Getting a sandwich year work placement

Some time in the first week of the foundation year I completed in order to get a place on my degree course (Ecology & Conservation at Manchester Metropolitan University) we all attended a series of talk by lecturers on a variety of programs they managed in addition to their lectures and research. One of these was Jonathan who spoke to us about the Sandwich Year option. If we wanted we could do a work placement for a year in between the second and third years of our degrees.

Jonathan showed us some graphs which illustrated that if you did a sandwich year you were more likely to get a job when you graduate and more likely to get a first class degree. I was interested in both of these things so decided I would make my degree a sandwich degree and do a sandwich year.

 sandwichgraph(This is not the graph Jonathan showed us)

Over the next couple of years I have to admit I changed my mind repeatedly about whether or not I should do a sandwich year. For a start I am a mature student and all the more keen to graduate and start my new career properly. A placement would add 12 months to my degree and take 12 months off my career. We were also warned that paid ecology placements were few and far between so we should prepare to do a part time placement and work part time along side it. I was working part time along side university in  the job I used to do full time and was keen to put behind me.

At times it seemed to me there was an emphasis of the experience you would have while on a placement. As in ‘it’ll be a great experience’ rather than ‘you’ll gain great experience’. I thought that might have been more applicable to me when I was a teenager whereas now I was prepared to have a horrible experience if it’d get me a job when I graduated.

It occurred to me that I could potentially find work experience over the summer between my 2nd and 3rd years which would give me all the experiences a placement would give me without the cost in time and money of the extra year. Plus the sandwich placements could start no earlier than July as passing your 2nd year was a condition of doing it. For an ecology placement this would mean missing out on a sizable chunk of the interesting work in ecology…

I still think they are all good reasons not to do a placement and I made the decision that I wouldn’t do one for the sake of it, only if it was one I really wanted. Plus whilst the above is all true, so is the undeniable fact that the opportunity to work for a year in the industry you aspire to work in, gaining skills and experiences that prospective employers will be looking for on CVs, with the kinds of people who may be able to one day offer you at least a reference or advice, and at best a job, is priceless.

So I started looking for a placement. I researched ecological consultancies in the North West and a little beyond with the help of Google. To a certain extent you have to try to interpret websites, looking for companies that make a point of including the fact that they offer work placements on their site and contacting them first. A lot of ecological consultancies may in reality only be one person and unable to offer a placement. I sent emails with my CV and received some interest. A couple of places asked to be contacted again later in the year.

In truth though  I was looking for a back up as I already knew who I wanted to do a placement with. I first heard about Penny Anderson Associates (PAA) through my ecologist friend Richard who as I’ve mentioned in another blog I met through the university’s Mentor Match program. He had suggested if I was going to do a placement with a consultancy they would be an excellent choice and after reading more about them I agreed.

PAA

I couldn’t contact PAA directly as they offered a regular placement place to MMU so Jonathan would have to send the CVs of any interested parties over to them. There was no getting in there early. My CV was sent over and along with 3 others was invited in for an interview. I knew the other 3 and had that disconcerting feeling of knowing that any one of you has the potential for success.

What we had in common was having dedicated our spare time to volunteering and joining wildlife groups. It’s something that is drummed into you from the moment you start uni and yet still most people I study with do no extracurricular activities. Writing my CV for a work placement was the first satisfying CV I’d written. Bat group, plant courses, butterfly courses, volunteering with the Wildlife Trust, it really works. Not only that but once you get into it you forget that it’s benefiting your CV as you find out about more and more. It’s fun, but it’s productive fun.

The interview took place at PAAs office in Buxton. I wore a suit. I’d had a crisis of confidence about this the day before wondering if it would be more appropriate to wear a fleece and hiking trousers. No, it’s a job interview of course I should wear a suit. I was very nervous. Something I learned on the day however is that job interviews for jobs you really want are easier than interviews for jobs that your heart isn’t in. It’s easy to think of things to say about a subject you’re passionate about and I came out of the hour long interview confident that I had said most of the things I had wanted to say.

I had rehearsed. I’d researched the company at length both in preparation for the interview and just because it’s an interesting company that are involved in all sorts of things I’d like to be involved with. The interview and interviewers  were relaxed and friendly which puts you both at ease and on edge simultaneously. Something that became clear as we talked was that the extracurricular activities help you get an interview, but in that interview you need to be able to talk about what you can do. Ticking boxes isn’t enough. I felt I’d held my own but I definitely came away thinking I could have better used some of the time I’d spent doing general conservation volunteering by approaching local ecologists and asking for work experience. It seems obvious now but actually being able to do things is rather than simply knowing what they are is very valuable.

After an anxious wait I got an email from Jonathan informing me I’d been successful. Generally I have pretty narrow emotional range. I tend to look and act the same whether something really good or really bad has happened but this was one of the rare special occasions where I was so happy. It was December and my Dad was up visiting from Cardiff. I went to meet him in town, it was pouring with rain and I walked all the way there unable to wipe the smile from my face.

That’s my experience of the process of getting a work placement. It may be very different for other people and other placements. Today is Thursday, I start Monday. I’ll be keeping a record on here of my experiences over the next year so if you’re thinking about doing a similar placement yourself or you’re just interested in the day to day of a budding ecologist, stay tuned (I promise future blogs wont be so text heavy!).

Dissertation Blog entry #6. Final survey day 6 & Lab session. 2013.

I can’t stay away from Hale Golf Course it seems. I had planned on my last survey day being at another site but after I was contacted by a man called Andrew who had been given my email address by Richard I now knew the location of some good river bank sites on the course which is pretty much all I needed to get my 10 plots per 3 habitat types.

As I cycled there yesterday I thought that this was the last chance for me to have a really bad day surveying, and wondered if it was inevitable therefore that I would? As I wondered this my litre of Vimto fell out of the bottle holder on my bike. I rode up onto the pavement and looked back in time to see an articulated lorry run over it sending a purple Vimto fountain arcing onto the pavement behind me. I’m happy to say this is as bad as the day got.

Now knowing the route well I was there in no time and this time had the curiosity of surveying a site on the golf course side of the river. I’ve always assumed that I don’t like golf courses on account of them being so heavily landscaped but I’ve discovered I enjoy the polished aesthetic of the course contrasting with the wilderness of its surroundings. Neatly mown grass with foxgloves peering down at it from the tree line.  I made sure I didn’t make any sudden movements as I passed the golfers. I didn’t want to put anyone off their game and get in trouble.

Site 10, plot 1

The patch I was to survey was out of the way of the green. Some work had been undertaken to remove Balsam but there was plenty left and I wasted no time getting started. My plots were steep and difficult to navigate due to over hanging branches and dense vegetation. I noticed that a couple of bees seemed to have taken an interest in one of the foot holes I was using to climb the bank but thought nothing of it. As I began my second quadrat there were several bees in and around the foot hole which I now realised was their home. At this point, looking at the steep bank, dozens of holes came into focus, each with either bees or wasps entering and exiting. It appeared I had chosen a veritable bee/wasp city to survey along. I tucked my jumper into my trousers and my sleeves into my gloves and doubled my speed. Every time I threw a handful of Balsam up onto the bank I’d quickly scramble away in case the bees caught me at it! If they decided I was a threat there was really nowhere to go but the river.

Site 9, plot 6

Thankfully as I moved along the bank I left the bees and wasps behind and remained unstung. I sat on a fallen tree by the river and ate my sandwiches in the sunshine before retracing my steps, off the course, over the bridge and into the woods for two last quadrats…

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The last two were boggy but rich in species. I finally had some Wood Sorrel to include in the surveys and snacked on their leaves as I did so. Ferns too this time which I am yet to identify but have a pinna complete with indusium in my press awaiting my attention. As I left the site I bumped into Richard and handed him the one golf ball I’d found in the whole survey. “Your members must be excellent shots” I told him. He said no it’s just that I was off the beaten track.

Surveys complete all that was left to do for this first half of my fieldwork was head into uni and analyse my soil samples. I spent last night drying half of my samples out in the oven much to the amusement of Stacey. I arrived at the lab this morning at 09:30. The lab was deserted but for the few staff in over the summer and for the pH testing I was left to my own devices.

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Such a contrast between the survey sites and the lab. As different a selection of shapes and colours as you could achieve if you set out of create a contrast on purpose. In term time  the busy lab sessions are not my favorite part of uni. My dyslexia goes crazy in the bright white of the lab brim full of voices and distractions, but on a quiet day like today there was a pleasant calm and quirkiness to the surroundings that I couldn’t help but enjoy…

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A quick break for a bag of crisps and a wander around the empty university then back to the lab to head out back and use the LECO elemental analyser. Using my dry samples I weighed out 0.1000g, rolled them up in foil and fed them into the machine. The results will be emailed to me at a later date…

LECO analysis

LECO analysis

LECO analysis

That’s me done with my project field work for this year. I’ll repeat it all same time next year and the data comparison will make up the bulk of my dissertation. I went and had a chat with Liz as I’ll be disappearing for a year come Monday when I start my placement. As usual she was encouraging and also gave me more work to be getting on with!

I cycled home in the rain. The last 2 miles of what has amounted to around 200 over the past fortnight. I feel fit, satisfied and totally knackered. Time for a beer I think!

Dissertation Blog entry #5. Survey days 4 & 5. 2013.

Day 4:

I returned to Hale Golf Course for a second day. It poured with rain as I cycled there. Shower rain like in films. I was soaked within minutes. I stood dripping in the petrol station waiting to pay for a bag of Skittles while a man had an argument with the guy on the til. He’d forgotten his wallet and only realised after putting £5 of petrol in his van. The man behind the til wouldn’t accept his trader’s license and mobile phone as collateral as it wasn’t company policy. The man got angrier and angrier. Then another man gave him £5 and he left. I was 10p short for my Skittles. I didn’t bother asking if they’d let me off. As luck would have it they were 10p cheaper at the next garage I stopped at. Hooray!

I arrived at the golf course and was locking my bike up when a man called Richard who described himself as ‘one of the pros’ introduced himself and asked me to lock it up round the back instead. I told him what I was doing there and he took my details to give to a man who apparently does a lot of conservation work on the site. Hale Golf Club seem very interested in the control of invasive plant species.

Site 7, plot 3

I headed into the woods and performed a quick change into a dry t-shirt and cagoule, managing to achieve it without encountering any dog walkers, and headed into the woods, further off the path this time to complete 4 more woodland quadrats. Despite the weather this proved to be a really enjoyable session. I felt quite alone for most of the time, it was lovely and lush and green. Occasionally I’d hear a dog bark in the distance and stop what I was doing, several Balsam stems in hand and see if I could see anyone. It occurred to me  I must look almost Hobbit like foraging around in the woods on my own. Hopefully Hobbit like, not Golum like.

Site 7, day 2

Just as I was leaving I was treated to the site of a big, healthy looking Common Frog hopping through the vegetation. It hopped right up to a  juicy slug and proceeded to eat it on the hop, one half hanging out of it’s wide mouth. This may have been partly due to me trying to take a photo of it which in the end I gave up on the perfect shot and settled for just watching.

Slug for lunch

Day 5:

My first Giant Hogweed day. This presented an exciting variation to the surveys thus far and an extra hassle. I had to cycle the 12ish miles to Geoffrey’s house with all my usual kit, plus wellies. Wellies are both big and heavy. You may not notice it when you’re slinging them in the boot of your car but trust me they’re a right pain to get in a bag on your back. I had to load myself up with my backpacking rucksack on my back. It was heavy and cumbersome and hurt my back to cycle with on. After a few miles I discovered if I undid the waist strap it wasn’t so bad and I got my head down and dealt with the journey one miles stone at a time.

Site 8

I caught my breath and  had my lunch in a field near Geoffrey’s house so arrived on time in good spirits. Sal was there too with overalls, gloves and a visor to borrow to protect me from the phototoxic chemicals in the plant’s sap which I’ve just read can get into the nucleus of the epithilial cells, forming a bond with the DNA, causing the cells to die. Google ‘giant hogweed burns’ and check out the images if you’re aren’t familiar with what this plant can do to you.

Me & Sal Davies

Geoffrey took some photos of Sal and I for an article he’s writing. I asked him to take the above photo for my blog. I think it looks a little bit like I’ve superimposed Sal onto it but I assure you she was there.

I was left to get on on with it. The sun had come out for another beautiful afternoon. I marked out my plots, all of them starting at the boundary of meadow and Hogweed extending 2m into the Hogweed stands. I took my GPS readings, wrote my descriptions etc etc, then I fastened my hood, pulled up my gloves and down my visor and I crawled into the Giant Hogweed.

Site 8

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Site 8

Two things were immediately both obvious and surprising. Firstly there was nothing growing within the Giant Hogweed. There was the odd bramble and some grasses near the edge but between the stems, under the canopy formed by those huge serrated leaves it was a desert. Second, the smell. It smelt gorgeous in there! Like almonds or something it was one of those smells you like so much you keep taking deep breaths through your nose to get more of it. How cruel a trick of nature that something so toxic could smell so inviting. No one had told me about the smell. I’m pretty sure it was coming from the Giant Hogweed because it smelt good in all 5 plots I surveyed. There doesn’t seem to be much on line about it’s aroma and Stace makes no mention of it.

As I pottered about on my own in the meadow wearing my blue overalls and visor I felt like a character in some post apocalyptic science fiction novel wandering through a deserted and beautiful wilderness. Banded and Emerald damselflies flew up from the grass and darted around me as I moved around, attempting to give them plenty of time to escape my wellington boots with slow steps.

Site 8, plot 4

Sal will arrange for the Giant Hogweed to be removed from my plots, so the 5 I surveyed didn’t take too long and I was ready to leave by 4pm. I waded through the long grass of the meadow back to the house to get my bike. Dougie the dog barked at me and I congratulated him on being a good guard dog. It’d been a great day getting so close to these poisonous giants, able to move among them with their leaves brushing off my visor an their huge, hollow stems crunching with almost larynx like tones beneath my feet. They are so impressive. Their flower pods look like cabbages atop 10ft poles and the flowers were covered in bees looting their pollen.

Site 8

But however beautiful and interesting, they are unmistakable invaders. On first seeing the stand of them in the meadow I commented that there is nothing British about them. Their form and size, everything about them screams intruder and if you climb through the stand of them to the river bank you see Giant Hogweed stretching along the river bank off into the distance. Thousands of plants, presumably with the same silent, shaded desert stretching along beneath them.

I put on my pack and headed home. As I turned onto the 62 cycle route it occurred to me I knew the way so no need to Google Maps directing me through my headphones. I put Freebird by Lynyrd Skynyd on and fired down the path in the sunshine. Insects bounced off my face and as the guitars kicked in swallows were darting back and forth across the path.

Free Bird on the 62

Dissertation Blog entry #4. Survey day 3. 2013.

No rest for the wicked. Up at 7am for scrambled eggs with Stacey before packing up and hitting the pedals. Saturday, my first of two days at Hale Golf Course. Or rather the woods behind Hale Golf Course to be more specific. I like the ride out to Hale for a couple of reasons. Firstly it takes me through Wythenshawe Park which is lovely. Wythenshawe doesn’t have a great reputation these days and is known more as the largest council estate in Europe than as somewhere with pleasant green spaces, but the park is huge and well looked after with many old trees, vast expanses of grass and an old Tudor style building which I’m always too busy to stop and find out what it is, but it all looks very nice. It reminds you that a deprived area might not once have been and that it might not always be. Secondly the ride takes me through a posh part of Hale where every house looks like a Grand Design and has a name like The Poplars. As you turn into Hale Golf Club you see the sign ‘since 1903’ and you realise that Hale has always been posh!

I arrived there at 10am and locked my bike up outside the shop as I had when I visited the site before. I feel slightly self conscious as I do this wondering if I’m breaching a club rule. I read the rule book to a Bowls Club once while I was working at the bank and it had all sorts of rules like that you had to wear a tie, and no women. Everyone at Hale Golf Club seems very nice though. I didn’t see anyone wearing a tie and there were lots of women. You enter the woods by walking across the first hole. Again you wonder if someone is going to tell you off but they don’t, of course, it’s a clearly marked public right of way. Into the woods I went and relaxed in surroundings I feel better equipped to deal with.

Site 5

I headed to my grassland sites first. As is becoming increasing apparent, things grow faster than I expect and fields that were knee high a couple of weeks ago are now chest high jungles. I made my way to the bit with the most Balsam at the back and in the absence of any floor space set about hanging my stuff on the Willow tree there for convenience…

Research Tree

The Balsam was denser here than the other plots I’d surveyed at the other sites. This will be quicker and easier I thought. I was wrong. Here’s something new I’ve learned about Himalayan Balsam; for ever one large plant there can be a dozen small ones hanging around underneath it. The second line of defense waiting for something to happen to their general so they can spring into action. So the pulling here became a lengthy and precise process like mowing your lawn with a pair of eyebrow tweezers.

Site 5, plot 1

But pluck it I did! I got two plots done in that meadow meaning I now have my target of 10 for grassland Balsam plots. Ten down, loads more woodland and riverbank to go… As I left the meadow I came to a spot where inundated met the as yet not inundated. There amongst the grass, towered over by the mighty wall of the advancing Balsam was the familiar, delicate form of Lesser Stitchwort. It looked both vulnerable and defiant in the face of such floral adversity.

Lesser Stitchwort standing his ground on the Balsam frontier.

My next few plots were on the banks of the Bollin accessible through the woods. This involved some minor acrobatics on my part, surveying at an oblique angle like a goat with a clipboard. I congratulated myself on my excellent balancing skills and noted that I hardly ever fall over. I came across these two plants which I am yet to identify:

Answers on a postcard
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And my surveys included some other new species to the project in Ground Ivy and Red Campion which had been conspicuously absent up to then. I pulled a lot of Balsam on these plots, creating the Olympus Mons of Balsam piles in the woods

Site 6

Then I went looking for some good woodland plots. I tripped on a tree root and went flailing into a large boggy area sending my kit in all directions and covering me in mud. So much for never falling over. The event was witnessed only by a robin who promptly flew away, presumably to tell everyone else.

I completed one more woodland plot. As I did I met a bull dog called Dave who apparently never barks according to his owners, and a couple going for a walk with their little boy who was sat on his dad’s shoulders. They stopped and asked my what I was up to. They were familiar with the different invasive species in the area and interested in the conservation efforts happening which made for an encouraging end to the survey day.  At 5pm I packed up and headed back up the footpath towards the golf course. Daylight unfiltered by the canopy appeared dazzling as I left the woods, munching down a hand full of Skittles to give me the energy to get home.

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Species identified on this survey:

  • Cleavers
  • Enchanter’s Nightshade
  • Bramble
  • Nettles
  • Cow Parsley
  • Ivy
  • Ground Ivy
  • Wood Avens
  • Rough Meadow Grass
  • Willowherb spp.
  • Hogweed
  • Ash
  • Red Campion
  • Blue Bells
  • 2 as yet unidentified higher plants
  • 2 as yet unidentified grasses

Dissertation Blog entry #3. Survey day 2. 2013.

Off to Ross Mill in Hale today to complete 6 grassland plots and 2 woodland plots. Himalayan Balsam the target invasive species again. The weather forecast was for showers so I packed a cag and some water proof paper making my heavy kit bag that little bit heavier and off I went…

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Managed to find the place OK. It’s a quiet, pretty area where you can go a while without seeing anyone. You can hear the motorway but you can’t see it and soon your ears tune it out. I started at the first meadow Sal had shown me. I managed to get 4 quadrats out of it which make up for the loss of 2 at The Carrs yesterday.

Site 2

Straight away I faced a crisis of confidence. There was a plant that looked similar to Himalayan Balsam but was lacking some of its key ID features. Its stem was hairy and its leaves were in opposite pairs not whorls of 3. I know that means it isn’t Himalayan Balsam but that bit of my brain that’s been responsible for deciding what things are for my whole life before I started learning botany kept saying: “But it looks like it”. I tried to call Sal and someone else answered advising that she wasn’t in the office today. I asked them if they knew anything about Himalayan Balsam. They asked what the problem was and I described it badly and they said it sounded like Himalayan Balsam. I called Sal on her mobile, no answer. Poor Sal. I wonder if she regrets putting her contact details on her emails yet? I pulled myself together. It clearly wasn’t Himalayan Balsam so I would ID it later and not pull any of it up. I was made to feel slightly better by the fact that a member of the public who had pulled some Balsam up had also pulled up one of these mystery plants. Just one though. I wonder if they went through the same crisis as me?

Any idea what this is anyone? Hairy, crunchy stems, leaves in oposite pairs.

Sal called me back and I described it. It’s Enchanter’s Nightshade. A few weeks later and it would have a flower stalk sticking out the top with small white flowers on. I learned two valuable lessons here. How to identify Enchanter’s Nightshade in its vegetative form, and for the last time if it doesn’t have the features its supposed to then it isn’t the thing you think it is!

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I headed along the path to the second meadow and set about looking for more Balsam. I saw a few loan plants here and there but not enough to merit a survey plot. And then I saw it, oh boy…

Oh boy #HimalayanBalsam

You go though the same cycle over and over again with Himalayan Balsam. You potter about in patches of it, pulling it up and feeling pleased with yourself, then you turn a corner and get hit by a tsunami of the stuff and realise how bad the problem is. That’s why projects like BEACON are so important. Alien invasives are effectively an army of plants and so require an organised response.

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Just along the path you can see what potential the area has, and also what it has to lose if the army takes more ground…

Site 2.5

This new meadow was more popular with Balsam and with dog walkers and I proved to be a hit with the many dogs that came bounding through. Their reaction was always the same: “Who are you?! There’s not normally a man here! This is our field! …Play with me!”. A Labrador by the name of Fletcher came running back repeatedly causing his owned to come back and get him only for him to reappear doing that excited fake pounce thing dogs do a minute later. The dogs and conversations with their owners provided a welcome occasional break and it felt nice to be able to tell people about what I was doing and why.

Next time I’m taking more food. I’d eaten my one and half sandwiches when I arrived at 11 and I was there til 5. It rained once and I go to try out my water proof paper. It works, more or less. The paper is water proof I’ll give it that but there’s a peculiar interplay between the ink and the paper and the same voice in my head that caused the problem with the Ground Elder wouldn’t stop reacting every time a rain drop rolled off a leaf on the tree over head and splashed onto the paper I was writing on. But the sun came out and stayed out and I got my 8 plots completed.

Site 2, removed from plots 1-4
Site 2.5
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An unexpected bonus of this choice of project is that I get to do a little bit of practical conservation work along the way. There is a lot of Balsam on the sites I saw today but not on my plots and not around them. I couldn’t resist clearing the surrounding Balsam too. They can eject their seeds up to 7 meters so it made sense to remove surrounding plants too and as anyone whose ever pulled Balsam knows, it’s very moreish.

More than 15 species made it onto the survey list today but there were plenty that were just outside the quadrats. Dead nettles and the like. Whilst I was excited to imagine what the plots will contain next year, I was also knackered, hungry and thirsty. I packed up, slung on my kit bag and set off on the long ride home.

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Species identified on this survey:

  • Cleavers
  • Enchanter’s Nightshade
  • Bramble
  • Nettles
  • Creeping Buttercup
  • Meadow Buttercup
  • Grass spp. (to be identified)
  • Ivy
  • Herb Robert
  • Wood Avens
  • Rough Meadow Grass
  • Great Willowherb
  • Hogweed
  • Dock spp.
  • Holly
  • Yellow Pimpernel
  • Ash
  • Grass spp 2 (to be identified)

Dissertation Blog entry #2. Survey day 1. 2013.

Day 1

I awoke to beautiful sunny day, perfect for surveying. I prepared my kit and slinging the heavy rucksack onto my shoulders I set off  cycling to The Carrs. The route Google Maps took me one meant cycling passed Concord Business Park in Wythenshawe where I worked for a cable TV company in a call centre for 3 years when I first lived in Manchester. Those days where never ending and I’d pass the time watching the magpies and midges flying around the central court yard I could see from my desk, tracing the sunshine up the wall hoping there’d be some left for me when I got out. I’d like to have been able to ride my bike into the site, around the building and up to me in the past, sat on a bench on his lunch break and tell him everything was going change.

Site 1, Plot 1

I arrived at The Carrs on Styal Road to find some helpful member of the public had pulled up all my Balsam! Calamity! I paced up and down the perimeter of the grassland like a cartoon character scowling. I considered going home. I really needed those two grassland quadrats. I looked over at the dense nettle stands rich with Balsam that I’d discounted earlier on account of them looking horrific. I was wearing shorts and t-shirt.

Screw it, I thought. I retrieved the shirt I had in my bag, put it on with my gloves, tucking the sleeves in. I pulled my football socks up as high as they’d go and went stomping into the nettle patch with my marker canes and tape measure. My knees got it first but after a while the nettles were stinging me through the shirt sleeves and on a number of occasions they lashed against my head as I stooped down to look for species, stinging my face and even in my ear which is tingling as I type now.

Knees raw from nettle sings(That picture really doesn’t do it justice!)

This was my first ‘proper’ organized botanical survey. I’ve gone out looking for interesting plants before and done some stuff with uni but this felt like the first official one. Despite the stings and hay fever I really enjoyed it. Doing botany is different to reading about it, obviously, but you don’t find out how until you’re doing it. I probably could have guessed that Cleavers would do well in a Balsam dominated environment as they can climb, but seeing them wrapped around the Balsam stems gave me a picture for my memory not just of the fact but of the style too. I also found that in no time at all you can spot a Balsam stem amongst dense vegetation easier than you can find their leaves.

Site 1, Plot 1

The highlight of the survey came during the first of my two plots at this site when while on hands and needs looking for more Balsam to remove, a fleck of blue caught my eye. Looking closer I saw, deep amongst the stems of the tall herbs a delicate, creeping plant with small blue flowers. Closer inspection with my hand lens revealed the unmistakable form of a Speedwell. I love a good Speedwell! They might be my favorite flowers. I retrieved my trusty copy of Francis Rose’s The Wild Flower Key and found I had Heath Speedwell growing in my Balsam infested grassland border. Just a little bit. Excellent news! I’ll be very interested to see if it can beat this year’s <1% cover statistic next year.

Survey day 1. The Carrs. Himalayan Balsam. Grassland.

Species identified on this survey:

  •           Himalayan Balsam
  •           Nettle
  •           Hogweed
  •           Cow Parsley
  •           Bramble
  •           Cleavers
  •           Heath Speedwell
  •           Wood Avens
  •           Creeping Buttercup
  •           Rough Meadow Grass
  •           Cocks Foot
  •           Yorkshire Fog
  •           Meadow Fox Tail
  •           Sycamore

Dissertation Blog entry #1. Planning.

It seemed to creep up on us, the fact that we had to start our 3rd year project all of a sudden. There’d been some talk of thinking about it but no one seemed to be doing anything about it and none of our lecturers had done their mock-urgent routine yet. You know when you have certain friends who are always late (Frenchi & Carl) so you always tell them to be places half an hour early which results in them getting there on time? The dissertation process is apparently much more subtle.

There’s no big announcement at first, you just notice that staff start casually asking you what you’re going to do your 3rd year project on. Just the one here and there at first but then more and more until your subconscious suddenly adds them all up and decides to add a little sprinkle of anxiety into your conscious. I had my work placement interview coming up and I thought I ought to have an answer ready if they asked me what I was doing.

This was apparently easier for me than a lot of people I knew who literally didn’t have a clue what they might do it on. What I did know is that if I was going to complete a decent piece of work I had to find it interesting, had to be enthused. That meant plants. Having spent a fair amount of time volunteering for the Wildlife Trust over the past few years I am very familiar with the problem of alien invasive plants. I’ve pulled more Balsam than I’ve had hot dinners, and raked tonnes of New Zealand Pygmy-weed from ponds in leaky waders. So I figured if anyone asked I’d say I was interested in doing a project on alien invasive plants. That’s what I said when they asked me in the interview and so now that’s what I’m doing. Project idea: check.

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Luckily that is something I’d like to do a project on and having the decision made meant I could crack on with thinking about it. Next job was to get a good project supervisor. Having read the profiles of many members of staff at the uni I was sure it had to be Liz. Liz, her profile said, was interested in invasive plants, and I’d met Liz and she seemed like a nice, patient person that I could ask stupid questions to and send endless neurotic emails to about my project without her getting too sick of me. After arranging a meeting to pick her brains about plant ecology I popped the question: “Will you be my supervisor?” “I’d love to!” She replied. Supervisor: check.

I’d come up with an idea about testing different kinds of control methods of Himalayan Balsam at the nature reserve I volunteer at. It didn’t seem very substantial and I was concerned that by trying to come up with the whole idea on my own I was missing things. Liz emailed me saying she’d met an interesting woman called Sal at a conference who was heading a project called BEACON (Bollin Environmental Action and Conservation) who’s aims are to control non natives in the Bollin catchment. Liz suggested I email Sal which I did. Sal sent me a list of 14 potential project ideas which they were interested in the potential results of. Number 8 jumped out at me:

8. Survey native flora in areas where non-native species occur to determine the impact the non-natives have on biodiversity.

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This was exactly what I’d been trying to think of. A project about about plants where I could do loads of botanical surveys. I emailed Sal said I’d love to do that one, she invited me along to the office to discuss it and soon I was in rural Styal, taking a tour of some invasive infested countryside along the banks of the river Bollin. Sal has a big task on her hands. The catchment is huge and there is lot of Himalayan Balsam, Giant Hogweed and Japanese Knotweed there. But she clearly knows what she’s doing and is one of those people who appears undaunted by the scale of a project, approaching it cheerfully and methodically.

Her car had loads of soil on the floor of it. I’ve come to associate messy cars with ecological folk. I think if I ever get a lift from an ecologist with a spotless car I’ll feel instantly suspicious of them. She’s been brilliant recommending sites for me to visit, putting me in touch with land owners, lending me equipment…Project to team up with: check.

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I began visiting potential sites. I’ve cycled all over north Cheshire, directed by Google Maps on my phone through my headphones. This has lead to a number of bizarre reroutes with my phone sending me in huge loops to correct a mistake rather than send me back a few hundred years. After my first day out looking at sites I was exhausted. But I’m getting fitter and the cycling is getting easier. One day I rode out to near Lymn to meet a man called Geoffrey who has water meadow out the back of his house with a Giant Hog Weed problem. He showed me the meadow and the GHW and we stood in the woods and discussed 1990s Japanese economics for 40 minutes (as well as my project). He’s a really interesting guy and his dog is amazing.

On another site visit I locked up my bike at The Carrs in Styal and set about trying to find the Himalayan Balsam Sal had told me was there. It was a very hot day so I bought a lemon ice lolly from the ice-cream van and as I walked along the banks of the Bollin, licking my lolly and looking for Balsam I thought to myself: ‘Life might never get better than this’.

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Now I have all my sites selected. I have borrowed a GPS unit and tape measure from the uni. Tomorrow I conduct my first survey… 

The Worst Job in the World

The worst job in the world is one not quite bad enough to make you go and do something else. It’s the job one notch down on the soul destruction scale from ‘enough’s enough’. That’s the kind of job that steals your life from you, that binds you down with apathy but distracts you with just enough money or success that it’s only in hindsight you realise what you’ve missed out on.

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Luckily my job isn’t like that. My job is SO bad that at thirty I bit the bullet and set about heading in a completely different career direction. It’s hard to relate to my former mind set now but back then it was hard to comprehend that I could go to university if I wanted to. I’d missed my chance surely? I wouldn’t have enough qualifications would I? There’s no way I could afford it.

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Well I can tell you I was wrong. You can go to university whatever age you are. That A Level you have in Media Studies that you always thought was useless might be the thing that gets you in. You get all the loans and grants that 18 year olds get.

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That’s not to say it’s easy. At the time I remember thinking that getting in to uni was like a degree in its self. Deciding on a course, finding out who to speak to, sorting out loan applications, these things often involved demoralising dead ends which took persistence to overcome but they are overcomable (especially when your wife very kindly helps you). I asked the people I knew who were sciencey what they did, would they recommend it etc. All my zoologist friends wished they were ecologists and ecology was an easier degree to get on. With no science A Levels I managed to get onto a Foundation year at Manchester Met which got you a place on the Ecology & Conservation degree if you passed.

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The Foundation Year turned out to be extremely valuable. I’d been so long out of education that I couldn’t really remember doing any. I’d thrown away my exam certificates thinking I’d never need them. That was a mistake, don’t do that it’s a huge pain in the arse getting new ones when the exam boards have all changed.

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Also don’t worry about being plonked down in the middle of a load of people more than a decade younger than you. It is pretty awkward at first but basically there’s nothing you can do about it. I tried not mentioning my age and avoiding words I thought might give me away like ‘wife’ but as my friend Nige advised me a few weeks in: “It’s obvious you’re 30. They all know and they all think it’s weird that you’re there so you might as well get over it”. I returned with a ‘sod it’ attitude and to my surprise soon had some friends. I discovered that some 18 year olds find other 18 year old annoying. It’s turned out to be one of the unexpected pleasures, you learn to leave your age at home. Some of the staff are younger than you and you stop defining your self by your next big birthday and you’re constantly reminded of your own teens and early twenties by your new friends who are experiencing it all for the first time. You learn to forgive them for not having seen Back to the Future and to avoid discussion of the Star Wars franchise. They’ve never owned a tape and they don’t remember the gales of 1990 because they weren’t born! When they watched The Really Wild Show neither Nutkins or Packham presented it.

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I’d been lucky enough to be kept on by my former full time employer on a part time basis, thanks largely to the help of our head of department Janat who not only agreed my new hours but wrote me a lovely reference for my UCAS application. I texted her afterwards saying thanks for writing it and thanks for saying I was popular! For one and a half days a week I’d return to my old life, to the time before I had hope of an exciting future career and dutifully complete my work for my allotted hours before escaping back to my lectures and essays and labs, libraries, volunteering, exams, field trips, cups of tea on the green seats…

It was good that I’d kept my job. It paid better than a typical student job, but with it came the feeling that I might never leave, that I was kidding myself. But that is soon to change. I applied for a year long, full time work placement to be completed between my 2nd and 3rd year, with the ecological consultancy Penny Anderson Associates in Buxton. After an interview I was offered the placement and I start in 2 weeks. I handed my notice in at work and committed myself to cutting the last remaining ties to my old work life. I’ve worked for the bank since 2005 but it’s the latest in line of similar jobs I’ve had since I was 19. There’s no going back, I’m finally going all in on this thing. This life U-turn as I’ve come to refer to it as.

For a year I’ll get to do ecological things every day! In the past I have been luckily enough to glimpse a king fisher over the river Irwell on my lunch break, and a cormorant or two…

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…and years ago I rescued a common frog from certain death on a busy road as I walked to the bus stop. That involved a tense bus ride home with my coffee cup on my lap, hand over the rim with said frog frantically head-butting it all the way home, hoping no one would ask me what was in the cup. One lunch break I watched a bumblebee hovering just above the ground and marveled at the pollen on the floor which was blown about in the eddies and swirls of air from the bees wing beats…

So an era ends and another begins. The time wasn’t wasted. Without those jobs I may not have pursued this career path, and I wouldn’t have met my friends including Muneeb and Lisa who’s emails and lunch time company will be the thing I miss from what will soon become ‘my old life’.

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Notany to Botany

Someone told me the other day that before the industrial revolution the average person could name and recognize over 200 plants, and that now the average person can only name 50. The sad thing is that what surprised me about the quote was that the average person could name as many as 5o now. I suspect it’s less and until a year or so ago I was probably one of them.

I have always liked plants. I brought a tiny money plant from the school market when I was 5 and nurtured it for 20 years, until she (I called her Elvis first, changing it to Elvisa when she flowered for the first time) surcomed to mealybugs and died. I watched David Attenborough’s Private Life of Plants and was enthralled and inspired but I never seemed to learn and retain any information which would enable me to tell what things were when I saw them.

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I developed a fondness for cacti as people in the 90s were inclined to do but that doesn’t help you when you’re walking about outside in England and you want to know what things are. Walks in the countryside had the feeling of listening to someone talk to you in a foreign language which you didn’t speak a word of. Everything starts to look the same when you don’t know what to look for and you end up clinging to the hand full of species you at least think you know. You see buttercups and daisies everywhere you look, in a sea of out of focus green.

When I started at Manchester Met Uni as a mature student in 2010 I signed up to a program called Mentor Match. The uni had a list of professionals who were prepared to mentor students with ambitions to enter their field. I found an ecologist called Richard on the list and was matched up with him. We met for a coffee in Chorlton and he gave me advice of how best to supplement my degree with extra curricular stuff. I have followed all of Richard’s advice so far and it’s all been good but one thing in particular stands out.

He recommended I do a Field Studies Council Course called Using a Flora. As he said it he absentmindedly waved an enormous book at me and suggested it would help me identify flowers. There was a course I could do which would teach me how to identify flowers? This shouldn’t have come as such a surprise but before you enter the world of ecology you don’t have a clue what goes on in it and certainly at that stage I was disproportionately surprised quite often.

I signed up to the course and in the summer holidays on 2012 I caught a train to London Euston, a tube to Liverpool Street and another train to Manningtree when taxi took me to the FSC centre at Flatford Mill. Stepping out of a taxi into a Constable painting is surreal. I spent I think four days there with a group of 11 ecologists, most of whom were doing the course as part of a masters. It became clear early on that I was out of my depth but I had nothing to lose so worked as hard as I could. The days were long followed by nights in my room going over and writing up my notes.

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The tutor was Ros Bennett, my hero. I had my brain turned upside down over those few days. It was the most challenging educational pursuit I’d attempted before or since and I felt like I learned more in those four days than in the 31 years previously. When it was over I wished I could stay and do it again. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done.

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I returned to Manchester armed with my copies of Stace and Rose and set about keying out everything I could find. I’d told friends I was going on a course which would teach me to use a book which would mean I could identify any plant in the UK. I returned knowing that that had been incredibly naive. The plant kingdom I had discovered, does not wish to be identified and makes it as difficult for you as possible. But I was different now. I had a grasp of plant anatomy, a few useful tricks to getting quickly to family for common families, and the confidence to use my keys. These are the tools Ros had equipped me with and they are so valuable.

A year on I am still a beginner working my way through the common plants you need to know before you start getting clever. I enjoy all the ecological things I do, but it’s plants that I think about the most. I pick flowers I don’t recognize out of walls on my walk home, and my small concrete yard is full of old, cracked, giant plastic plant pots with wild flowers and grasses growing in for me to enjoy and examine through their life cycle. This has lead to an ongoing and fruitless battle with an apparently never ending army of tiny slugs hell bent on destroying my garden.

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I applied for a grant through the BSBI to fund another flower ID course, was successful and in May this year I journeyed down to the FSC center in Slapton, Devon for another of Ros’ courses. This time Woodland Plants. I didn’t tell anyone else on the course that it was my birthday on the Saturday there. At one point that day the group of us on this course were stood on a country lane looking at a hedgerow. Ros asked if anyone could describe the inflorescence of the Greater Stitchwort growing there. I replied that it was a dichasial cyme. “I’m SO proud of you!” she said semi-seriously and I lit up like a Christmas tree. Best birthday ever!

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The point though is that while I am still continuously reminded of how much I don’t know, and often dazzled by how much people I meet do know, it wasn’t so long ago that I felt completely lost when it came to botany. A couple of years hard work is all you need to get you started. Prepare to be humbled, intimidated and occasionally demoralized. In return, in not too long you gain momentum and inspiration and a hobby that you can enjoy for free, pretty much any where.