Vegging Out. Part 3.

More on vegetative plant identification. A useful stumbling block…

Attempt #3. Great Willowherb.

Keying out a dandelion and petty spurge using The Vegetative Key to the British Flora been reassuringly straight forward. I was feeling confident (cocky), so when I saw this growing in a wet ditch while out on a job I thought I’d have a bash at it…

#GreatWillowherb

That picture doesn’t show it very well but it was growing out of a water body. I had it in my mind that it was therefore going to be an aquatic plant. I don’t know my aquatic macrophytes very well so for all I knew it could be a young bog bean, marsh marigold etc.

The key took me through the following features (my descriptions below are not always direct quotes from the key):

  • Leaves simple
  • Leaf margin toothed
  • Leaves alternate. This took me to KEY N
  • It’s a herb
  • Stipules absent
  • Latex absent
  • Leaves with hairs all simple or hairless
  • Leaves with pinnate or palmate veins
  • Petiole developing 1-2 hollows (Ranunculaceae) Key RAN. So now I’m thinking maybe it will be marsh marigold though if I’d looked at a photo I’d have realised straight away I was wrong, the leaves are totally different.
  • Leaves lanc to ovate, not orb, unlobed but weakly toothed.

Here is where I knew I’d gone wrong. I spent some time trying to convince myself that that the leaves could be described as lanceolate to ovate but they just aren’t! They are obovate if anything. I was seduced by the weakly toothed bit making it hard to let it go. You brain likes to latch on to a bit that works in a plant description making you blind to all the other bits that don’t.

So there’s lesson one: Don’t ignore the descriptive elements you don’t like. If it’s wrong it’s wrong.

Next it all kinda fell apart as these things sometimes do when you get stuck. I misread an early line of text and convinced myself I should have answered yes to:

  • Plant with submerged or floating leaves. Key E

Lesson two: Always read the key carefully and make sure you’ve understood it before moving on.

I started again and after a while trying and failing I admitted defeat and asked Miranda what it was. She took one look at it and said: “It’s great willowherb”. My heart sank. Oh yeah, I thought. “But it was growing in water” I said. “Yeah it often does” she said. “Oh”. I set about reverse engineering the key so I could see the route I should have taken.

#VegetativeID

It seemed to me that I would have needed a stem to use The Vegetative Key. I had another go using a young willowherb growing in my garden and again became stuck without a stem…

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I consulted my favorite social media resources to check I was right. The BSBI on Twitter, and the ever obliging folk of Facebook’s Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland group confirmed my suspicions. I asked Sarah whether she had any advice on getting further than ‘willowherb sp’ with plants this size. Her advice was: “I’d walk on by…willow herbs are a really tough group, they also hybridise, and doing them vegetatively is tough enough without doing rosettes.”

Lesson three: You need a stem to identify willowherbs using The Vegetative Key.

The next day I was working in North Wales. I’d been rummaging around in some woods and was on my way back to the van, parked in a lay-by on a country road. I looked into the roadside ditch as I walked along and saw lots of young great willowherb (Epilobium palustre) growing there…

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Lesson four: Mistakes and failures can be every bit as useful as simple successes. 

It took more than the key on its own to get there but knowing a species at every stage of it growth is so useful.

Thanks for reading. I hope you’ve found it useful or at least reassuring. Onward and upwards! More to follow…

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Vegging Out. Part 2.

Continuing getting to grips with vegetative plant identification.

Attempt #2. Petty Spurge.

Buoyed on by my success with the dandelion in my previous blog I ventured once again into my back yard with the aim of attempting to use The Vegetative Key to the British Flora to identify the first plant I saw. This meant ignoring 3 more dandelions for the sake of variety but in just a few steps I came across this unassuming little thing…

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I thought it might be petty spurge when I saw it. I don’t know spurges very well but I vaguely remember someone telling me once that a plant that looks a bit like this was petty spurge so I had an idea what it might be. Less confident than the dandelion which seemed appropriate for my next attempt.

The key took me through the following features (my descriptions below are not always direct quotes from the key):

    • Leaves simple
    • Leaf margin entire
    • Leaves with pinnate veins
    • Leaves alternate. This took me to Key K.
    • It’s a herb
    • Latex present:

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As you can see the latex is obvious (please excuse the close up of my thumb nail. I googled what ridges mean on finger nails and apparently it’s a sign of age. I am in my mid thirties which apparently is the age you start getting all gnarley).

  • Leaves all on stems but never clasping with auricles (Euphorbia). This is encouraging as spurges are in the Euphorbia genus. On to Key KH.
  • Leaves hairless
  • Leaves >2mm wide
  • Plant green. Ruderal.
ruderal
ˈruːd(ə)r(ə)l/
BOTANY
adjective
  1. 1.
    (of a plant) growing on waste ground or among rubbish.
noun

While I bristle slightly at this apparent slur on my back yard I accept it’s a green ruderal.

  • Annual with vertical tap root. This kind of feature could cause me problems when I’m carrying out surveys for my upcoming urban botany project in which I intend not to kill any specimens while identifying them, but for now while I’m learning I allowed myself to pluck this one up…

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And I was encouraged to see a pleasingly vertical, tap root.

  • This gets you to Petty Spurge (Euphorbia peplus).

This is easy, I thought. And I was of course quickly proved wrong. My next attempt was frustrating but useful. Blog to follow…

Thanks for reading. If you disagree with my IDs or have thoughts on the subject please comment. All feedback welcome.

Vegging Out.

Getting to grips with vegetative plant identification.

This is The Vegetative Key to the British Flora by John Poland & Eric Clement:

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It’s a magic book that gives you the power to identify British plants in their vegetative state (no flowers) but leaves some of us mysteriously reluctant to use it.

I first heard of the book while doing a course in 2012. I was still getting my head around floral keys generally and the idea of vegetative ID was new to me. Someone asked Ros Bennett to recommend a vegetative key and she recommended Poland. She said it was good and that John Poland was younger than you’d imagine.

I went away and bought it with my usual good intentions, but as time went on and I began to gain a better understanding about how hard identifying plants with flowers was, the idea of attempting to ID them without got shelved along with bryophytes, diptera, Spanish and the ukulele.

Thing is, I knew it wasn’t going to be as hard as those. I had my copy with me when I attended an MMU day course in Shrewsbury, and Mark Duffel talked me through IDing something with it. The key is ever so slightly different to the usual dichotomous floras. It’s polychotomous with sometimes several options to choose from rather than the usual two. Mark drew a few lines in pencil on the opening key to major divisions and I got it…

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The polychotomous  thing really isn’t a big deal but it can be enough to put you off trying when you aren’t confident. So now I understood how it worked but I continued to procrastinate over veg ID. Four years after purchasing the key it still looked annoyingly new.

Well now I’ve given myself a project to do. As mentioned in my last couple of blogs I’m having a crack at producing a complete flora of the walls, gutters and random green places of Gorse Hill, where I live. Vegetative ID will be really useful to the project so I’m pulling my finger out and finally doing what I should have done all along and just use it so it.

I’m going to talk you though my practice attempts, where I went wrong, what I figured out etc, in the hope that it illustrates how good this key is and encourages a few people like me to get their copy out and have a go too.

Attempt #1. Dandelion.

I went into my back yard with the intention of IDing the first thing I saw. It’s a dandelion I thought. Let’s find out…

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The key took me through the following features (my descriptions below are not always direct quotes from the key):

  • The leaves are simple, not composed of leaflets.
  • The leaf margin is lobed.
  • The leaves are alternate. Now I got a bit stuck here because I didn’t realise they were alternate at first. That meant I went wrong and had to retrace my steps. Then I remembered someone had told me before how you tell if if a plant has alternate or opposite leaves by its basal rosette. I had a rummage through my old note pads (always keep your note pads) and found it! This took me to Key P.

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  • A non climbing herb.
  • Plant with latex (I tore a leaf off and there was clearly white latex on my fingers).
  • Hairs simple, smooth or absent. The alternatives here were hairs forked or scabrid which on inspection through a hand lens they clearly weren’t…

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  • Leaf midrib or leaf margins never spiny or prickly. Takes you to Key PG.
  • Leaves without large terminal lobe, often dandelion-like (with backward pointing lobes).
  • Petiole (leaf stem) hollow. Couldn’t get a photo but it was when you pinched it between your thumb and forefinger.
  • This gets you to Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale agg). There are subspecies of dandelion but this was good enough for me.

A good start. It didn’t take long. Next step will be to try something less familiar. Update to follow…

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.

Phase 1 CAN

Final course of the 2014/15 season with the Cheshire Active Naturalists (CAN).

Tom’s car going through some stuff so we traveled in it only as far as Fleur’s where we switched to her mini and bombed off to Knutsford this Sunday morning. The venue was Cottons Hotel & Spa which Tom and I in particular have come to love thanks to it’s comfy seats and complementary coffee, boiled sweets and mechanical pencils. It doesn’t get much better than that.

It seemed fitting that the final course of the season was to be lead by Rachel. In the two years I’ve been a member of CAN Rachel has been chair and events organizer, present at most of the events I’ve attended. But this was the first one I’ve been on that she’s lead and we’d been looking forward to it.

One of the good things about CAN is that you get a real mix of course types. Some are things I might not have considered investigating if there wasn’t a course running, like harvestmen or diptera. Others are full on industry specific, work skills stuff, like the GCN courses I completed in my first year which lead to me getting my newt licence.

This Phase 1 course was like that. If you know anything about ecology consultancy work you know that being able to deliver a good Phase 1 Habitat Survey is a string for your bow that’s well worth working at. I have some experience of Phase 1s. Not enough to go out and do one on my own professionally yet but enough to understand the size of task you’re facing when you decide to pursue it as a skill.

A couple of years ago I attended the FSC introduction to Phase 1 surveys, lead by Johnny Stone at Flatford Mill. That was back when I had a habit of arriving at courses convinced I would leave an expert in whatever it was on. You’d think I’d have learned my lesson after Using a Flora. Among the things I learned on the FSC course was that Phase 1s are not a set of facts to learn and then apply. It’s more like learning a language than a list of rules. And like learning a language its something that improves with practice and is best learned by learning from those already proficient in it.

So the FSC course was a start. I’ve shadowed colleagues on surveys since then and each time you learn another little trick or fact that informs your understanding of the process a little more.

This CAN course was essentially a chance to gain more tips, more advice, from someone who’s been doing them professionally for 14 years. Attending were people who were absolute beginners, experienced ecologists who conduct the surveys regularly, and people like me with a little knowledge looking for more.

We spent six hours discussing the main habitat types as featured in the ‘JNCC Handbook for Phase 1 habitat survey’ and what defines them. Things to watch out for. Things to make your life easier. The handbook is available as a pdf here: http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/PDF/pub10_handbookforphase1habitatsurvey.pdf

Personally I like the bound copy which is available from the JNCC website I believe…

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I’m a fan of the Phase 1 process. I like how it enables communication about the features of large expanses of habitat. Some people don’t like the fact that the process necessitates as they see it the pigeon-holing of dynamic environments which cannot neatly defined as one thing and not another. Personally I think they’re missing the point. The Phase 1 acknowledges its flaws. It knows that habitats are dynamic and enigmatic. It is objective. You classify habitats objectively and you interpret reports objectively. The result is a level of communication between ecologists, developers and legislators that isn’t possible by other existing means.

The key to this, like so many things is not to see the learning process as having an end. There is always going to be a useful tip someone can give you to improve your method. This course provided me with loads of useful info which now adorns the margins and spaces of my handbook ready for future me to rediscover it on a rainy day in a field somewhere…

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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

#Lizard

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.