anglian Water since the nature reserve was created in the mid-1970s.

Simon Bentley, Director of the Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust, said: “It’s great to have Sarah’s expertise to help us develop solutions with satellite imagery to support the management of our nature reserves and enhance our strategic decision-making capabilities. The work will help provide us with a greater evidence base for our decisions, track the restoration of wetland habitat over time, and monitor any sudden changes or problems.”

The satellite imagery used for the project comes from the Sentinel satellites that are the space element of the European Commission’s Copernicus Earth Observation programme. They provide information on the Earth’s environment, including on vegetation, flood monitoring and water quality.

The Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), the public body who advise UK government on nature conservation, are supplying the satellite imagery from the European Copernicus Sentinel series of satellites in an analysis-ready form for the work.

Paul Robinson, Senior Natural Capital Evidence Specialist at JNCC, said: “JNCC has an interest in exploring how Earth observation data can be used for environmental applications and has developed techniques to produce analysis-ready data from different EO sensors. We are very pleased to be supporting this project as it represents an opportunity to test specific applications of that data in an operational setting to help Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust with practical land management.

“It also links to a theme of the monitoring of wetland systems with EO, which is an area that JNCC is developing in our international work, so can give us very tangible results to aid our understanding of the use of the data for that purpose.”

The project started in December 2018 and runs through to July 2019. The approach will provide an example of best practice in the use of satellite imagery and geographic information for the management of nature reserves that can be rolled out to other Wildlife Trust partners around the country, and with selected partners abroad.