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Observer variation in field assessments of vegetation condition: Implications for biodiversity conservation


  • Emma J. Gorrod,

  • David A. Keith

  • Emma Gorrod is a PhD candidate at the School of Botany, University of Melbourne (Parkville, Vic. 3010, Australia; Tel. 61 38344 0071; Fax: 61 39348 1620; Email: David Keith is Senior Research Scientist at the New South Wales Department of Environment and Climate Change (PO Box 1967, Hurstville, NSW 2220, Australia; Email: This paper was prepared in the course of evaluating the implications of operational aspects of vegetation condition assessments for biodiversity conservation in Australia.


Summary  Uncertainty in assessments of vegetation condition that are used to inform land management and planning decisions for biodiversity conservation in Australia may lead to unexpected outcomes, including loss of biodiversity. This study investigates observer error in field estimates of vegetation attributes, one component of uncertainty in assessments of vegetation condition. Ten observers conducted vegetation condition assessments using two assessment protocols (BioMetric and Habitat Hectares) on 20 sites in a grassy woodland community. Observers’ estimates varied substantially across multiple scoring categories for all vegetation attributes on almost all sites. Across all sites, the average coefficient of variation in total vegetation condition scores was 15–18% for both protocols, with a maximum of 60%. The primary cause of variation in total vegetation condition scores was random error in raw estimates of vegetation attributes, although sensitivity of some highly weighted attributes to error exacerbated variation in some cases. Observers generally agreed on the total scores and ranks of highly degraded (pasture) sites, but were less consistent on other sites. Rank correlations between pairs of observers were stronger for Habitat Hectares, suggesting BioMetric may be slightly more sensitive to observer error. It is recommended that: (i) research is undertaken into methods for reducing observer error; (ii) review is made of the sensitivity of index scoring structures to observer error; (iii) field observers estimate uncertainty around point estimates of vegetation condition; and, (iv) decision-makers explicitly incorporate uncertainty into the decision-making processes and aim for outcomes that are robust to this uncertainty.