New remote sensing tools launched

Dartmoor Tor

Novel remote sensing tools to map, monitor and enhance the South West’s natural landscapes are already beginning to support quicker, less costly and more effective decision making by those tasked with managing our vitally important natural resources here in the south west.

Obtaining accurate, fine resolution and repeatable maps of habitat land cover over large areas, is not easy. Neither is monitoring change in these landscapes over time. But, having developed operational tools that put advanced remote sensing capabilities in the hands of those making land management decisions, SWEEP are now bringing us one step closer to doing just that. The new tools represent a step-change in addressing this need.

Working closely with key partners – the Dartmoor National Park Authority (DNPA), the North Devon UNESCO Biosphere Reserve (NDBR) and the Forestry Commission (FC) – the SWEEP project developed remote sensing workflows able to harness open source Earth Observation data to bespoke these fine resolution, robust and repeatable mapping tools.

The whole extent of Dartmoor National Park habitat cover was mapped using a trained computer algorithm on satellite and LiDAR data to a classification system adapted from Level 4 of the national UKHab classification scheme. This resulted in two tools:

  • The Habitat Classification tool – which classifies habitat types across the entire extent of the Park producing annual habitat classification mapping outputs
  • The Habitat Change Detection tool – which detects changes in these habitats over time.
Fig 1: Mapped UKHab Classes across Dartmoor National Park for 2019.

Impressed with the quality and extent of data SWEEP has delivered, Richard Knott, Ecologist at Dartmoor National Park, is now beginning to use the mapping outputs to support a range of DNPA work. ‘The data the SWEEP team has extracted is unprecedented compared to what has been available to DNPA previously’.

Two further tools were created, focusing on the wooded areas of the North Devon UNESCO Biosphere Reserve:

  • The THaW (Tree, Hedgerow and Woodland) Mapping Toolbox – which autonomously generates a baseline map, using LiDAR Data at a 2km spatial resolution.
  • The THaW Change Detection tool – which dynamically maps the change/loss of woodland and hedgerow biomass/stock over time using satellite-borne radar (SAR) data.
Fig 2: Image from the Tree Hedgerow and Woodland (THaW) mapping and change detection tool

Through a series of training workshops and ongoing support, the know-how behind these tools have been transferred, and embedded, in our partner organisations.

Our partners (and their partners) are actively using the tools and anticipate benefitting from them across a variety of areas including, nature recovery work, tree planting, rewilding and biodiversity net gain, Environmental Land Management Schemes, carbon storage assessments and values, development of ancient woodland management plans, archaeological work, tree felling compliance inspections and biodiversity planning and monitoring.

The Dartmoor National Park Authority are pleased to be part of this ground breaking project. The mapping provides us with a more robust way to monitor changes in habitat allowing the Authority and our partners to focus detailed surveys where most needed and hence use resources more effectively. It is a fantastic resource significantly improving baseline mapping and will help with a range of policy development such as our ELM Test and Trials work where we have been sharing the mapping with farmers’ Ally Kohler, Director of Conservation and Communities, Dartmoor National Park Authority.

Other regional and national stakeholders have also shown significant interest in benefitting from the tools, and their mapping outputs. They are already being put to use, for example, in helping to identify sites for peatland restoration in the south west, and in support of the Ministry of Defence’s work to enhance Natural Capital. Comparable THaW baseline mapping is currently being extended nationally as part of Exeter University’s NetZeroPlus project in the Centre for Resilience in Environment, Water and Waste (CREWW): one of five, £31.5m UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) interdisciplinary projects aimed at removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

‘The suite of tools developed here will enable a wide range of land managers and decision-makers to understand change in habitat and carbon storage at landscape scales. The high-resolution data – identifying individual trees or hedgerows and the regularity of the data acquisition (satellites capture images every 5 days) mean that we now have an unprecedented level of understanding of how our ecosystems are structured and how this structure can change due to positive initiatives such as tree planting or the natural regeneration of woodland.’ Professor Richard Brazier, lead academic on this SWEEP project and Director of CREWW.

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