So, what's in your back yard?

8th February 2008 at 00:00

Find out when and where a badger was last spotted in Scotland, where fossils are, or nature reserves, just by logging on.

At first glance it looks like an experiment to see how many people can be squeezed into one medium-sized classroom. With a little space to spare, the answer seems to be 20 students, two teachers, six photographers, four Scottish Natural Heritage officials and the Minister for Environment, Mike Russell.

"SNH has a huge amount of information," the minister tells the assembled listeners. "It is really important that the money spent over many years in getting that information is put to good use by sharing it."

The chosen method for doing so is a user-friendly website being launched at Dumbarton Academy. It is the brainchild of Alan McKirdy, geologist and SNH head of information. "This has been a dream of mine for years," he says. "We have tons and tons of relevant information about the natural heritage, and we really want it to be useful.

"Natural heritage covers habitats, species, soils, geology, landforms, rocks, fossils, rights of way - it's a very wide definition. We now have all that information out there in a form that makes it easy to find what you're looking for.

"If you want to know about sites of scientific interest or nature reserves, you go to SiteLink. If you want to know what's in your backyard, you go to Wimby. If you're looking for trends and indicators, go to Trends and Indicators. It's very straightforward."

Some public agencies guard their information quite jealously, he explains. "But we believe it should be freely available. All these people here today have paid for it through general taxation. It's public knowledge."

Scottish Natural Heritage's research department has been gathering knowledge and building understanding about the country's natural heritage for 15 years, says Mr McKirdy. "Much of it has been made available, but in disparate sources or paper format. We have now brought it all together in a one-stop-shop. The plan is to interact with user groups and make sure they're getting the experience we would like them to have."

These groups will include foresters, farmers, estate managers, planners, tourists, local residents - and, of course, teachers.

"I like the fact that all the information you might want on Scotland is coming together in one place," says Alastair Henderson, principal teacher of geography at Dumbarton Academy.

"It's going to be very useful for Higher and Higher Still geography and biology. But we will also use it further down the school, when we're looking at the local environment. There's a lot of good stuff on the website about the wildlife, the local area and the Loch Lomond national park.

"I can see us using all that, for example, by zooming in with Google Earth, which has quite good detail for the Vale of Leven, then going to SNHi to find out what's there. Another nice feature is sightings - you can put in `badgers' for instance, and it'll show you all the places in Scotland they've been sighted."

Sixth-year student Jamie Steenson has only just seen the site, he says: "But it looks good to me. It has a lot of information about the national park and it's compact. So it'll be easier now to find what you're looking for."

The new website delivers a great deal of information already, but it is also a model for something even more comprehensive, Mike Russell explains. "Organisations like SNH, SEPA (Scottish Environmental Protection Agency) and others have collected a huge amount of information over the years. But until now this has often been held by a magic circle.

"Next year, the Scottish Government will be piloting the Scottish Environmental Information Portal, which will give access to all the environmental information we have. SNHi will be an important part of that. So watch this space."


The new website is organised into sections:

- Wimby: Find out about species and habitats near where you live.

- Teaching space: Teaching resources and information on sites suitable for outdoor learning.

- SiteLink: Learn about sites of natural heritage value.

- Trends and indicators: What's happening to Scotland's environment?

- Facts and figures: Natural spaces: Download data on the countryside.

- NNRs: National nature reserves.

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