Stream sleuths: using fish eDNA to determine shared catchment actions

Lead Research Organisation: National Trust
Department Name: Swindon


The project aims to unlock two significant but untapped resources for citizen science: the use of environmental DNA to detect species and the capacity of the National Trust (NT) as a major landowning and volunteering organisation. We propose a scoping study and co-designed pilot to bring these together.

Environmental DNA (eDNA) are traces of DNA released into the environment by species. Sources of eDNA include secreted faeces, mucous, gametes, shed skin, hair and carcasses and these can be detected in samples of water or soil. The potential for eDNA to transform species recording and open it up to people with few or no traditional species identification skills is huge. So far, the most developed application is for fish and amphibians in aquatic environments where a simple water sample can be analysed to produce a list of species present and even provide some indication of relative proportions of different species. Initial work suggests non-specialists (anglers and schoolchildren) can collect adequate (uncontaminated) water samples that provide robust data of which species are present in a waterbody. There is an opportunity to get interested communities collecting information on what lives in their local river, lakes or pond in a way that was hitherto impossible (due to complicated and expensive survey methods or lack of species identification skills). We believe that being able to collect these data will enthuse people to find out more about the health of their local waters leading to further action either in getting more involved in data collection or in tackling issues to improve freshwaters. The use of an exciting and novel scientific tool could open up a pathway of engagement and direct action. By involving volunteers in the decision-making process and supporting them to identify local need, we believe participants will develop the confidence to share their skills with others.

The National Trust is public-facing IRO and charity as well as large landowner (250,000ha) with ambitions to transform our land to be better for wildlife and to provide a wide range benefits of benefits to society. With 5.5million members and more than 60,000 volunteers the potential to reach and engage a large community with this work is considerable. Partnership working, and public engagement are embedded strongly across the NT's overall research programme. One of the NT's challenges is to monitor the effectiveness of the changes we are making across our estate but also to ensure that our monitoring effort plays a part in a wider UK network tracking the health of our landscapes. We strongly believe that citizen science, capitalising on our member, volunteer and visitor assets, could play an important role in this respect.

Through this project we will bring together NT researchers, leading UK freshwater and eDNA scientists, citizen science specialists and a group of NT volunteers to explore the state of the art in terms of eDNA monitoring for freshwaters. Through a workshop and co-design process we will:

Generate a series of recommendations for the development of a UK-wide citizen science project based on eDNA in freshwaters

Develop and implement a co-designed pilot to test citizen science collection of eDNA species data (fish and amphibians) in a catchment where NT are leading a partnership project to improve and restore the freshwater environment (Upper Bure, Norfolk)

Review lessons learned from the pilot to inform further development of eDNA based citizen science

The project will lead directly to the development of a future funding bid for a national scale eDNA based citizen science research project.

Technical Summary

This project will explore taking a novel freshwater species survey technique (environmental DNA) into the citizen science sphere. The project builds on the considerable volunteering capacity of the National Trust (NT) and takes advantage of a major ongoing freshwater management project (Riverlands), thus ensuring impact beyond the initial four months. There is increasing recognition of the role citizen science can play in research and monitoring (e.g. Pocock et al., 2014). However, where professionals develop citizen science projects in isolation this can be a barrier to engaging people in subsequent work (Geoghegan et al., 2016). We therefore propose a co-designed citizen science project; an opportunity for a two-way exchange of ideas between volunteers and professionals. We will focus on the use of eDNA which shows great promise for collection of species data by non-professionals. The potential for eDNA based approaches for species survey and monitoring has long been acknowledged (e.g. Lawson Handley 2015) with freshwater applications being the most developed. Recent developments in metabarcoding approaches show it is possible to generate fish species lists for standing water ecosystems comparable with traditional survey methods (Li et al., 2019). The ease of collecting the water sample for sequencing means that non-specialists can collect high quality fish species data allowing them to design and carry out studies and inform management responses. In an age of catchment partnerships and greater community involvement in managing the water environment this has the potential to be a game-changer. We will build on the scale of NT and expert partners to convene researchers, practitioners and volunteers to (a) co-design and test a citizen science approach to inform a larger scale programme collecting species data from freshwaters; (b) engage researchers in the utility of the approach to design and collect data on freshwater biodiversity. Full refs in CFS.

Planned Impact

Three stakeholder groups will benefit from this project: decision makers and regulators directly involved in the project, organisations in the wider public and third sectors who will be engaged in the project and will have access to the outputs, and volunteers, communities and local organisations in the Bure and the Riverlands catchments more widely.

This project will initially directly benefit the decision makers and regulators involved in catchment management including the Environment Agency, Natural Resources Wales and Natural England and Riverlands partners including the Freshwater Habitats Trust, Riverfly and Norfolk Rivers Trust. These groups will be involved in the workshop and trial, and will provide a pathway to disseminating the research findings more widely and using them to develop their approach to engagement through eDNA citizen science projects.

A wider audience of UK stakeholders active across this area of catchment management will be engaged during the project through CaBA (, which is an alliance of NGOs, businesses, landowners, communities and local authorities involved in catchment management. The NT sits on the CaBA National Steering Group and would give a presentation to CaBA partners focusing on the project and project outcomes. The project team also plan to present the project and key findings via the British Ecological Society Citizen Science Special Interest Group. A project evaluation report will be produced by PI Hails with input from the project team that will be disseminated to workshop participants, other Riverlands catchment teams and the wider audience of UK stakeholders. Project updates will be publicised via NT and partner social media (twitter and Riverlands website).

The project will provide a means of engaging with local community groups in the Bure, including the Blickling Fishing Club (see Letter of Support) who feel that the opportunity to use eDNA analysis across tributaries in the catchment would provide valuable information about the presence of many different species in these river sources, adding to local knowledge of the fauna as well as showing comparative results from differing locations that might indicate which sources were of better quality; perhaps leading to an understanding of why that was so and potentially what could be done to improve the local environment. The results of the environmental findings will be shared through the Riverlands project newsletter.

This project will directly benefit researchers and practitioners at the National Trust currently grappling with the challenge of engaging more people with the sustainable long-term care for rivers and their catchments. The co-design of the eDNA citizen science project will provide a greater diversity of values, ensuring that decisions are likely to be more representative of the values of those they affect. The knowledge gained will be embedded in the development of recommendations created to take the project forward. Volunteers will be involved at all stages of the project as it progresses. Volunteers who participated in the co-design and pilot survey will be invited to contribute to a short evaluation through a combination of a web-based survey and a feedback session (making use of regular meetings of the volunteers).

The over-arching benefit of this project will be an enhanced capability to undertake ambitious citizen science initiatives co-designed by, and for the benefit of regulators, catchment managers and local communities.

This project will inform the approach for scaling up across the Bure and other catchments in the Riverlands programme, providing useful insights for NT and catchment partners across England and Wales. By being embedded in the delivery plans of the NT and Riverlands, the project impact will be sustainable over the long term.


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Description The project successfully co-designed a sampling strategy to address a series of questions posed by our group of citizen scientists who are already engaged in work to improve the condition of the River Bure. By bringing together experts and these local volunteers we facilitated a two-way conversation about the potential of eDNA based techniques and the questions these could help answer. Our citizen scientists had little or no understanding of eDNA approaches before the first workshop but were quickly able to recognise the potential and understand the range of applications. In parallel, the process of designing a monitoring strategy with the group gave National Trust staff and the eDNA experts a better understanding of the pressures affecting the River Bure and the geography of these pressures.

Thirty five samples were collected and of these, 34 yielded high quality vertebrate sequence data. A total of 69 vertebrate taxa were recorded including records for incidental species such as woodland birds. Notable results included a record in the headwaters for the benthic fish, bullhead which was believed to have been lost from the river. In addition, the eDNA work showed how widespread brown trout (a focus for the fishing club) and water voles were in the catchment. With some additional funds we were also able to sequence invertebrate DNA in an experimental approach which the citizen scientists will be able to compare against their existing Riverfly data. The data collected are of much higher quality than we anticipated as we expected contamination of samples with human DNA to be an issue.

Through brief training and the practice of collecting samples both our citizen scientists and some National Trust staff now have the capability to collect water samples for eDNA analysis in a way which avoids contamination and yields good data. The process of co-design and in particular the collaborative approach to deciding on sample locations was widely praised by citizen scientists, eDNA experts (professional scientists) and National Trust staff. The River Bure project team have already adopted this as a way of working and are currently working with a local bird recording group in a similar way. The extent to which a simple conversation about where to take samples unlocked such a rich discussion about issues in the catchment was surprising and highlighted the value of local knowledge in designing a sampling programme.

The impact of the Stream Sleuths project continues to develop partly because our project was embedded within a major programme of National Trust work on integrated catchment management; the Riverlands programme. We have shared the approach with the other projects within this programme and with nature conservation colleagues around the organisation. As a direct result of this work there is a greater understanding of the power of eDNA techniques and potential for volunteers to collect data.
Exploitation Route We envisage the findings from this work informing a range of citizen science (CS) based monitoring projects. The local National Trust team and the CS involved in our funded project are already exploring ways in which they can continue the work. We have been working with the partners from this research project (Freshwater Habitats Trust, Nature Metrics) to develop a larger citizen science project based around using eDNA in freshwaters. We have already had some preliminary discussions with a potential funder and are exploring how an eDNA based approach might complement existing freshwater citizen science approaches such as the Anglers' Riverfly Monitoring Initiative (Riverfly Partnership ).

Our next steps in both local and national projects reflect what we think are key factors in developing a sustainable approach:
• Ongoing funding for equipment and analysis (in the case of eDNA).
• Support for citizen scientists through a professional organisation or at least a link to expert advice.
• Clarity about links to other citizen science initiatives.
• A clear path from information to practical action (e.g. improving water quality or habitat).
Sectors Environment

Description The pilot study undertaken through this grant has informed projects in development across the National Trust with a much greater awareness of the potential use of eDNA for monitoring the National Trust's large estate in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. This understanding has been factored into work developing a national monitoring strategy.
First Year Of Impact 2022
Sector Environment
Description Internal presentation 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Internal presentation to National Trust staff. Raised awareness of the work and sharing information on the methods - growing interest in eDNA as potential tool for monitoring
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
Description Presentation to project partnership 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Presentation on study and results to Bure Valley Partnership, an advisory group for the National Trust Riverlands project. The group includes Environment Agency, Natural England, Rivers Trust and water company representatives. It prompted a discussion about the results and follow up projects the group would like to pursue with our group.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
Description Results presentation and next steps discussion 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Study participants or study members
Results and Impact We reassembled our group of citizen scientists (CS) to share and discuss the results from eDNA and next steps in their monitoring of the catchment. This has given us insight into the value of the study to our CS and their enthusiasm for continuing the work through the catchment partenrship.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
Description Shared study design workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Study participants or study members
Results and Impact We designed and ran a workshop in the Bure catchment (5th March 2020) bringing together researchers and practitioners (experts in citizen science, freshwater monitoring and eDNA metabarcoding techniques) with a group of interested individuals from the Bure catchment (existing NT volunteers, members of the local angling club, members of local natural history groups). During the workshop we presented then discussed (environmental) DNA approaches and potential with the group of citizen scientists (CS). We then worked through the CS's priorities for better understanding their catchment and worked with them to co-design a catchment-wide study using eDNA approaches. We followed this up with an evaluation questionnaire for participants.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020