10 tips for making yourself super employable after your ecology degree

This is my first blog for a while. I’ve been busy finishing my degree, preparing for and sitting exams, finishing my dissertation and other course work and starting a new job. The good news is I did well. I got a first (yay!) and a full time, permanent contract at the ecological consultancy of my choice (woo!). So five years on from stepping out of the unsatisfying familiar and into the unknown I can say I’ve made it to this particular destination. From here to ecology is now from there to here and for a little while at least I’ve been enjoying the feeling of a job well done that doesn’t have ‘but it could still all go wrong’ tagged on as a wary caveat. I like to think I represent what’s possible if you apply yourself, even if you don’t consider yourself to be a natural academic.

Looking back from this vantage point at the experience as a whole, I see now that I’ve made some smart decisions along the way which have made me employable. The degree was important but without making yourself employable what use is it? So this blog is my list of tips which you may want to consider trying while you’re preparing to break into the world of ecology. They worked for me, they might work for you…

 

  1. Self belief

I’m pretty sure that if I can do it you can do it. I’m not exceptionally clever and as it turns out I’m dyslexic and dyscalculiac. I just put the hours in that’s all. If you care about your chosen field (and why wouldn’t you?) and you work hard there is no reason why you can’t make it. I’ve met some impressive, successful, skilled people who’ve told me they’re the same. You don’t need a photographic memory or to have been doing this since you were 3. Doubts are natural but don’t dwell on them. Spend your time working, not worrying, and you’ll be fine.

  1. Start now

Whether you’re reading this before you’ve started uni, or you’re half way through your final year, right now is the time to follow these tips. The freedom of the uni timetable makes pursuing extracurricular stuff much easier than if you’re working nine to five, and the sooner you start the more you can do, and the more you can do the more likely you are to stand out when you’re applying for jobs.

  1. Volunteer/join stuff

You hear it a lot. You’re probably sick of hearing it but let me explain why it’s good and what you should try to get out of it. I remembering it seeming hard to find a way in to this world of voluntary work I was being told I should enter. Before you’ve done anything ‘volunteering’ is just a word but once you’re in more opportunities present themselves.

My way in was the Lancashire Wildlife Trust. I contacted them and signed up as a volunteer. They told me about different opportunities in the region and one of them seemed doable; a conservation work party once a month at a nature reserve near Bury. For the next few years I traveled there once a month and along with the regular locals I lopped, sawed, raked and dug. I helped put up and take down the gazebos, drank tea, ate and discussed biscuits and the weather…

I did it because I’d been told I should be volunteering and I believed it was good advice but I didn’t really grasp exactly why I was doing it.  I thought one day an employer would look at my CV and check I’d done some volunteering. That’s part of it but it’s skills employers are after. At Summerseat Nature Reserve I began learning to ID flowering plants. It was the place I first learned that Himalayan balsam is Himalayan balsam and what red Campion, wood sorrel and wood anemone look like (and lots more). It was a place I got to see change through the seasons and began to anticipate when the insects would return and then the birds, which plants flowered first and which ones last.

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This was a really useful foundation to build upon, and the longer I did it, the more people I met in this voluntary world. They let me know about other interesting things that were happening in the region. I got invited to courses and events because I was a volunteer. Eventually I wasn’t doing things because I’d been told I should, I was developing interests in specific areas and curiosities about others I hadn’t tried yet.

If you do it right volunteering gives you transferrable skills, exposes you to new subjects and opportunities, and introduces you to nice, interesting people who can and are happy to help you. The idea of turning up somewhere on your own and meeting a load of new people might seem nerve racking at first and it’s true you may find yourself wondering what on earth you’re doing on a tram at 7am on a Sunday on your way to meet someone who’s offered you a lift to a site. It is never that bad. That anxiety always disappears as soon as you arrive and there have been so many days where I thought how glad I was I hadn’t sacked it off! After a while you get quite good at meeting new people. This is a more valuable skill than you might at first realise.

Notice hat and gloves match. #StyleIcon #bat #hibernation survey #NorthWales

  1. Buddy up

You are more likely to do stuff if you’ve arranged to do it with someone else. My partners in crime, pictured below, for the past few years have been Tom who I met on my degree and Fleur who I met at Summerseat Nature Reserve. The three of us attend courses and conservation groups together, or just meet up to practice ID’ing stuff. It’s a difficult thing to dissect but directly or indirectly I think we’ve all probably benefited professionally just by being a bit of an informal team in this way, and we are all now professional ecologists.

Moorhen carcus & Tom          Fleur and her new friend

  1. Seek advice 

Pick as many brains as you can. It’s a long, hard process getting the job you want but it’s pretty easy to persuade someone to have a chat with you and ask their advice on what you can do to make getting  the job you want more likely.  Most of the smart decisions I have made which have made me more employable have been me acting on someone’s advice.

  1. Act on it

There’s something in a lot of us that feels more comfortable intending to take someone’s advice in the future,  rather than acting on it right now. Anticipation Vs Experience. A local ecologist I met through the uni’s mentoring scheme in my foundation year gave me some of the most useful advice I’ve received during my uni experience. “Can you drive?” was his first question. You can’t be an ecologist without a driving licence and you might not pass first time so it’s a good idea to get your driving licence as soon as you can. He also suggested I attend the FSC (Field Studies Council) ‘Using a Flora’ course, join my local bat group and amphibian group and start working towards my bat and newt licences. I took it all and it’s played a big part in job interviews. Working towards gaining EPS (European Protected Species) licenses and becoming proficient in using flora keys is a lengthy process so why wait? It definitely helped me get the placement I wanted.

  1. Do a placement

If you can’t do a placement, sort out structured work experience for the holidays. Personally the year I spent in industry was the most useful thing I’ve done. It’s easier to get a placement somewhere than it is to get a job there. So you can end up working somewhere for a year that many professionals would love to work but can’t. You get to do the job you hope to end up in, so you enter the job market when you finish your studies with a degree AND experience. Employers love experience. You’ll find it easier to get a placement if you have some skills to offer, which you can gain through volunteering (see tip 3). So either through a structured placement year programme or independently, arrange some kind of work experience, and make it count. Like volunteering it’s not a box ticking exercise. Employers will want to know what you can do so make sure you learn from the people you work with and leave with a level of proficiency at actually doing the job. Aim to impress. Be a sponge.

  1. Work on your ID skills

It’s not a main focus in uni so it’s up to you to learn what is what and why. It can seem intimidating but you’ll be amazed how much you learn when you look back at yourself a year ago and see what you’ve achieved if you set your mind to it. Don’t be in a rush, you’ll never learn everything, there isn’t time. Don’t get freaked out when you meet someone who can ID every grass, rush and sedge going. They’ve been at it for years. If you learn a new species a week you’ll know hundreds in a few years, the more you learn the easier it gets and the more you’ll be able to ID.

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Learn to use a key. Buy a hand lens, they’re only a few quid online. Attend every ID course you hear about, there are lots of free/cheap ones if you’re in wildlife groups. Don’t worry if it doesn’t sink in straight away, just keep at it. There’s help out there. Facebook and Twitter have groups for everything you can think of and they’re often more than happy to help you out with an ID for something you’re stuck on. Take photos and put them on Flickr, Instagram etc. It becomes a useful reference. The more you can ID the more fun it gets. There is nothing better than knowing what things are.

  1. Do extra courses

Uni holidays are long so try and fit a course in if you can. They can be expensive but sometimes grants are available to help aspiring biological recorders. Check out the FSC, CIEEM, BSBI websites. There are some excellent courses available taught by world class tutors in beautiful surroundings. You meet interesting people and get all inspired, it’s great. There’s often cake too.

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Most wildlife groups run their own courses for members too. Having paid your subscription these are often free. Most areas have their own bat, mammal, reptile and amphibian, bird, botany and generalist groups. Google them.

#LesserSilverWaterBeetle  hunting...

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  1. Interviews

If you do all that you’ll definitely be more employable. Hopefully you’ll be the most employable person that gets interviewed by the employers you want to work for, but it counts for very little if you don’t communicate it in your interview. If you’re obviously passionate and enthusiastic about ecology, or whatever your chosen field is, you are more likely to get the job. And if you’ve spent the last 3-5 years throwing yourself into this, meeting people, trying things and developing your ID and survey skills, it will come across in your interviews. If you find interviews hard, seek out someone who will give you a mock interview and honest feedback. If the idea of that you with anxiety then it will probably really help and you should definitely do it.

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So that’s that. Call center monkey to ecology graduate and professional ecologist is 5 years. Whatever stage you’re at now: first year, final year, or sat at your desk wondering if if there’s more to life, I wish you the best of luck.

 

 

 

I hope you enjoyed this blog. If you have any questions or suggestions drop me a message. I’ll still be blogging now I’ve gone pro! But as it’s the start of a new chapter a few thank yous to; my lecturers at Manchester Metropolitan University, The volunteers at Summerseat Nature Reserve and staff at the Lancashire Wildlife Trust, Cheshire Active Naturalists, South Lancs Bat Group, the Lancashire branch of Butterfly Conservation, BSBI training and education grants, Field Studies Council, Penny Anderson Associates, NLG Ecology, and my wife Stacey. All of who helped a little or a lot, and combined got me where I wanted to be.

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An ecology placement year in photos

I’ve spent the last 14 months on a work placement with an ecological consultancy which became a full time job for a while. Now I’m back at uni for year but I still do some bits and bobs for the company.  I had an excellent time.  I’m a compulsive photo taker. Here are some of the photos I took between July 2013 and and yesterday…

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Green veined white

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Butterfly wings

#ManchesterPiccadilly #train #Manchester

No way

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Fumatory

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On the wall of the hotel...

Dawn bat survey in Cumbria #PAASvy

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Annual Meadow Grass. Crimped leaf.

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Weird stuff you find on a shelf at work

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The many wallpapers at tonights bat survey

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#Manchester #NorthernQuarter

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Your friendly neighbourhood work placement guy

#Stockport #rain #train #sunrise

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#BarnOwl pellets

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#skull ID test

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Out looking for #bluebells today

#BadgerPoo

#HauntedTree #haunted #Derbyshire

Character building views from the train this morning #PeakDisrict

#snow on the #snowdrops in #Buxton

"the next stop will be duvoles, duvoles will be the next station stop" #PeakDisrict #Derbyshire

My day.

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#Speedwell

There be #badgers

Hello spring!

#Cheshire #spring #daffodils #botany #flowers

People from the #80s love a sun roof

Look at this hansom chap  #GreatCrestedNewt

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It's a trap!

I saw an #adder !

Water scorpion

#GreatCrestedNewt #GCN #Newt #Cheshire

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#Borage poofs out in #Lincolnshire

#SpeckledWood #butterfly #Lincolnshire

#cowslips #botany #Lincolnshire

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#shadow

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No more potatoes...

The help on tonights newt survey

A fist full of cresties...  #GCN #GreatCrestedNewt #Newt #ecology

Coventry 08/14

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Caught a very photogenic lizard today

Short-tailed field #vole

Never seen one of these before, what an absolute beauty! #WaspSpider #Spider

#LeighOnSea #NoFilter

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#CommonDarter #Dragonfly

#Lizard #finger

Having a nice bask  #lizard

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This one got away the other day but i caught it today. Really distinctive green scales on this common #lizard

Here you go @stephensimons :) #adder

#Lizard o'clock

Probably the most photogenic #adder in the world.  #snake #reptile

Another #lizard pic

#Lizard

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Just a man on his own in the woods with nothing but a hard hat, a watering can and an overwhelming sense of badassery.

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The assassin cleaning her sword... #mosquito #Canvey

#badger #Essex

Catch of the day. She's very pregnant and will new pop them out in the mitigation site rather than the development site. Good feeling!

Mornin #newt

Presumably that's the crest forming along this #SmoothNewt 's back

#autumn #fog

#GreatCrestedNewt #GCN #Newt

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Best bit of the job, releasing the beasts into the mitigation site...

#GreatCrestedNewt #hibernacular #translocation #Cheshire

10 top tips for getting the most out of an ecology work placement year

This is based on my experiences on a sandwich year placement at an ecological consultancy. A consultancy I am currently working at full time in the 6 month gap between my placement ending and my final year at uni beginning so my approach worked, for me at least…If you’re about to do a similar placement, or are just interested in a career in ecology, or are going to be doing a totally different placement in another field all together this could be a lot of or at least a little help to you.

This blog assumes you have a placement already. For how to get one, click this.

 

10 top tips:

1) Say yes to everything

If like me you have never worked in the ecology industry before it will come as some what of a culture shock. The hours, the structure of your day, the people, all totally different. You could be forgiven for finding it intimidating at first and your inner-monologue might start trying to talk you out of agreeing to too much stuff. Especially when it’s confusing stuff described in terminology that’s unfamiliar. Turn your inner-monologue  off. Or turn it down so you can hardly hear it. Or systematically ignore it and do the opposite every time you hear it.

Some of the most fun, interesting, valuable and/or rewarding experiences I’ve had have been on jobs that given a few minutes to think of an excuse the voice in my head would have loved to have wriggled out of.

 

2) Say what you’re thinking

What no one tells you about ecological consultancy work before your first day is that one of the most important skills you need to succeed is the ability to sit in a car with someone for four hours and it not be awkward. Not just car journeys in fact but countless dinners in pubs, service stations, hotels etc. In my old job you could sometimes go all day without speaking to the people sat next to you. You went in at 9am, got your head down and got out at 5pm. Ecology is not like that. You can spend more time in week engaging with the people you work with than the people you live with.

The first time I met my supervisor Sarah was for a brief chat on the stairs where she told me we’d be working together later that week. Later that week I met her for the second time. We drove 4hrs to Cumbria, spent the day doing a Phase 1 survey of some agricultural land, had dinner then went out and did a dusk bat survey followed by a dawn survey. We did some more Phase 1ing then drove back to Buxton. In the 30 hours from us leaving the office to us returning to it we were driving, working or eating together for around 23 hours.

My point here is that I learned quickly that my usual social survival technique of quiet and polite was not appropriate for this environment. It would have been really uncomfortable if I’d sat smiling in silence for the majority of the job. Eventually she probably would have given up trying and I’d have become a somewhat eerie figure lurking silently in the background, smiling politely.

For a long time I’ve lived by the rule that if you wonder whether it’s a good idea to say something, it probably isn’t and you should keep your mouth shut. Well I threw caution to the wind last July and have been merrily blurting out whatever comes into my head and damning the consequences ever since! Every attempt at humour, every movie reference, every “ever notice how…?” and every potentially stupid question, I’ve said them all and it’s been fine. Truth is people would rather listen to just about anything other than an uncomfortable silence and the things that pop into your head are who you are. They might like you for them.

I feel this should come with a small disclaimer however. Try it for a day and see how it works out. If those around you are visibly offended perhaps have a rethink.

 

3) Ask

A placement is an excellent place to learn. You might never again have a job where you can so openly and cheerfully not know things. So never miss the chance to ask questions. The first time you work with people find out what they specialize in, what they do for fun, what they did at uni, and remember it.

In my ongoing mission to become a passable botanist some of the most significant progress has been made out on jobs pointing at things I don’t recognize and asking what they are. Sometimes those jobs have been habitat surveys, other times they’ve been bat, newt or badger surveys but I happened to know one of the people I was working with was a skilled botanist. In my first week I was on a water vole survey with Helen and Anne. Anne is an excellent botanist and by the time we’d walked from the car to the ravine I knew what Woody Nightshade looked like, and  tufted vetch, and how to tell the difference between Phragmites and Phalaris.

I also remember learning that day how badass ecologists are. When we arrived at the ravine I took one look at it and assumed that we wouldn’t be going in. It was covered in brambles, full of silt and swarming with horseflies. The sun was baking down, it looked like hell in there, probably full of shopping trolleys, disguarded weapons and dead bodies I thought. I turned around and Anne and Helen were already climbing in.

 

4) Know your place and embrace it

An important thing to get your head around from the start is where you fit into the company. If you’ve spent the last couple of years studying and anticipating a placement, then trying to and successfully getting a placement, then the placement will feel like a pretty big deal to you. It’s less of a big deal to the people you’ll be working with. The fact that a new placement student is due to start, or has just started at the company will be one piece of information among many they have received that week and if you start as I did in July then they’ll already be in the middle of survey season and really busy.

My approach was to embrace my position as lowest rank and set about making myself indispensable in any way I could. During survey season I did this by saying yes to every offer of work going. Bat survey? Yes please. Water sample collection? Righty-ho. Data entry? No problem. I figured what I lacked in experience I could compensate for in other ways. Personally I wanted to contribute as much as I could. I anticipated getting a lot out of my placement year but I think it’s important that you don’t see it purely as resource to be plundered. Ecology is a small world, you’re making friends and contacts as well as gaining skills.

In the winter months when there was less work I approached Josanne and Heather, two of the secretarial staff and asked them to teach me how to archive old files. There is always archiving to be done. I photocopied and scanned, I changed light-bulbs, swept up the leaves from the car park…no job to big or small for the work placement guy I told people (literally, in an email with this picture attached).

Your friendly neighbourhood work placement guy

My thinking was that I didn’t want to be idle. The sight of me sat twiddling my thumbs was not the image I wished to project to my colleagues. It’s the kind of thing that makes people feel uncomfortable or worse feel sorry for you. By keeping busy and throwing myself into every job, big or small with the same level  of enthusiasm I had a better time and became more accepted as one of the team. When survey season came around again this paid off with more work and more responsibility coming my way. I even got to be lead ecologist on a couple of projects after appropriate training. So mucking in doesn’t get you labelled as car park sweeper, more as a hard working team player, and that’s how you get the good jobs. As it happens sweeping the leaves up in car park was alright. A crisp November morning, headphones in, broom out. Those leaves didn’t stand a chance.

 

5) Stay positive

I invented a game this year. It’s called ‘Stay Positive for the Whole of Newt Season’. No one enjoys newt work more than me, but even my apparently limitless enthusiasm can be tested by a combination of bramble-rage, mosquito attack, barbed wire snaggery and pond fatigue. Happy to say I am the current reigning champion of Stay Positive for the Whole of Newt Season.

Look at this hansom chap  #GreatCrestedNewt

Consultancy work is great but it is tough too. It’s physically and psychologically challenging, especially if you’re used to a 9 to 5 office job like me, or you’re new to the world of full time work.

The hours are really weird. Sometimes you are up late, then in bed for just a few hours in a hotel somewhere before getting up at some peculiar hour to go and do a bat survey in the dark. The next day you feel jet lagged and bumbley.

Other times you’re wearing waders, trying to move around in a pond that smells weird and has mud on the bottom so you keep nearly falling in. Sometimes you do fall in and the weird smelling water goes in your waders and you realise you didn’t bring a spare pair of socks and have hours to go yet. Then later someone walks in on you in the pub toilet trying to dry the trousers you’re wearing with a wall mounted hand dryer…

This is the stinkiest pond i have been in yet. I fell over (sat-fell) & filled my waders. And there weren't  even any #newts

Stay positive. This is still 100 times better than working in a call centre. Trust me, I’ve worked in a few. I’ll take a horse fly in the ear and pond water in my pants over another minute in sales or customer services any day!

A bat survey can be just a tree and no sleep if you let it, but it doesn’t have to be. Enjoy the absurdity of some of the situations you find yourself in: Moody derelict buildings; isolated meadows and ponds; wind farms; former industrial sites turned over grown brown field sites; empty city streets at dawn…

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…Relish in the fact that you have a tan and your friends don’t because you’ve been outside for every nice day of the year so far. Notice the wildlife extras you get, like the hedgehog that bumbles past you on a bat survey, or the fox cub that poos on Kelly’s weather writer. Or the buzzard that dive bombs you when you get too close to her nest, and the countless toads that turn up apparently just amuse you.

Sexy toad

Also, no one likes a misery guts. Sugar helps. Skittles are my personal choice of emergency survey pick-me-up.

 

6) Have an ecology bucket list

If you want to see an otter, tell people. If you want to see every species of Speedwell in the UK, tell them that too. Whatever your thing is, talk about it. It might not happen straight away but if people know you really want to do a thing then if it comes up they might just think of you. For me it was reptiles. I hadn’t seen any British reptiles a year ago. So I put it top of my list of things to do and set about emailing various people trying to see if I could get a look at an adder on their nature reserve, with no joy for ages…

#adder #snake #Essex

Caught a very photogenic lizard today

But thanks to a couple of excellent reptile survey jobs I managed to be part of I’ve now not only seen adders but caught one and translocated it, an amazing experience. Not just adders either but dozens of common lizards. Grass snakes are next on the list. No luck yet but everyone knows I want to get pooed on by a grass snake so it’s only a matter of time.

 

7) Make notes

Sounds obvious but have a note pad on you all the time. You’ll be surrounded by people who’re really good at IDing things. When they do, ask them how they did it and when they tell you write it down. Keep your note pads and keep another note of what’s in what pad. This is a good way of wringing every bit of value out of the placement. If your experience is like mine you may be pretty skint for some of the time but if you’re gaining experience and knowledge that gets you a job one day that has a value of its own and not taking advantage of it is a waste.

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Also, keep a note of all the jobs you assist on, and keep a log of all the bat experience you gain. This will be useful for future job/licence applications.

8) Make contacts

If you don’t have a LinkedIn profile, set one up and add your new work colleagues to it. Do the same for any other professionals you meet while you’re on your placement. Same goes for Twitter but remember if you’re using it for anything other than ecology stuff your colleagues will see what you tweet! This way after you finish your placement and lose your work email address you wont lose touch with the people you’ve spent a year working with.

 

9) Repetition is good

Don’t be in a rush to try everything. Variety is good but one of the most valuable things you can gain from a sandwich year is repetition. It’s what makes you good at a thing and what means that when you put it on your CV and get asked about it in an interview one day you will talk confidently about and be able to demonstrate.  Click here for more on this.

 

10) Work towards a  licence & write reports

OK this is technically two tips in one but it keeps the list at 10 and I’m funny like that…

A class bat and/or newt licence will make you more employable. Graduating with one or both of those will put you ahead of many other graduates and a year at a consultancy is the perfect place to do it.

If you’re reading this before you start your placement, it’d be a good idea if you haven’t already to join your local bat group and local ARG (Amphibian & Reptile) group. Experience with them will give you a good foundation to build on during your sandwich year. If you don’t have time to do that before your placement starts then start while you’re on the placement with the aim to continuing to work on it after you leave.

Tell your employers and colleagues that you’re interested in working towards your licenses. This will mean they know to train you up while you’re on the job.

Something I only discovered recently as I happen to know some people who have had interviews at consultancies, is that at such interviews they may ask to see an example of a report you have contributed to. One person described it to me as being “the difference between an ecologist and a consultant”. I had thought we were all just consultant ecologists but now I think about it it makes sense. Being good at field work is really important, perhaps the most important thing, but if you can write a report too, there’s a reason for them to employ you between the surveys.

So knowing that I have recently produced my first ecological report on a project I worked on with Kelly. I emailed my first draft over to her and she returned it with a road map of tracked changes on and told me not to freak out at how much she had changed. Far from freaking out I congratulated myself on figuring out I needed to learn to do this while I still had access to people who would teach me for free!

 

– – – – – 

Inevitably every placement will be different. Even future placements at the company I worked at will probably be nothing like mine. Personally I have found it very rewarding. I’ve gained not only skills and experience with which to compete with other professionals when I graduate but perspective too over the industry I’m attempting to break in to. I know what’s good about it and I know what’s tough about it and I still want to do it.

Placements might not pay very well or at all, but the above tips have helped me capitalize on every opportunity and benefit from every bit of value I can. I hope you have found this useful and wish you the best of luck with yours.

 

Bat hibernation survey – Pooles Cavern

It’s hibernation season, the time when some bat workers get to go and share, hone or acquire the skills required to spot and ID a bat in a hibernation roost, and collect valuable data for the local bat group records. As you’ll know if you read my recent blog on my experience with South Lancashire Bat Group, it’s far from straight forward and more like something you work on over years than simply learn to do.

That survey had a mix of Whiskered Brandt’s and Daubenton’s. Very useful as they look so similar. I came away from it with a rare air of something like confidence in bat ID.

So I was excited to find out that I was to get the chance to go out on a mini hibernation survey with one of our licensed bat workers here on my work placement. Helen surveys the site at near by Pools Cavern and arranged to take me and a couple of others there one lunch time recently.

I hadn’t heard of Pooles Cavern. It sounds big at first but I knew the visit was to be a relatively short one in comparison to the day spent scrabbling around in the Lancashire mudstone caves so my mind painted a picture of a short, over-hanging rock face next to a road.

My lazy brain always places things right on the edge of a road. On an excursion with some work friends to try and see red deer rutting my subconscious uttered a familiar “Oh right!” as it discovered we were going to have to walk to see the deer and that they would not in fact be rutting in a field next to a car park.

Turns out Pool’s Cavern is a full on show cave. The Wooky Hole of Derbyshire. This happens occasionally with my not being from here, I haven’t heard of any of the famous local places so someone will say “do you fancy coming along on this job to Chatsworth” and I’ll say yes expecting another farm or brown-field site and suddenly there’s a giant country house in front of me with grounds and nobility and everything!

We surveyed a section of the caves. Helen, Tom, Becky, Andy and me. It was good fun, there weren’t many other people there and the caves are a magnificent site, especially when you weren’t expecting it.

We found 7 bats. I say we, none for me. Most were spotted by Tom who clearly has a good eye for it. I can’t decided whether I’m just not good at spotting them in their hibernacula or whether I’d find more if I asserted myself more in getting to have first look at more of the area we’re surveying. I do tend to linger at the back of the line a bit. I’m also seriously considering getting my eyes tested as when others do find them there are times when they’re a little too far away for me to make out the ID features.

But enough excuses…

The group found 7 bats. They were all Natterer’s apart from one brown long-eared and one Daubenton’s.

Here is the best picture of the day. Taken by Andy on his phone. Further proof of how awesome camera phones are these days. This is of the Daubenton’s hanging conveniently in arms reach for this beautiful shot…

Natterers Bat Andy Keen

Now as great as it was seeing this and the Natterer’s (my first experience seeing Natterer’s in the flesh) it took the confidence I’d gained in separating Daubenton’s and Whiskered Brandt’s and turned it on its head. Adding this 3rd Myotis species to the mix upped the game of ID from medium to hard. Like the other two is has pale belly fur and like the Daubenton’s the pinkness of its face is an ID feature. It’s also a similar size to the Daubenton’s. Here are the ID features (courtesy of Steve from South Lancs group following an email conversation about the bat in the photo):

Thick fleshy ears
Ears too short for Natterer’s
Ears curled back – behaviour of a disturbed bat, and a trait of Daub’s (we saw it a lot with captive/rehab Daub’s)
Ears dark in colour, Natterer’s are always pinky
Fur – medium shagginess, Natterer’s would be smoother
Greyish dorsal fur, indicative of juvenile – Natterer’s are more pale brown. (on W/B its very shaggy, and usually dark the base and golden or lighter tips- often visible as the fur is shaggy.)
On the pic there is a small bit of ventral fur above the wing, but not enough. Natterer’s bats have white ventral fur just above the forearm, between the pro-potagium and wrist
No white crescent of fur behind the ears
No reddish forearm (although it is in shadow, I can see its brown, but not dark enough for W/B)
As I write this I notice that the three/four species in question are lined up on the BCT poster by my desk. A reminder that bat ID isn’t supposed to be easy…

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…but that’s part of the fun.

Bat Hibernation Survey – South Lancashire Bat Group

All week the weather forecasts had ended with a comment about a wet and windy Sunday. Wet and windy: Two words that you don’t want to hear associated with a day you plan to spend outside or in a cave.

This time last year it was cold and dry and still. The survey then had been physically challenging, heaving yourself in and out and around unusually shaped and composed environments. My arms and legs had got tired in new ways. I hadn’t taken quite enough food to stay at the optimum level of cheerful for the whole day. But it had been great and I had been looking forward to doing it again this year.

The hibernations are a treat because they come at a time when you haven’t seen any bats for a while. In our group you get invited to attend one if you have been particularly active in the group that year and if there is space in the limited number that these surveys are suitable for. So if you get an invite, you want to go, wet and windy or not.

I kitted myself up. Sunday was my first outing in my new thermal underwear. Like a secret mime artist I thermalled up, then wore a t-shirt, trousers, a fleece, waterproof trousers and a fat, high-viz waterproof jacket. I had woolly gloves and waterproof gardening gloves over the top. I had spare gloves, spare hoodie, spare long sleeved top, spare jumper. I had hiking boots and wellies, and a cag.

What would later occur to me was that wet days tend to be warmer than dry winter days and I would spend some time either being way to hot, or faffing about in the dark trying to get rid of a layer or two.

Baptiste picked me up at 09:30 in his Ford KA. Ever notice how many ecologists/conservationists drive Ford KAs? We picked up Andrea from Salford Quays and drove through the morning rain to the first site near Chorley.

As we drove up the narrow country path to the meeting point, a large 4-wheel drive met us coming the other way and refused to pull over and let us pass. So Baptiste had to carefully reverse his KA back down the length of the path. The driver of the other car said thanks on his way past as though we’d had a choice.

There were 8 of us on the survey: Steve, Fi, John, Brian, Leanne, Andrea, Baptiste and me. We suited up and strode off into the woods to the remains of some industrial buildings that have been a hibernation roost for many recorded years.

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The woodland was soaked with rain and rich in mosses and broom everywhere you looked, all taking advantage of the nutrients and growing on top of one another. Even the buildings we surveyed had stands of saplings growing from their roofs like bad hair.

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We split up into two groups. My group took the main building, gated off to protect the hibernating bats from inquisitive people. It was wet inside too, the rain finding its way through the old stones and dripping down our necks and in our eyes as we peered into every crack and crevice.

The technique for finding a hibernating bat comes more from practice than anything. You shine your torch into a space and peer in. You move the torch to illuminate the space from all angles and you try to focus and unfocus your eyes to take in every detail of what generally all looks like variations of the surface of whatever the structure is made of.

It’s hard. When you’re first shown a bat in these circumstances you may struggle to see it at all. “Look at the back past the sticking out bit of stone” someone will say. You can’t see it. “Move your head up a bit, you need to get right in as far as you can. See it now?” You still can’t. You don’t believe there is a bat in there. Someone else has a go and they see it. You try again. After a while you see it. A bit of leg and a slither of fur, 6ft away in a dark crack that you seem unable to keep your torch light on for more than a split second. “I see it!” You say. “Great!” They say. “So what do you think it is?”

The idea that you could ID a bat in those circumstances seems ridiculous at that point. You suspect they’re taking the piss. But they aren’t. What you discover is that if you over come the overwhelming appearance that it wouldn’t be possible to ID the bat, and think instead of the ID features (fur colour and shagginess, face colour and shape, ear shape and texture etc) you can make positive IDs to species in these conditions.

There were no hibernating bats in this building, or in the other structures that the other half of the team were checking. There were however, as I stuck my head up a hole and wriggled round to investigate a space with my torch, several herald moths and loads of mosquitoes which began dancing excitedly as they sensed the CO2 in my breath.

#herald #moth

But no bats. Not even in Simon’s Crack (there is a tradition in the group of name the locations of first bat finds after the person who found them), a rare and disappointing result. But our fortunes would improve later…

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We squelched back through the woods to the cars. The stream near by was hurling up water over the rapids. Quick snack then back on the road. The drive to the second site at Edgeworth, over undulating roads, through the pouring rain was a soporific one and I watched rivers of water running in the gutters on the road side as we drove. One drain had rain water fountaining up out of it.

It made me think of the SuDS (Sustainable Drainage Systems) training session I’d had at work on Thursday and I tried to imagine what mitigation you could put into place here to make more of the rain stay where it landed.

We all met up again at Edgeworth and stood eating our lunch. I had a cheese, pickle and rain sandwich and pocketed a flap jack and a bottle of squash in my giant high-vis for later. We donned our caving helmets and got our trudge on along the path to the mouth of the cave. The entrance is set in a gully that to a fan of fantasy fiction strikes you as being the perfect place for an ambush. But there were no bandits, orks or mountain trolls, justs 8 bat workers in a variety of coloured caving helmets and a mish-mash of waterproof coats and overalls.

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Last year the cave entrance had a beautiful façade of icicles hanging above it, today it was running water and we descended through a beaded curtain of water into the gloom. One look back at daylight then off we trekked into the cave.

#icicle(above: last year)

 

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The cave network is a spacious one. Not much crawling around needed here. They have clearly seen some action too. There are the remains of parties gone by in the form of spent candles, discarded beer cans the brands and colours of which you don’t recognise, and extensive graffiti which looks like its been produced with a tin of paint and a brush rather than a can. The caves themselves remind me more than anything of the 2p machines you get in arcades where you attempt to push many 2ps over the edge by inserting one 2p, creating shelves of over hanging coins. The whole cave is like a giant 3D version of this with giant square coins that teeter, dead still and silent above you in the dark, and litter the floor, the result of past jackpots.

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#Lancashire #cave

#graffiti #cave #Lancashire #advice

The piles of fallen rock shift and slide about under your feet as you scramble as carefully as you can over the mounds, mindful that nothing you see is reliably secure. Your mind wants to reach out and pluck this or that stone splinter from where it juts between layers but your inner monologue repeatedly refuses it, imagining the ruinous domino run it could initiate.

#Edgeworth #cave #Lancashire

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We began the painstaking process of investigating every crack with our torches. You get into a rhythm, moving along a wall, crouching and stretching to see in as much as possible. Occasionally you look up and see 7 other torch lights moving around in the large, dark space. It looks absurdly surreal and strangely beautiful. There’s something satisfying about being somewhere like that with a specific job to do.

As time goes on you all start to develop what I refer to in my head as drunk legs and the sound of someone landing on their bum isn’t uncommon and is always followed by: “I’m alright!” Your arms get tired too as you push yourself up or balance on a boulder.

We found 18 bats, an excellent result. There were 13 Whiskered Brandt’s and 5 Daubentons. With each bat that is found, everyone has a look and tells Steve what they think it is and why. Then he tells you what it is and why. Impressively we were all right more than we were wrong. It’s so useful having this many of these similar looking bats together. Being told a Whiskered Brandt’s has a darker face than a Daubenton’s is nothing compared to seeing one, then the other, then other etc…

Steve has a habit of acting as though you might have got it wrong when you give your answer, forcing you to be bold and confident in your ID’ing. One example was where there were two bats hanging out in the open. I identified them both as Whiskered Brandt’s and he replied: “Really? Because one looks very different to the other”. “Dammit” I thought. Other people suggested one Whiskered Brandt’s and one Daubenton. “I did think they looked different” I chastised myself. But they were, as it turns out both Whiskered Brandt’s and I smiled satisfied in the dark.

#whiskeredBrandt #myotis #bat #Lancashire #cave #hibernation

#Edgeworth #cave #Lancashire

About an hour from the end I found my first hibernating bat. I hadn’t had any firsts the last year so it was an ace moment when I saw that clawed foot and wing between the rock. You get used to seeing rocks that look like bats. There are rocks in those caves that look more like bats than the bats you’re shown. I double checked. I was sure and called Steve over. This was an especially exciting find as it took our total for the day over the existing record and we successfully high-fived (no mean feat in the dark) in celebration.

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When we left the caves it was getting dark. We retraced our steps back to the car, torch lights bobbing along in a line and headed to the local pub for a celebratory drink then home. A excellent day, a productive survey, and a fantastic lesson in Whiskered Brandt and Daubenton’s bat ID.

Audrey – Portrait of a Pipistrelle

Another Tuesday, another day on the Bat Line. Only one call, a message from someone at the Bat Conservation Trust asking for someone to call them. I dutifully returned the call and was passed the details of a member of the public in Bolton who had contacted them to say they had an injured bat. By the sounds of it the bat was in a bad way. After trying to find a member of the group local to them with no success I decided to collect the bat myself.

I’ve not long passed my driving test and the heavens opened up on me as I drove north to collect the bat. Rain so big people in other cars couldn’t see me waving sorry as I blundered my way through a couple of tricky junctions. Stacey had come with me and helped me out with decisions and fed me boiled sweets. I picked up the precious cargo and headed over to the home of one of our injured bat consultants (IBC) who helped and observed me weigh and measure the bat, ID and record the gender too. It was an adult female.

She had cat teeth shaped holes in both wings and a tear in one too. On her back was a large gash. We cleaned her with a saline wash. She weighed 3.17g. Despite her ordeal she put up an admirable resistance to inspection, displaying good teeth in the process. I ID’d the bat as a common pipistrelle and an adult. The size of the bat and shape of the snout (pointier than a soprano pip) were the key ID features. The minimum release weight for this species is 4.5g. Our IBC provided me with some rehydration fluid and some mealworms and some advice and off I went. I was to care for the bat and take her to a vet to look at the gash on her back and her left shoulder which according to our IBC felt loose.

If she was coming home with us it seemed appropriate to give her a name rather than continue to call her Injured Bat as we had been. Stacey suggested as she was my first injured bat why not choose a name starting with A? Audrey it was.

Back home I gave her some rehydration fluid from a small paintbrush. This was the first time I have ever seen a bat’s tongue…

That's more like it :)

While you enter into bat care keeping in mind that this is a wild animal, a piece of wildlife which you are minding temporarily in an attempt to get it back into nature as quickly as possible, the sight of something that small licking the end of paintbrush would melt the coldest of hearts. Your eyebrows knit reflexively in and up and your mouth opens in a silent “R”.

That night I woke up unintentionally at 3am and after lying in the dark wondering for a while I got up and crept into the spare room to check on her. She was alive and acting unsuspicious.

The next day I texted Frenchi to ask for the number of the vets she used to take her canary, Bird,  to in Chorlton. Frenchi has a baby and we shared experiences in our text conversation about finding it impossible not to go and check on our respective dependants.

I made an appointment at Ashley Vets for that evening, after confirming that they take wildlife cases. When I left work I called Stacey. Was she home yet? Could she look in on Audrey? What was she doing? Hanging upside down? Is she moving at all? Moved her head a bit? Good. When I got home the three of us headed to Chorlton.

The last time I was in a vets was in 1988 with my gerbil, Sooty. I remember feeling like I was going to cry when the vet gave her an injection. She died two days later on Christmas Day. When my dad told me she was dead I didn’t know how to react because I was eight and nothing had ever died before so I blew a raspberry at him. His reaction was one of amused and endeared bafflement.

This vet experience was very interesting. The vet explained that normally when an animal bite like this has scabbed over they would remove the scab to clean it as there will likely be bacteria underneath but that in this case due to the size of the scab and the large surface area it covers would not be advisable.

An x-ray of her shoulder showed that the muscle had been pulled away from the scapula bone. Whether this healed would determine whether she flew again. No guarantees could be given on this. Had a bone in arm been broken or her shoulder been dislocated, the kindest thing would have been to put her to sleep there and then as with an animal as small as a pipistrelle it is not possible to pop the shoulder back in or mend certain broken bones.

I assisted with the x-ray by helping to tape Audrey down to a table. This was neither cruel nor dignified as the tape comes easily off the wings afterwards. Again she made it as difficult as possible and two x-rays were taken on account of her wriggling partly free as the first was taken, resulting in a blurry image. The second image showed the muscle/scapula problem and I was asked how I wished to proceed…

Audrey

I made the decision that as she was not in obvious distress I would not euthanize her there and then and would take her home and attempt to nurse her back to release-worthy health. I discovered that it is very difficult to make decisions purely with your head and not your heart in these circumstances. Especially as vets have a habit of tagging your surname onto the name of the animal you have brought in. But she wasn’t a pet and I made sure I kept that in mind. She may very well still need to be put to sleep if the shoulder didn’t heal. She was not destined to become a pet. The whole point of this, all this effort was to try and release a wild bat back into the wild where she belonged.

Back at home Audrey ate some meal worms. This was another highly rewarding aspect of the bat care. I had never hand fed a bat before and the gusto with which she scoffed down the meal worm guts I offered her gave Stacey and I cause for optimism. By the time she’d had enough the meal worms were beginning to look quite appetising. We went and had chilli instead.

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For the next couple of days we fed her in the evenings and each day she took more meal worms than the days before. She also lapped the antibiotic dilution from the end of a syringe without any fuss. At one point while she gobbled a meal worm up Stacey asked me: “Could you have imagined you’d be doing this 6 years ago?”. It was a good question. I couldn’t have imagined it back then and it’s a nice barometer of my progress so far on my journey from one life to another.

You see people doing stuff like this on TV and wonder how they came to do it? You might even look into it and you discover that the people doing it have been involved in conservation for years and work in the field. You resign yourself to the fact you’ll never get to do that kind of thing. So it’s nice when you find yourself on the other side of the effort to get into wildlife conservation, and you’re the one looking after an injured bat, nursing it back to health.

On Saturday morning I went and bought some more supplies from Pets at Home. Before I left I noticed that Audrey was climbing around the cage. She still wasn’t opening her left wing out and when she was on the roof of the cage she let out the occasional distress sound as though her shoulder was hurting her.

In the evening we went to feed her. I’d checked earlier and she’d been in the half closed box inside the cage, the dark area there containing a soft cloth above a low watt heat mat. When I checked I’d seen her move around a little. Now in the evening I took the lid right off the box and waited a moment for her to stir. I was surprised she wasn’t already becoming active.

Sadly the moment went on. I blew gently on her to try to elicit a response but there was no movement besides that of her fur which moved in the indescribable way that the fur of a mammal recently alive but no longer, does. She’d died some time in the past few hours.

I was very disappointed. Too disappointed. I’d clearly become too attached to this little bat. I had prepared myself for the fact that she may need to be put to sleep but I hadn’t expected this. She’d been eating and drinking and taking her antibiotics. I had really wanted this to end well.

So a sad ending but by no means a waste. I’ve learned a great deal from this. Next time I will be better at not raising my hopes too high and I may not be so quick to give them a name. But I do think it’d be a pity to become too cold to the process. If there is a realistic chance they are going to make it it’d be a shame to choose pessimism just to avoid feeling hurt if they don’t.

You can’t help but project the robustness of people onto them. An air steward once told me on a flight during turbulence: “Aeroplanes want to stay in the air” and I’ve come to view people like that. Our natural response is to live, we rarely just flicker out like that. But bats aren’t people. Their physiology requires a finely tuned equilibrium which when disrupted can be fatal immediately or in the efforts to restore it which follow.

We can only do our best and hope they make it. This one didn’t but I’m wiser for it and grateful for the chance to see close up, such a charming and interesting little creature doing what appeared to be her best too.

Life on the bat line

I joined South Lancashire Bat Group two years ago today. Truth be told bats had not been a stand out interest of mine before then. I was interested in them in the same way I am about most things that fall under the umbrella of ‘nature’ but if you’d asked me to list the things I liked best they wouldn’t have come immediately to mind.

As a protected species however, they are unavoidable in the field of ecology and one of the main pieces of advice I was given by my mentor (who I met via the uni’s ‘mentor-match’ programme) Richard when we first met was to join my local bat group and get as involved as possible. After a while you may get the opportunity to work towards your bat licence with them, he said.

So I joined South Lancs Bat Group and started going along to meetings and events. Over the past two years with the group I’ve learned an interesting lesson which is that there is more than one route to acquiring a passion for something. Some stuff you’re driven to do, it’s been an interest for as long as you can remember in some form or another and it never fails to inspire you. For me that’s botany. Other things happen slowly, you work at them because you understand it’s a good idea. Then one day you notice that it’s become a hobby as well. That’s bats in my case. I didn’t have my eureka moment when I first laid eyes on a bat as some people do. For me it happened slowly…

One of the things I like most about bat work, be that the consultancy bat work I’ve been doing on my work placement or voluntary work through bat charities, is that the difficulty they provide in working with them breeds a host of interesting and unusual methods with which to counter the difficulty. They’re elusive, nocturnal, silent to the human ear and they fly. As a result studying them requires all sorts of cool kit that at times make you feel more like a Ghostbuster than an ecologist.

Entering the world of bat groups and bat work is like discovering a secret society of hackers, crackpot scientists and explorers. Except they’re perfectly sane and their methods are scientifically tested and peer-reviewed. Coordinated  gangs of people meeting in the woods at night with gadgets to hear and record the unhearable, gatherings of people in quirky function rooms on weekends to teach each other how to tell the difference between bat species, people up trees or canoeing on canals, DNA tests and night vision goggles…it’s cool even without the bats so it wasn’t hard to show up and join in.

But it’s been the bat line that has really won me over. Our group has a phone number that people in the area can call if they find a grounded or injured bat (or if they want bat-based advice).

There are people who man the bat line. This involves checking an answer phone for messages every couple of hours on your allotted day, returning the calls, answering any questions and arranging for a bat carer or roost visitor to liaise with the caller if required. Then there are the bat carers and roost visitors who are those trained to care for injured bats or those with licenses to visit roosts.

I trained to man the bat line last December and have been dealing with calls every Tuesday since. In that time I have dealt with a variety of calls from a variety of people.

One man was concerned with the tree felling taking place in his local park. He believed there may be bats roosting in the trees. Later that week I saw a picture of him in the paper, he’d climbed a tree and was refusing to come down.

A vicar called. He’d found a bat in his church and someone had helped him put it in a box. He was terrified of it. The bat in the box was making him afraid to even go into his church. He wouldn’t have liked my mum’s local crematorium. She told me a story about a funeral she’d been to there where part way through the service,  bats had begun flying around the room and then dropping to the floor around the guests. Members of staff had to creep about picking up bats and putting them in a box while the vicar did their reading.

A lady called complaining about the bats in her garden. They were swooping around her children she said. And there were lots of bat droppings on her door step. Why might that be she asked? This is a good example of the PR work required on the bat line, and one of the things that has fuelled my enthusiasm for bats. I found myself talking to a stranger on the phone who didn’t like bats, probably had a bat roost in her house and didn’t yet know about it. I told her all about how great bats were, and how they are clean and not smelly. I asked her what she thought of midges? She didn’t like them either. Bats eat up to 3000 midges a night I told her. She quite liked that. I asked if she’d like one of our roost visitors to come to her house and have a look and give her some advice. She liked that too. Job done. Onto the next call.

An elderly couple had sat in their garden one evening and observed 129 bats fly out of the loft. We’ve got bats, she said and asked how she went about getting rid of them? I found myself talking to a stranger who obviously considered bats to be like having mice in her house and I was about to tell her it would be against the law to disturb them. What do you think of midges? I asked her…

A man called with a harrowing tale of two bats he’d found in a storage tub in his garage. One was dead and the other was clinging onto it, barely alive. He emailed me a photo so I could see how dead the dead one was. Like many other calls I’ve taken like this I took his details and had a look at our google map of bat carers and roost visitors to see who was nearest. Then I spent some time getting hold of different people until I found one who was able to take in an injured bat that night. I passed on the man’s details and they liased to exchange the bat and hopefully nurse it back to health and release it.

That’s the last I hear of individual cases on the bat line. At the monthly meetings the bat care secretary delivers the stats for that month. How many injured bats in, how many released, how many die and how many need to be euthanized. Some make it, others don’t. A lot of people dedicate a lot of time and energy to achieve the result of some of the bats taken in being released. Disproportionate you could argue…

One of my favourite science-fiction stories is The Sound of Thunder by Ray Bradbury. After stepping on a butterfly while on a time traveling trip to the Jurassic era, a man returns home to the future to find it’s not as he left it. That butterfly was food for another creature and ancestor to a billion others who all had their place in history. Without it things just weren’t the same. I like to think of the bats that get successfully rereleased this way. They are the potential ancestors of and food to countless others. You’re not just adding one creature back into the mix, the effects can spread far further than that.

Earlier this year I trained as a bat carer and last week I got my rabies form back from the doctors confirming that I up to date on my jabs. Now I can experience the other side of the bat line. Yesterday was Tuesday, my day on the line. One call: a couple on Chorlton had found a bat in their porch. Perfect! Chorlton is ten minutes down the road from me. I arranged to collect it when I got home from work. I left work early so could tidy the  spare room in preparation and read up on the bat care workshop notes, People at work wished me luck…

Having recently (finally) passed my driving test I was able to drive to the person’s house. When I arrived he was stood on his doorstep looking into an open shoe-box. Sadly the bat was dead. Some make it, some don’t.

My first injured bat as a bat care for South Lancs Bat Group. Sadly this little fella was already dead when I collected it. Holes in its wings and the cat at the property give you a good idea how it died.

I had a look at its wings and they had puncture holes which I imagine would have matched the cat’s teeth which was winding around its owner’s legs when I collected the bat from them, Cat’s can of course not help their predatory nature. It was this bat’s misfortune that the two animals met.

Fingers crossed next time will be a more positive experience. What’s nice is that after making the effort to get into bats, putting in the time and work, I am now genuinely excited about the prospect.