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

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

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

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

Site 10, plot 1

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

Site 9, plot 6

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

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

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

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

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

LECO analysis

LECO analysis

LECO analysis

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

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

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

Day 4:

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

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

Site 7, plot 3

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

Site 7, day 2

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

Slug for lunch

Day 5:

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

Site 8

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

Me & Sal Davies

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

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

Site 8

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Site 8

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

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

Site 8, plot 4

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

Site 8

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

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

Free Bird on the 62

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

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

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

Site 5

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

Research Tree

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

Site 5, plot 1

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

Lesser Stitchwort standing his ground on the Balsam frontier.

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

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

Site 6

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

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

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Species identified on this survey:

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

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

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

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

Site 2

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

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

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

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

Oh boy #HimalayanBalsam

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

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

Site 2.5

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

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

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

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

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Species identified on this survey:

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

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

Day 1

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

Site 1, Plot 1

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

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

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

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

Site 1, Plot 1

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

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

Species identified on this survey:

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

Dissertation Blog entry #1. Planning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Giant Hog Weed

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

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

Himalyan Balsam, Giant Hogweed and Japanese Knottweed

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

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

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