What did you see today?

This year we’ve been keeping a record in the office of all the different things we encounter while on the job. There are are lists for birds, plants, mammals, herptiles, moths & butterflies, and poo. Something can only be entered on the list once, there are no winners (because if there were, Simon would thrash everyone and it’d be no fun), we just want to see how much we see in a year between the 10ish of us.

It has the pleasant effect of turning every job, even the potentially dull ones, into a potential new find. Today I paid a visit to a waste water treatment works we surveyed for great crested newts last year which still has some fencing in place, to inspect the fence and check it was still a functional barrier. The filter beds with their revolving sprinklers attract birds in large numbers, who feed off the insects which the beds attract. Each round circular bed has a ring of wires leading from a central pole to the rim. Today the wires were bedecked in carrion crows giving them the appearance of macabre big-tops. Pied wagtails ran around on the stones below them. Some old, now defunct, beds have long overgrown with bramble scrub. A tree sparrow observed and chastised me from above as I walked past, and I caught a glimpse of a rabbit’s bottom disappearing into the thicket.

When I reached the fence line I started my perimeter walk and out of habit rather than necessity I turned over some of the left over carpet tiles, remnants of the bucket traps and carpet tile trapping surveys of last summer. Earth worm heads flinched back down their holes and centipedes flowed over and under stones or clods of earth. The contracted bodies of many slugs clung to the underside of the tiles but there was little else under the mats yet. The myriad of beetles were still absent.

Under an old plastic panel lying on the ground I watched a field vole zoom through its exposed labyrinth of tunnels in the damp, yellow grass. Then, under a tile I found two frogs and toad.  All three appeared still to be in a torpid state and I gently placed the mat back down. I returned to the mat a few minutes later having considered it and decided to move them. Ordinarily I wouldn’t disturb animals in this state but as they were on the wrong side of the fence it wasn’t right to leave them there. So I fetched an empty bucket, lined it with vegetation and placed them in.

I have a fondness for all wildlife, but I love toads. I genuinely love them, they illicit an emotional response in me that other animals don’t. When I look at a toad I get the feeling you get when you run into a really good friend. I can’t help but anthropomorphize them they just have such wonderful faces. This was my first toad of the year and my day was instantly made by finding it and I handled her with the usual care, plus a little extra due to her docile (even by a toad’s standards), dozy condition.

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I don’t anthropomorphize frogs. They exude wildness. Reflexive, instinct driven, dynamic and slightly repellent in their curiousness. If you pick up a frog they throw in everything they have to kick, leap and headbutt their way out of your hands. These two took only a moment to come to life and become alert and escape driven.

I placed them in the hibernacular, constructed for  surveys last year and carried on, finding no more. Towards the end of my walk a buzzard dropped from a nearby tree, in that heavy fall then suddenly weightless swoop of theirs. Jackdaws yapped their disapproval and song thrush and blackbirds went about their business along the field margin. I wondered if I’d seen a raven, sat up a tree on the other side of the site, but it was just another crow. I scanned along the tree line through my binoculars and was rewarded with the sight of a male kestrel, glowing almost pink in the afternoon sun. I followed him as he flew from his tree, over the field I stood in and hung in the sky, treading air above me for a half a minute before going on its way.

Frog, toad and field vole all firsts for the work list. Not bad for an hour’s fence check.

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2017 Ecological To Do List

I recently read Inglorious by Mark Avery. Aside from the compelling subject matter, at one point in the book Mark mentions that in his first blog of the year he sets out a few things that he wishes to achieve over the coming 12 months:

I’ve written it down and published it, and even if no one notices then I need to do it.

Having recently become a father my ecology life outside of work has quietly, politely stepped into the background as I expected it would in these chaotic early days. Naively, predictably I had underestimated how long it would be waiting there, but as 2017 appears on the horizon, and I’m getting >5hrs sleep a night, I find myself looking forward to reintegrating ecological pursuits back into my outside of work life.

So, taking a leaf out of Mark’s book, here are a few achievable goals for the coming 12 months:

Gorse Hill Urban Botany Project

My little local project to create a flora of The Gorsehill Estate is all planned and ready to go, having been put to one side after all the planning (and a couple of surveys) had been completed.  The nice thing about this is that there are no deadlines, it can happen at its own pace, but I suspect that once I get going with it my enthusiasm will gain momentum. My plan this year is to start on some residential streets that can be quickly completed (unlike last year where I started on the canal tow path which was interesting but the biggest job on the list). That way I’ll have the satisfaction of being able to shade off chunks of the estate on a map. My son is now robust enough to join me on these surveys too which will provide me with the chance to wave leaves under his nose, avoiding his ever grabbing hands, and tell him what they are.

Birds

I say every year I’m going to work on my bird ID skills. This year I intend to get down to my adopted stretch of the Mersey embankment, once a month if I can and do some recording. I was given some good advice by a work colleague, Simon, recently. I was complaining that so often when I’m out attempting to work on bird ID I can see but not hear them. Simon’s advice was to find the birds I could hear and have a look at them. It seems obvious but it had never occurred to me to diligently hunt down the mystery singers. So I’ll be doing more peering, loitering and rummaging on my walks this year.

Herptiles

I saw my first sand lizard last year, just a glimpse of a female.  I’d like to see more. So I’ll be getting back out with my local ARG group on their habitat management days in the hope of helping out with their monitoring later in the year.

Saw my first #SandLizard in the wild today. #WellChuffed

I’d also like to contribute to the Biodiverse Society Project which aims to enhance and update the information on wildlife sites in Lancashire and North Merseyside.

Trees

Having recently visited the National Trust property Biddulph Grange Gardens which boasts Britain’s oldest Golden Larch, I thought it’d be fun to seek more oldest British trees. It’d be over ambitious to aim to make it up to the Fortingall Yew in 2017 (one day though), but the Talley Abbey Ash should be doable. If I make it to any other oldest/biggest/tallest example of a tree this year I’ll consider this achieved.

If I do all the above, and see some spiked speedwell and an aesculapian snake,  I’ll consider 2017 a job well done.

Wishing you a happy and productive 2017. What’s on your list?

Gorse Hill Urban Botany Project – Survey #1

Beginning an urban botany project…

On March 27th, the day the clocks went forward I set out as planned to do my first survey for this urban botany project of mine. I’d put it in my diary weeks prior and decided that whatever the weather I would go out…at least for a bit.

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It was cold, wet and windy. I headed for zone 7:

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Zone 7 is the one at the top, the big one with the freight terminal and Old Trafford in. I walked to Old Trafford, passed the stadium, down the steps and onto the Bridgewater Canal tow path. The north towpath of this stretch of the canal is arguably outside the Gorse Hill boundary but for this project it is the boundary, as to exclude it would be to exclude my favorite patch of habitat in the area. This was also my reason for making it the site of my first survey. There might be lots of pavements with not much growing on to come, but the towpath was sure to get the project off to a fruitful start.

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I worked my way west, starting just to the west of the bridge which carries Sir Matt Busby Way, and covered a couple of hundred meters of the towpath embankment, recording the 30 or so species listed below…

Common name Latin name
Grey willow Salix cinerea agg
Bramble Rubus fruticosus
Great willowherb Epilobium hirsutum
Bracken Pteridium aquilinum
Common nettle Urtica dioica
Michaelmas daisy Aster novi-belgii agg
Buddleia Buddleja davidii
Broad-leaf dock Rumex obtusifolius
Herb robert Geranium robertianum
Cleavers Galium aparine
Common ragwort Senecio jacobaea
Ribwort plantain Plantago lanceolata
Great mullein Verbascum thapsus
Oxeye daisy Leucanthemum vulgare
Willow Salix spp.
Oak spp. Quercus spp.
Holly Ilex aquifolium
Fox glove Digitalis purpurea
Willowherb Epilobium spp.
Creeping buttercup Ranunculus repens
Violet Viola spp.
Common hogweed Heracleum sphondylium
Elder Sambucus nigra
Nightshade (to be confirmed) Solanum spp.
Forget-me-not  Myosotis spp.
Spanish bluebell Hyacinthoides hispanica
Groundsel Senecio vulgaris
Weld Reseda luteola
Toadflax Linaria
Moss spp. #1  Grimmia pulvinata
Petty spurge Euphorbia peplus
Colts foot Tussilago farfara
Dandelion Taraxacum agg
Daisy Bellis perennis

 

#Dandelion #BridgewaterCanal #UrbanBotany

#GreatMullien #BridgewaterCanal #UrbanBotany

#PettySpurge #BridgewaterCanal #UrbanBotany

#Weld #BridgewaterCanal #UrbanBotany

#FoxGlove #BridgewaterCanal #UrbanBotany #AwesomeSharkRuler

Grimmia pulvinata

#MichaelmasDaisy #BridgewaterCanal #UrbanBotany

So if you’re local/interested get on down there. Since that survey the bluebells have come out in flower. There is also a chunky Japanese Knotweed stem working its way up the fence at one spot now. And a patch of some rather lovely white deadnettle.

#WhiteDeadNettle #BridgewaterCanal #GorseHill #Stretford #Manchester #UrbanBotany

So far so good. I’ll add updates as I go. 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…

Gorse Hill Urban Botany Project – Planning

Planning an urban botany project…

As I described in my previous blog I’ve had the idea to attempt to produce a complete flora of the walls, gutters and random green places of Gorse Hill. That blog was good fun to write. It’s great having ideas isn’t it? Like planning to get fit in the new year then merrily scoffing all the cheese in the world throughout December. Saying you’re going to do a thing is easy but somehow when it comes to putting on your running shoes in January that motivated feeling is suddenly nowhere to be seen. That’s partly why I wrote a blog about it. It’s quite easy to conveniently forget to do something if it hasn’t made it beyond  your internal monolog. But if you tell the internet you’re going to do something, well, then you have to, right? I’m pretty sure that’s the rule.

My first act was to defer serious project planning for a while by spending some time dividing Gorse Hill up into zones and producing some basic maps to use in the planning of surveys and on the surveys themselves.

uploadGorse Hill, zones

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This was useful, giving me a better idea of the scale, geography and composition of the area. Gorse Hill is approximately composed of:

  • 74 Roads
  • 1 canal tow path
  • 3 parks
  • 1 allotment
  • 2 stretches of railway embankment
  • 2 major sports venues
  • 1 freight terminal
  • 1 metro station
  • 1 trading estate
  • 5 stand-alone urban features with grounds (Police station, College, Town hall etc)

This wasn’t horrifying. Ambitious but not implausible was my objective and these numbers felt about right for that.

Next I had a look online to see if there were any similar projects already happening elsewhere that I could use as a model for my own. I found a couple of bloggers in the US talking about urban botany but in a fairly general way, small case studies of individual species, that kind of thing. The closest thing I could find to my idea in Britain was the Urban Flora of Scotland project run by the Botanical Society of Scotland. That is a great project which aims to encourage the recording of neglected urban flora by collating urban records across Scotland in towns with a population of over 1000. So there is other urban botany stuff happening out there but not in the form of a comprehensive study of a particular urban area like mine. Please correct me if I’m mistaken. If there are similar projects already I would love to know about them.

I took a break from the maps and research and wandered down to the shop to buy a Pot Noodle. On my way I noticed tiny green shoot after tiny green shoot and began to get a little intimidated. These were going to be tough to ID and realistically I would have to ID them without pulling them up. It’d be no good producing a flora for an area which represented what was there before I’d removed it all. Urban flora is often made up of isolated individuals so attempting to leave the specimens as I’d found them was going to have to be a consideration. It also occurred to be that I was going to have to get over the fact that I might look a little weird. There are definitely going to be people walking past me, looking down and wondering what’s wrong with me as I squint at something on the pavement with a book in my hand.  I had that bitten off more than I could chew feeling.

I decided to take a step back and have a think about why I was doing a project. Without another, existing project to use as a model I was free to figure out what my motivations were and build my project around them. This came pretty easy. I want to use the project:

  • as an antidote to procrastination;
  • to give myself regular practice IDing with a key;
  • to get to grips with vegetative ID;
  • to engage with my community;
  • as a creative way to improve existing skills and gain new ones.

So, with these in mind, as well as some comments and suggestions from others, the basics of the project are as follows…

  • Survey all accessible places in Gorse Hill 4 times, once in each season.
  • Record higher, naturally occurring plants outside of peoples garden boundaries.
  • Record plants inside people’s gardens when easily viewed and identified from the street, and obviously wild.
  • When not in flower, attempt vegetative ID.
  • Produce and update an interactive map showing the location of species identified on surveys.
  • When all roads/features/areas have been surveyed 4 times, produce floral key for Gorse Hill.
  • Communicate survey/project info with community via social media.
  • Submit records to Greater Manchester Ecology Unit.

I’ve decided not to think too hard about a time scale. This is one of those ‘life’s a journey not a destination’ situations where the process is more important than the finished product.  But with all those roads, parks, tow paths etc, there are over 300 bits to survey before it’s finished.

I’m considering Sunday 27th March to be the official start date. Clocks go forward so the evenings will be lighter. That gives me a couple of months to prepare. Next job is to head out into the garden with The Vegetative Key and have a practice…

Essential tools for an upcoming #botany project

 

Thanks for reading. Do you have any thoughts, comments, observations about the project? All input welcome.

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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