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

Water Beetle ID course (CAN)

CAN Waterbeetles ID (08/14)

This was my first course of 2014, my second year as a member of the Cheshire Active Naturalists (CAN). Last year was a veritable course-fest with my first starting much earlier on in the season so I’ve been looking forward to this.

I am now a licensed newt worker and spent much of the newt season knee deep in ponds across the north west, counting and identifying amphibians in the traps I’d set. Along with the newts, frogs and toads though there were almost always at least a couple of water beetles, paddling earnestly away against the sides of the trap until I returned them with an unceremonious plop back into the pond.

Many of these were impressive looking creatures, emerald greens and amber shades like living jewels, equipped with great rowing appendages so they flipped about in your hand, or zoomed about the vegetation along the water’s edge. Not a smooth zoom like a torpedo, more a lolloping zoom as each heave of their legs accelerated them forward a way.

I’d ask what they were and my colleagues would call out a suggestion, but we were there to survey newts so the identity of many of these enigmatic little chaps remained a mystery.

A couple of days before the course, Fleur messaged me asking if I could give her friend Karen a lift there. As it happens I know Karen, an example of what a small world ecology is, we’d had our brains put through the botanical mangle on FSC Using a Flora with Ros Bennett at Flatford Mill back in 2012. Fleur and Karen are both doing the Biological Recording masters at MMU and their stories about it make me want to do and not want to do it in relatively equal measure. It sounds intense!

Karen and I drove through what was left of Hurricane Bertha to Fiddlers Ferry Education Centre near Warrington, arriving fifteen minutes late due to my phone’s ever erratic behavior necessitating some improvised Google maps team work by the two of us to get there at all.MY phone is going the way of my old Furbie back in the day. Poor old Ka-Da started sleeping with his eyes open and talking nonsense.

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Our host at Fiddlers Ferry, Eamon, was running through the health and safety details of the power station as we found available seats in the classroom. Power stations are, as you can imagine very health and safety conscious. You always have to reverse park in the car parks which I guess is so you can all make a quick get away in the event of an emergency.

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Andy Harmer, CAN founder and chairman delivered the course. Andy knows his water beetles. If you google ‘water beetles’  you don’t have to look far to find his photos. The format of the day was straight forward, we worked in pairs at microscopes using ‘A Key to the Adults of British Water Beetles‘  (the key is free online!) to ID specimens, some of which were there already and others we netted out of a pond on site half way through the day.

CAN Waterbeetles ID (08/14)

You get a good mix of people at CAN courses. Familiar faces Felur and Abi were there, a few new faces I didn’t know who I took to be consultant types, and a couple of the die hard invert enthusiasts that you only see at the CAN bug based courses.

One of my favorites of these is Ralph who I’ve seen on the diptera and invert trapping days. There’s probably not much delivered on these courses that Ralph doesn’t already know but he is clearly passionate about invert ID and has probably been practicing it longer than most of us on the course have been alive. It’s encouraging to see and he’s a wealth of useful information too. I now know how to preserve specimens. You don’t, as I naively asked, just full on pickle them.

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I paired up with Ivor who like me has moved from a totally non-ecology work back ground into consultancy work, and like me hadn’t tried to ID water beetles using a key before.

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I was prepared for it to be hard. The last CAN course I did was fly ID last December which had been both inspiring but also comical in its difficulty level. It was a pleasant surprise to find water beetle ID was achievable. I’m sure it is easier than diptera ID. There are much fewer species for a start but I also get the feeling that I’m getting better at observing the diagnostics of invert ID keys on the specimens.

CAN Waterbeetles ID (08/14)

We had a few dead ends, re-starts and cries for help but by the end of the session Ivor and I had ID’d at least 5 specimens to species level. Our brains were objecting to the work out by 3pm but we weren’t broken or defeated.

I came away with what I’ve come to know as The CAN Effect. Stacey asked me how the day had been? “All I want to do now is ID water beetles” I replied.

Repetition, repetition, repetition…

How to get good at ecology by poking badger poo with a stick.

Recently I’ve taken part in a badger based project which necessitated the repeat inspection of 40 badger latrines found within an area of farmland. Prior to this I have had some badger experience including a course on badger set monitoring and badger law, and badger survey sections within wider habitat surveys I have taken part in. So I knew the techniques and signs to look out for but this experience was sporadic.

A few years ago I was talking to an ecologist friend of mine, Richard, who I had met through my uni’s Mentor Match programme, about what I should look for in a work placement. He said I should try and find something really repetitive, doing the same thing over and over again. I remember thinking this sounded like strange advice. Surely he was supposed to tell me to get as much experience in as many things as possible? No. Repetition was his advice. That, he said, was how to get good at something, and then you can tell people you can do it and it’ll be true.

Last year I was on an FSC course at Flatford Mill, (Introduction to Phase 1 Habitat Surveys). I got chatting to a girl on the same course one evening about her experiences in ecology. She told me about a very boring job she’d once had to do which amounted to knocking on doors in a small town and asking to have a look in people’s garden ponds to see if any newts had laid eggs there. She surveyed over 500 ponds in total she told me, and it was so boring. I bet you’re dead good at finding newt eggs now, I said. Oh yes, she said. I can tell if there’ll be newt eggs in a pond almost straight away.

So I’ve spent several days recently on this badger project. I’ve worked two weekends on the trot. Walking around my set route (around 8 miles in a day) checking badger latrines (pits they dig away from their sett entrance to do their badger business in) for badger poo. In this time I have seen countless badger trails, many badger claw marks and foot prints, set entrances and spoil heaps, snagged hairs on fences, and more badger poo than most people will see in a life time, which I have hunkered down next to and poked with a stick scientifically.

There be #badgers

#jackpot

On a CAN (Cheshire Active Naturalists) course on invert trapping a while ago someone introduced me to the concept of Target Vision. This is where your brain is looking for one thing in particular within the environment you’re in so everything else gets semi-ignored. I had this while Stacey and I were out on my Wider Butterfly Survey for Butterfly Conservation last year. I was looking for butterflies and she was looking for blackberries. By the end of the afternoon I couldn’t stop noticing butterflies and she couldn’t walk more than a few steps without zoning in on a juicy blackberry. Well now my badger poo target vision has been turned up to 11.

Not only can I spot it but I can age it with some confidence having seen the same poos sometimes for four days in a row.

How helpful for the humble badger to have such a toilet routine. You learn a lot about an animal by poking its poo with a stick. You can tell the ones that have eaten nothing by worms and the ones who’ve been munching down nuts and seeds for a start.

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So while the pursuit of badger turds may not be everyone’s idea of a good time, I am very grateful for it. It is one thing learning the signs on paper but it’s been the repetitive experience which means I am now significantly more confident at my badger surveying skills. Repetition! That’s the key.

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I hope you enjoyed this blog. I’m an enthusiastic naturalist who blogs on all things ecology from badger poo to botany. I currently work for an ecological consultancy on a years work placement and will go back to uni at Manchester Metropolitan University for my 3rd year this September. Comments this or other blog entries or just experience sharing are always welcome.

Manchester Herbarium

So I’d written a blog about ferns and was busy peddling it on twitter. I noticed it’d been retweeted by ‘Herbarium Manchester’.

There’s a herbarium in Manchester? Of course there is. There are universities and museums, it makes sense that there would be a herbarium. I followed their twitter @Aristolochia and read their blog herbologymanchester.wordpress.com

Now in truth I wasn’t 100% sure until this point what a herbarium actually was. I thought I had heard the term used to describe a collection of dry moss samples in a shoe box. I suspected what I was dealing with here was grander than a shoe box of moss samples. I imagined Hogwartian rows of Victorian cabinets containing old botanical specimens and curiosities.

Having read the blog it appeared to my delight that it looked as though I was imagining right.

Aside from an interest in botany from an ID and conservation point of view I love the aesthetic of a pressed plant. Especially the old Victorian collector type specimens, mounted in a frame with the Latin name written in neat handwriting. I made my own flower press last year and began collecting samples of plants I encountered in my area, mounting them all in a large clip frame which sat/sits on my fire place and slowly filled up as spring turned to summer.

Some of last years pressings

It was a useful practice of committing names to memory and a reminder of the order in which the species appeared. My technique needs some work but they’ve been an attractive ornament and it’s been curious to watch them yellow as time passes.

I called the Museum to see if it was possible to see the herbarium. I was given the contact details of the curator, Rachel, who I emailed introducing myself and asking, unsure of the precise protocol of the the situation, if I could come and have a look at the herbarium? She replied with a cheerful affirmative and we arranged to meet at the Museum reception on Friday.

On Thursday I was talking to Jacky at work and mentioned I was going. Did you know there was a herbarium in the museum? I asked her. She said she thought she did and that I was in for a treat, that it was up in the towers and full of interesting things.

I arrived on the day and told the lady at reception who I was there to see. She phoned and advised of my arrival. Several minutes passed. I read the information boards by some of the displays. Streams of school children filed in, to the sound of a familiar teacher monolog about them being ambassadors for their school. I followed the drama of an ambulance being called for a man who wasn’t feeling well.

When you’re waiting for someone in this situation you assess everyone who enters the scene and decide how likely it is that they’re a herbarium curator. Now I’ve met Rachel I shall judge future herbarium curators by how like her they are. Anyhow we guessed right that we were one another and set about retracing her steps back to the herbarium. Turns out that she must have left as soon as she got the call saying I was there.

The journey took us first to a lift, out of which came the poorly man with the paramedics who I was glad to see looked OK. We passed through various museum sections, passed mummies and frogs, pottery and spears. We talked about the building, its history, architects and layout. Apparently the different adjoining sections had been designed by 3 generations on the same family…

Then through doors behind the scenes, up old stone stair cases with narrow windows through which you glimpsed portions of a familiar building from unfamiliar perspectives, we finally passed a chair on which was sellotaped a piece of paper with ‘herbarium’ written on it in biro, and into the herbarium its self.

The paper sign on the chair was an ironically contrasting announcement of the world you enter beyond it. My eyes widened and I made a mental note not to outwardly gawp.

I’m a student at Manchester Metropolitan which I’m very proud of. It’s an excellent university but from a historical point of view it is architecturally  unremarkable.  This building though is part of the Manchester University neo-Gothic complex which for a Harry Potter fan like myself is deliciously Hogwarty. The herbarium takes up a sizable section of the loftiest floors of the building. The rooms are long and to return to the Potter metaphor is like a someone has tidied up the room of requirement, placing it’s many and varied specimens in a variety of boxes and cabenets. All cataloged and arranged in order.

#Manchester #museum #herbarium #botany #flowers

I didn’t even get to see the whole thing as it’s currently having more shelving fitted. Rachel showed me around and apparently at random removed one of the many green boxes from one of the shelves. Digitalis purpurea. Out of it she produced pressed foxglove specimens that were nearly 200 years old. They were in pretty good condition. In a place like this the most important thing is that they keep it dry. Damp could ruin everything, as could biscuit beetles who apparently also have a fondness for pressed flowers. Thankfully there hasn’t been a serious beetle incident since the 1970s!

#Manchester #museum #herbarium #botany #flowers

There are over a quarter of a million specimens here, box after box, full not only of pressings but people’s notes, illustrations etc. The Pintrest boards of the 19th century. Articles so old that everything  is spelled a bit weird and ye olde words like ‘groweth’ take you way back to the rampant botanical collecting era of the Victorians.

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#Manchester #museum #herbarium #botany #flowers

We all know the Victorians liked collecting botanical specimens but it’s hard to get an idea of the scale and lengths they went to until you see a collection like this. And as Rachel said this was a time when hardly anyone went abroad so sending back strange, alien looking specimens sometimes provided people’s only chance of seeing them. Someone had even pressed a Golden Barrel cactus from New Mexico!

#Manchester #museum #herbarium #botany #flowers #cactus #cacti #goldenbarrell

As well as the many green boxes, more curiosities were contained in drawers. Bags of dried leaves, cotton samples, and a fragrant drawer of old medicinal samples that wafted out a cloud of Eucalyptus scent  as it opened…

#Manchester #museum #herbarium #botany #flowers

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Around the herbarium are photographs of old contributors and benefactors. Rachel summarized the lives and histories of them as we walked around. What struck me in particular was the description of the working class botanists way back when. Working men who would gather in pubs on their days off after collecting specimens and discuss their physiology and identification. I like that idea. Botany isn’t exactly considered a macho pursuit these day but I doubt those guys had fun poked at them for taking an interest in their local natural history.

One chap, a shoe maker’s assistant named Richard Buxton from Prestwich, taught himself to read using botanical literature and went on to produce A Botanical Guide to the Flowering Plants, Ferns, Mosses, and Algæ, Found Indigenous Within Sixteen Miles of Manchester. He had a tough life by all accounts and died in poverty.

Buxton3It shows you though back then botany was accessible to everyone, and my visit to the Manchester Herbarium has given my botanical plate an extra spin. An inspiring look around a less-seen corner of Manchester. As I walked home I noticed that forget-me-nots were in flower amongst the grass verge on Oxford Road. Only a couple though so I left them be…

Hello forget-me-nots! #spring #botany #flowers #Manchester

Thanks to Rachel of the Herbarium for the generous tour. Photo of Richard Buxton sourced from Friends of Chorlton Meadows.

I hope you enjoyed this blog. I’m a mature student at Manchester Metropolitan University studying Ecology & Conservation, currently on a work placement sandwich year at an ecological consultancy, documenting my adventures in ecology here.

Summerseat Nature Reserve

Summerseat is special to me because it represents my first step into proactively pursuing a career in ecology. My plan was to change career from my job at the bank to a job in ecology and I was enrolled at Manchester Met. I knew that if I was to be in with a chance of getting a good job after graduation I would need to have a CV bursting with extracurricular activities. At this stage I was an enthusiastic amature but one without any real ID skills to speak of and without experience volunteering etc.

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In the 3 years that have passed since then I have accrued weeks of experience and enough skills to secure me the work placement I am now employed at. Back then though I was on the outside looking in and the windows were opaque. I Googled ‘conservation volunteering’ and along with several dead ends I filled out a volunteer application form for the Lancashire Wildlife Trust. A few days later I received a call from Catherine. I remember it was a lunch time and I walked out of the office and leant against the railings on the edge of the River Irwell and scribbled down the details of volunteer oportunities in my area.

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There were plenty but most of them during in the week and I was still working full time at that stage. One stood out as possible, a comfortable sounding place called Summerseat which brought to mind The Last of the Summer Wine. I was to call Noell. I did. She said she’d expect me on the last Sunday of the month. Done.

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I was quite nervous. I’d never done anything like that before. Stacey gave me a lift to the site in Bury and wished me luck. I walked along the long entrance path with my packed lunch and for the first time got a look at a place that I was to become very familiar with. And a person I was to become good friends with. Noell reminds me a bit of a younger version of my Grandma to look at. “Everyone gets a hug” she said matter of factly as though handing out hard hats.

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The site sits on land which was formally the Ramsbottom Sewage Works. You wouldn’t guess, it doesn’t smell bad or anything. Its industrial past is easy to forget until you hit a brick in the ground with your spade, or find antique litter. It is comprised of a meadow and woodland which varies in composition. The ethos is to encourage local native species that can make it in the often rubbly, sometimes soft soil. United utilities own the land but due to toxins and heavy metals it is unsuitable for development. It became a nature reserve in the late 80s.

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It is managed by a team of volunteers, no paid staff at all, lead by Noell. They are almost all pensioners and live locally though don’t be fooled, I discovered early on that I was far from the fittest person there. Derek for example is like a machine. He can saw and saw all day. My arms were wobbly after half an hour of trying to keep up with him as we cleared willow to add light to a section of woodland on my first day.

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First job of the day is always to erect the gazebos. Any regular attendees are well versed in the proceedure and they’re generally up in minutes. They provide the base where lunch is had and multiple teas and biscuits are consumed and discussed.

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Composition wise the site contains a variety of ferns, fungi, lichens and flowering plants which arrive either by design or more often on their own, deposited by wind or bird. A lucky few have seen the Roe Deer and the occasional fox can be glimpsed or sniffed. It’s not a huge site but the woodland is dense enough that you can wander a short way in and feel completely alone. I make regular solo walks around the site at lunch time on work days and have been treated to the site of big, fluffy deer bottom bouncing away through the trees.

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As my ecology callendar had become more and more busy I still try where possible to make it to Summerseat on the last Sunday of the month. I’ve made friends there and it’s somewhere I’ve had the chance to observe the seasons change in a way that is so usfull from an ecological understanding perspective. The same things appear at the same times, you see them as shoots, adults and then in decline. You sense the arrival of the winged insects and then the birds and know spring is arriving. On my first visit in November I was introduced to candle-snuff fungus and a year to the day I saw it again.

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But the greening of the site is always a suprise. You have an idea that it’ll be greener than last month but you always underestimate it. It’s as though nature started with a sprinkle and then with a shrug just emptied the whole box of green over the site. Magnificent!

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I’ve written this blog entry in bits over a few weeks, returning to the draft to add a paragraph here and there and eventually to insert the photos which I’d  been uploading to a now defunct photo blog I’d been keeping elsewhere last year. What occurs to me as I add the photos is that I’ve been snapping the site like I’m in love with it, infatuated. I have more photos of Summerseat Nature Reserve than I do my wife. Month after month photographing the same features and reveling in how they change subtley as the air begins to warm.

I’d intended to at one point to keep a record throughout a whole year, every month. Things keep getting in the way. I’ve been on newt courses or bat hybernation surveys, botanical ID courses… I suppose it’s inevitable that I should go less and less as I have the oportunity to do more, but I hope I don’t forget where it all started. On this perculear, charming little site in Summerseat, Ramsbottom, near Bury, with Noell and Geoff and Derek and Linda, Barry and Sheila, Jack, Helen and Ig, Alex and Fleur and John and Cherry and everyone…

Cocks-foot in flower

Silverweed

Fox-and-Cubs

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Yellow Rattle

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Back to Cumbria (Placement days 24 & 25)

Back in the car with Sarah to Cumbria. Journeys always seem to go faster when you know them and we flew through the counties, peaks and traffic in no apparent time at all.

I continued to pick Sarah’s brains for botanical ID tips. I am either coming across as relentlessly enthusiastic or relentlessly annoying.

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The sun was back out after a week of rain and as we drove along hedge lined country roads in Cumbria, what looked a lot like a bat flew across the road and in front of the car for a second or two, in broad daylight. After a moment of me rerunning the image in my head before bringing it up Sarah said: “Was that a bat?!” A rare sight indeed.

Upon arriving on site we cracked back on with the Phase 1 survey we had started the previous week and I was allocated a hedge to work on a species list for…

Red Clover leaf, as evident by the angle (>90°) on the veins from the centre stem

Annual Meadow Grass. Crimped leaf.

#Betony

#Yarrow

#Feverfew

#Dogrose

Heliotrope

#MarshFoxTail

#BlackKnapweed

#Meadowsweet

Once again the Phase 1 took longer than expected and we had to wolf down our dinner back at the hotel. I’d been feeling progressively worse as the day had gone on. It was painful to swallow and my head hurt. I felt pretty rotten. I mentioned that I thought I might be coming down with something as I didn’t want to come across as though I was quiet because I was bored. Sarah said she had noticed I’d gone quiet and suggested that during survey season it isn’t unusual to feel as though you’re coming down with something when in fact you’re just run down.

That definitely sounded like something my subconscious would do so I resolved to pull myself together, put on a happy face and made an effort to say more. I then asked Sarah if she had noticed me perk up which kinda defeats the object but she said she had and inquired what had happened? I said I’d just pulled myself together and stopped being such a wimp.

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A plate of scampi, a glass of coke with ice and a 20 minute power nap and I was feeling markedly better as we headed through the fields to our dusk bat survey site. The cows have young calves and are paranoid and confrontational around people which made getting to the site a challenge. On walking through one field they all started approaching us. We left that field and began walking around the parameter but the cows followed us on the other side so that when we came to the point where we needed to climb over, they were there, so we had to wait until they’d all passed by. Then when we climbed over and began crossing the field they began hurrying over to intercept us. As we reached our point of no return it was clear if we carried on they’d beat us to the middle so we had to hurry back and over the fence again!

With a detour we eventually made it to our survey site and I settled in to watch the sky darken behind a large old ash tree. I’ve discovered I don’t like staring at ash trees. Their pinnate leaves create the feeling of double vision as they cross at different levels. All was quiet until nearly 10pm when we were treated to acrobatic pip foraging as at least 3 bats swooped around us and one another. One flying so close to my face I exclaimed: “WOW!”

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It’s funny the things that go through your head as you stare at the trees and the sky, waiting for the bats. I’ve leaned my brain acts as a randomized juke box with songs appearing out of nowhere and playing on a loop. This night I was treated to ‘Jimmy Mac’ by Martha and Vandellas.

On our way back through the fields we were met by the cows again, headed by the big old white bull with a limp, or ‘Limpy’ as we’ve come to know him. So again we rerouted, through dark fields, over barbed wire, back to the car, to the hotel, and finally I was back in my room and more than ready for the three and a half hours sleep I had before our dawn survey.

No cows to avoid, at dawn I stood on the dirt track watching Sarah’s torch light make it’s way over to a tree in the distance,. When she got to it she pointed it up into the tree, lighting the whole thing up like a cathedral.

Frogs croaked with gusto from the vegetation behind me, lapwings squeaked in the field in front and an owl hooted in the distance. I watched my tree.

Dawn tree 1
Dawn tree 2
Dawn tree 3
Dawn tree 4

Morning doesn’t break smoothly. It comes in surges as though the sun is being heaved over the horizon by an unseen titan before finally rolling down over everything.

Dawn bat survey in Cumbria #PAASvy

The next day we returned to the site to finish the Phase 1. I took the field of rushes, compiling a list of the species in the hedge first then carefully hopping across (and occasionally into) the many, and sometimes discrete, water courses.

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