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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Building inspections & sunrise reflections (Placement days 35 to 45)

I had the opportunity to go on a couple of building inspections last week. Usefully, one of these buildings was very suitable and the other averagely so meaning I have bench marks by which to measure future visits. When Sarah and I pulled up at the very suitable building (an old barn) you could see by her face that she knew immediately we were likely to find evidence of a roost there, and sure enough the loft was littered with droppings and discarded moth wings. Apparently the reason for the discarded wings is that medium sized bats like Brown Long Eared are big enough to catch large moths but not big enough to eat them while flying, so they need a feeding roost to hang in while they munch their moth down.

The building of medium suitability was on a farm. When Helen and I arrived there the owner warned us that there was a dog in one of the buildings but reassured us that it was a nice dog. After he left, a horse whinnied. When you’re expecting a dog, the sound of a horse whinnying sounds remarkably like Scooby Doo laughing. There were some very old bat droppings in this place which crumbled to dust between your fingers. Not like the shiny, black jewels of the old barn.

The first rule of a building inspection is: look down before you look up, you don’t want to tread all over your evidence. Building inspections are a bit CSI.

Earlier this week I caught the train to Rochdale one evening for a dawn survey the next day. As the train whisked through the many brownfield sites that separate Oldham and Rochdale from Manchester I was treated to flick-book style animation of a battle taking place between Rosebay Willowherb and Himalayan Balsam. The war for supremacy was at times heavily in favor of one species the other, and at other times it was being thrashed out hand to hand with each occurring equally in saturated fields.

There was a chaise-longue in my Travel Inn room which I sat on eating Malteasers, feeling very opulent while watching TV before an early night/start for the dawn survey. My survey position for this survey was between two houses at the back of the site. I wore a high vis jacket in an attempt to look less scary to anyone who might notice me stood there in the middle of the night. There was very little bat activity. I resisted the urge to count the seconds away in my head. I got to 4 before before I stopped myself but as usual that was enough to trigger this song in my head which remained (not unpleasantly) for rest of the survey…

Over breakfast in the Premier Inn; Chloe, Sarah, Kelly, Vicky and myself discussed the phenomenon of lizards shedding their tails when caught or distressed. It seems as though it isn’t just something having hold of their tail that makes them shed it, but just the stress of being caught at all. We speculated that while it’d be useful to be able to grow back lost limbs, shedding them when distressed would cause all kinds of problems for humans. Imagine if you lost an arm or leg every time you were stressed or nervous. Job interviews, driving, weddings… Lack of sleep leads to some peculiar conversations.

Thursday saw a return to Cumbria. I’m getting to know the site well and was looking forward to going back. This time I was with Helen and Vicky. There was lots to get done. My time was split between helping Helen with water-vole/otter surveys and helping Vicky with hedgerow surveys. It was a humid day and we headed to the hotel, tired and hungry to load up on carbs (the hotel is very generous with its chip portions) before heading back out for the dusk survey.

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As we headed back to the site the sun was setting big and orange. It was eyebrow-raisingly beautiful and we all took pictures on our phones…

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I took up my position with my back to the main road. The setting sun turned from rich orange to polished, red glass and washed the big sky and long clouds vanilla. It began to look more like the far east than the north west.

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Cows snorted and farted in the field next to me, sparrows chirped in the hedge and swallows swooped overhead.

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Calves played at being bulls, butting heads. The sunlight began to filter from the sky. Vanilla turned to chrome, a mist fell across the fields in the distance and the hedge fell silent and the sky empty.

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With my back to the road, passing traffic back lit me, sliding my shadow across the field like a moving target in a shooting range. Pipistrelles arrived around half nine, passing over me on their way elsewhere.

Up at 4am for the dawn survey. The moon was almost full and so bright we cast a shadow as we headed down the track. For this survey my position was at the furthest end of the farm, a good ten minute walk from Helen’s position. Walking through the moonlit countryside I felt like both predator and prey as I kept an anxious look out for the feisty cows which have been the cause of so many reroutes on our walks across the site.

Thankfully I encountered none making it to my stretch of track in one piece, and greeted by a cacophony of bat calls which fizzed and popped from my detector.

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In the distance I could hear a dairy farm starting work, ushering in the cows. Farmers called out: “Come on girl! COOOOOME-on GIRRRRL!”.

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Pipistrelles foraged back and forth above my head.

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My earworn for the dawn survey was Louis Armstrong…

…which I whistled along to as the sky over the farms was lit up by another beautiful Cumbria dawn.

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At six Helen called and I began the walk back to meet her. I sang ‘Oh what a beautiful morning’ to myself as I crossed fields and climbed over fences. What I didn’t know at this point but would find out later that day is that my step-father who has been very ill would not last the day and the already rather special sunset and sunrise I’d witnessed would be the last of his lifetime. They are inevitably all the more poignant to me as I look back on my photos. So this blog is for my step-dad, Ken Wyatt, who saw many beautiful sunsets and sunrises in his life, and wasn’t one to overlook the beauty such things.

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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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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)