Since the 19th century, red squirrels have faced a rival in our woodlands – bigger grey squirrels, which were imported from North America.
This constant competition has meant that red squirrels are now almost extinct in Southern England, except for a few on the Isle of Wight and two small islands in Poole Harbour.
For the first time in the UK, Artificial Intelligence technology will be used to monitor rural red squirrel populations in a four-way collaboration between the Mammal Society, the University of Bristol, Huawei Technologies and Rainforest Connection.
“We’re learning more about their [red squirrels’] ecology all the time, and what we can do to support them. But that survey work can be time-consuming and difficult in the remote countryside,” says Dr Stephanie Wray, chairwoman of the Mammal Society .
The Guardian and Audiomoth are two new devices developed through the partnership that will be installed in the UK’s woodlands.
Fuelled by solar energy, the Guardian will listen and record the sounds of our woodlands (or bio-acoustics) and upload this vast reserve of data straight on to the cloud.
“You would need a lot of human resources to do this manually,” says Henk Koopmans, chief executive of Huawei Technologies UK research and development. “Through using AI supervised learning models, you have the ability to analyse data much more easily.”
The Audiomoth, while fulfilling the same function, doesn’t relay the data that it collects in real time – but allows more audio devices overall to be deployed across the UK.
These bio-acoustics offer a broader insight into the eco-systems that red squirrels are a part of. “We can identify threats in the environment such as illegal logging or cars approaching – but we can also explore the interactions between red and grey, their behaviours and how they’re responding to environment,” says Dr Wray.
Algorithms can be created to identify patterns as long as they are fed with data – so we could soon discover how to support an environment in which red squirrels can thrive.
Using audio technology to monitor endangered wildlife isn’t an entirely new concept for Huawei and Rainforest Connection, who have collaborated previously on projects in Costa Rica to protect spider-monkeys and have helped chamois in Greece.
Incorporating bio-diversity into conversations about the climate is something Dr Wray says is usually neglected: “Bio-diversity is that complex, messy interaction of everything that’s alive on the earth and people have a lot of trouble knowing how to address that. But if I say ‘if the forest is in good enough shape, then it’s going to support red squirrels for the next 100 years’, we know that we need to rebuild ecosystems that have been damaged by years of neglect.