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3.1 Scientific best practice approach

PRAGMO contains methods and approaches that can be applied as part of scientific studies or practical project data recording and appraisal. Scientific monitoring is often constrained by resources, especially for small projects with limited budgets. In such instances, it is often possible to apply simpler methodologies such as fixed point photography or Citizen Science with the help of volunteers. With larger projects, it is important that best practice scientific methods are applied, so that robust evidence can be collected and lessons can be learnt.

To help with the development of monitoring strategies, current scientific best practice and guidance are highlighted in the flow chart below in blue boxes atop sections related to the selection of techniques and sampling approaches. The flow chart will provide users with an understanding of potential scientific approaches applicable to their project (flow chart created using England et al., 2021):

  • Objectives must be informed by an understanding of catchment context and processes
  • Aim to restore both structural complexity and functional integrity of communities
  • Consider future variables such as climate change and urban development
What to monitor?
Catchment objectives Design
Morphological adjustment
Outputs: List of indicators that require monitoring
  • Consider meta-community theory when assessing physical and biological interactions.
Outputs: Suitable techniques to measure the expected change in the indicators of interest
Pre-restoration monitoring
Collect data at the scale at which change is expected to occur and for at least 3 years before restoration to capture temporal variability
Post-restoration monitoring
Should reflect the time it takes for indicators to change. Repeat data should be collected at the same time of year as pre-restoration data.
Analysis and appraisal
  • Ensure the planned appraisal timeframe allows ecological responses to be observed
  • Consult a statistician early in the project planning stage
  • Identify whether a model-based or algorithm-based approach is appropriate for your project
  • Assess both the taxonomic and functional responses
  • Use ecological theory to help interpret monitoring results

3.2 Navigating this guide: a step by step outline from objectives to delivery

The following provides a summary of the key areas covered in this document. It also acts as document map to identify where specific information can be found.

1. Do you know what your project is aiming to achieve?

Monitoring a project and demonstrating success is firstly reliant on a systematic assessment of the project aims and specific targets. By defining clear aims appropriate for your river type, there is more chance that resources can be applied to address specific questions (i.e. monitoring resources can be allocated as an important and integral part of a project at the beginning).

Many projects become difficult to monitor simply because it is not clear what the project is trying to achieve. For example, the main aim of removing a weir might be to improve spawning habitat and the mobility of adult fish, but it will also have a benefit for aquatic and margin-dwelling macro-invertebrates. In terms of understanding what you may wish to monitor, it is likely that some or all of these aspects should be considered (depending on resources). A similar assessment can be completed in terms of physical processes, with in-channel feature formation and the changes in the local river-bed topography being key areas of interest.

2. Do you understand the fundamental characteristics of your river?

River restoration can only be successful where it has taken account of both the physical factors (i.e. the habitat types such as pools, riffles, berms etc and how they are formed) and the biology (i.e. what species are already in your catchment, can they get to the newly restored reach, and what habitats do the species need?). In order to achieve success it is also essential to understand the existing characteristics of your catchment and their impact upon your restoration opportunity; hence, "Understanding your catchment" becomes a very important early aspect of your river restoration and monitoring process.

  • Hydrology – how much water (low and high flows), how variable?
  • Water and sediment quality – is it good, poor or bad and what chemicals are present?
  • Sediment - how much have you got and what type? It the sediment being mainly transported, eroded or deposited at your potential project site?
  • Morphology – how has your river been modified from its natural form?

YESgo to 2
NOrefer to further information and/or seek expert advice

3. Have you considered all potential positive and negative environmental responses to your project?

  • Kick-starting and maintaining natural river processes and forms (e.g. bank erosion, pools, riffles, vegetation berms, etc.) and hence provide a diversity of habitat niches?
  • Supporting a wide a range of native fauna and flora appropriate to your river system?
  • Encouraging the formation of a range of habitats for a specific species and its life cycle stages?
  • Have you considered the effect/benefit in terms of achieving the Water Framework Directive targets of Good Ecological Status (GES) or Good Ecological Potential (GEP) (see Appendix 1)?

YESgo to 3
NOrefer to additional information; consider improving aspects of hydrology, water quality and morphology where possible and focus your monitoring to demonstrate improvement in those aspects (see also Appendix 1).

4. Have you defined ‘SMART’ project objectives?

The message here is be clear about what you want to achieve for your river restoration project and what aspects you need to know more about. Consider a project where the stated aims are to "improve the wildlife and work with natural processes". Since there are no direct and unequivocal measures of these outcomes, it would be impossible to justifiably demonstrate the success of such a project. Hence the need for defining Specific and Measurable objectives that can be defined as Achievable, Realistic and are Time-bound in terms of the length of the monitoring period and which season should data be collected (following the SMART mnemonic fully explained in Section 4). How to achieve this is outlined as part of the process in these guidelines.

It is essential to consider integrated SMART project objectives that consider both the ecology and the physical processes.

  • Is the main aim of your project to improve the physical processes of the river or to increase the biological diversity?
  • If your focus is to increase river forms and processes, what will be the benefit for the ecology (specific fauna and flora and, where appropriate, their life cycles?
  • If your focus is to increase ecological diversity for a range of fauna and/or flora which parts of the life cycle are you aiming to restore for and what physical river features are you expecting to form to support this?

Are your objectives SMART?:

  • Clear (Specific)?
  • Quantifiable (Measurable)?
  • Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound?

YESgo to 4
NOrefer to Chapter 4

5. Do you know the amount of monitoring required to answer your project objectives?

Monitoring is an extremely important part of a river restoration project that can help increase understanding and also identify future management needs. However, if not carefully designed, it can become resource (time, money and people) heavy. By understanding aspects of your river size and type, the assessment tool/technique (or suite of techniques) you are planning to use and the specifics of what you want to understand, it is then possible to decide the level of resources you need for monitoring. Prioritising monitoring aspirations based on linking to project objectives and funders requirements should also be a key element of the planning process. This will help to define what is feasible in terms of the project budget and possibly persuade funders to contribute more towards the costs of monitoring.

  • Is the river restoration technique established and proven to be successful on rivers similar to yours?
  • How high is the risk of failure?
  • What monitoring has already, or is currently, being done and by whom (e.g. Rivers Trusts, angling clubs, water companies etc.)?
  • Do you need to prioritise certain elements of your project for monitoring?
  • What is the most important aspect to understand (this might be 'to increase scientific evidence' or 'satisfy specific stakeholders‟/funders‟ requests')?

YESgo to 5
NORefer to Chapter 6

6. Have you set SMART monitoring objectives to answer your restoration project questions?

  • What evidence of success already exists?
  • What are your resources (people and budget)?
  • What pre-project data do you have or can you collect?
  • Do you have restrictions on timescales for delivery of monitoring outputs?

YESgo to 6
NORefer to Chapter 6.4

7. Are you confident that you are using appropriate monitoring techniques?

There are many techniques available. This document provides advice on the different types of techniques and what they might tell you, as well as what use can be made of relevant monitoring already routinely carried out within your catchment. It also identifies the types of techniques that can be used by local groups compared to those that realistically require a high level of expertise to collect data and interpret it in a meaningful way.

  • What is the most important aspect to collect information on for your project (this may be related to increasing scientific evidence or specific stakeholders/funders requests, for example)?
  • Will your chosen monitoring techniques answer your project objectives?
  • Timescales - Are you monitoring over the correct timescales (years and number of data collection periods in each year)?
  • Resources - Do you have the budget and people to implement your chosen monitoring methods?

YESimplement your monitoring strategy
NORefer to Chapter 7