Vegging Out.

Getting to grips with vegetative plant identification.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Attempt #1. Dandelion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

10 top tips for getting the most out of an ecology work placement year

This is based on my experiences on a sandwich year placement at an ecological consultancy. A consultancy I am currently working at full time in the 6 month gap between my placement ending and my final year at uni beginning so my approach worked, for me at least…If you’re about to do a similar placement, or are just interested in a career in ecology, or are going to be doing a totally different placement in another field all together this could be a lot of or at least a little help to you.

This blog assumes you have a placement already. For how to get one, click this.

 

10 top tips:

1) Say yes to everything

If like me you have never worked in the ecology industry before it will come as some what of a culture shock. The hours, the structure of your day, the people, all totally different. You could be forgiven for finding it intimidating at first and your inner-monologue might start trying to talk you out of agreeing to too much stuff. Especially when it’s confusing stuff described in terminology that’s unfamiliar. Turn your inner-monologue  off. Or turn it down so you can hardly hear it. Or systematically ignore it and do the opposite every time you hear it.

Some of the most fun, interesting, valuable and/or rewarding experiences I’ve had have been on jobs that given a few minutes to think of an excuse the voice in my head would have loved to have wriggled out of.

 

2) Say what you’re thinking

What no one tells you about ecological consultancy work before your first day is that one of the most important skills you need to succeed is the ability to sit in a car with someone for four hours and it not be awkward. Not just car journeys in fact but countless dinners in pubs, service stations, hotels etc. In my old job you could sometimes go all day without speaking to the people sat next to you. You went in at 9am, got your head down and got out at 5pm. Ecology is not like that. You can spend more time in week engaging with the people you work with than the people you live with.

The first time I met my supervisor Sarah was for a brief chat on the stairs where she told me we’d be working together later that week. Later that week I met her for the second time. We drove 4hrs to Cumbria, spent the day doing a Phase 1 survey of some agricultural land, had dinner then went out and did a dusk bat survey followed by a dawn survey. We did some more Phase 1ing then drove back to Buxton. In the 30 hours from us leaving the office to us returning to it we were driving, working or eating together for around 23 hours.

My point here is that I learned quickly that my usual social survival technique of quiet and polite was not appropriate for this environment. It would have been really uncomfortable if I’d sat smiling in silence for the majority of the job. Eventually she probably would have given up trying and I’d have become a somewhat eerie figure lurking silently in the background, smiling politely.

For a long time I’ve lived by the rule that if you wonder whether it’s a good idea to say something, it probably isn’t and you should keep your mouth shut. Well I threw caution to the wind last July and have been merrily blurting out whatever comes into my head and damning the consequences ever since! Every attempt at humour, every movie reference, every “ever notice how…?” and every potentially stupid question, I’ve said them all and it’s been fine. Truth is people would rather listen to just about anything other than an uncomfortable silence and the things that pop into your head are who you are. They might like you for them.

I feel this should come with a small disclaimer however. Try it for a day and see how it works out. If those around you are visibly offended perhaps have a rethink.

 

3) Ask

A placement is an excellent place to learn. You might never again have a job where you can so openly and cheerfully not know things. So never miss the chance to ask questions. The first time you work with people find out what they specialize in, what they do for fun, what they did at uni, and remember it.

In my ongoing mission to become a passable botanist some of the most significant progress has been made out on jobs pointing at things I don’t recognize and asking what they are. Sometimes those jobs have been habitat surveys, other times they’ve been bat, newt or badger surveys but I happened to know one of the people I was working with was a skilled botanist. In my first week I was on a water vole survey with Helen and Anne. Anne is an excellent botanist and by the time we’d walked from the car to the ravine I knew what Woody Nightshade looked like, and  tufted vetch, and how to tell the difference between Phragmites and Phalaris.

I also remember learning that day how badass ecologists are. When we arrived at the ravine I took one look at it and assumed that we wouldn’t be going in. It was covered in brambles, full of silt and swarming with horseflies. The sun was baking down, it looked like hell in there, probably full of shopping trolleys, disguarded weapons and dead bodies I thought. I turned around and Anne and Helen were already climbing in.

 

4) Know your place and embrace it

An important thing to get your head around from the start is where you fit into the company. If you’ve spent the last couple of years studying and anticipating a placement, then trying to and successfully getting a placement, then the placement will feel like a pretty big deal to you. It’s less of a big deal to the people you’ll be working with. The fact that a new placement student is due to start, or has just started at the company will be one piece of information among many they have received that week and if you start as I did in July then they’ll already be in the middle of survey season and really busy.

My approach was to embrace my position as lowest rank and set about making myself indispensable in any way I could. During survey season I did this by saying yes to every offer of work going. Bat survey? Yes please. Water sample collection? Righty-ho. Data entry? No problem. I figured what I lacked in experience I could compensate for in other ways. Personally I wanted to contribute as much as I could. I anticipated getting a lot out of my placement year but I think it’s important that you don’t see it purely as resource to be plundered. Ecology is a small world, you’re making friends and contacts as well as gaining skills.

In the winter months when there was less work I approached Josanne and Heather, two of the secretarial staff and asked them to teach me how to archive old files. There is always archiving to be done. I photocopied and scanned, I changed light-bulbs, swept up the leaves from the car park…no job to big or small for the work placement guy I told people (literally, in an email with this picture attached).

Your friendly neighbourhood work placement guy

My thinking was that I didn’t want to be idle. The sight of me sat twiddling my thumbs was not the image I wished to project to my colleagues. It’s the kind of thing that makes people feel uncomfortable or worse feel sorry for you. By keeping busy and throwing myself into every job, big or small with the same level  of enthusiasm I had a better time and became more accepted as one of the team. When survey season came around again this paid off with more work and more responsibility coming my way. I even got to be lead ecologist on a couple of projects after appropriate training. So mucking in doesn’t get you labelled as car park sweeper, more as a hard working team player, and that’s how you get the good jobs. As it happens sweeping the leaves up in car park was alright. A crisp November morning, headphones in, broom out. Those leaves didn’t stand a chance.

 

5) Stay positive

I invented a game this year. It’s called ‘Stay Positive for the Whole of Newt Season’. No one enjoys newt work more than me, but even my apparently limitless enthusiasm can be tested by a combination of bramble-rage, mosquito attack, barbed wire snaggery and pond fatigue. Happy to say I am the current reigning champion of Stay Positive for the Whole of Newt Season.

Look at this hansom chap  #GreatCrestedNewt

Consultancy work is great but it is tough too. It’s physically and psychologically challenging, especially if you’re used to a 9 to 5 office job like me, or you’re new to the world of full time work.

The hours are really weird. Sometimes you are up late, then in bed for just a few hours in a hotel somewhere before getting up at some peculiar hour to go and do a bat survey in the dark. The next day you feel jet lagged and bumbley.

Other times you’re wearing waders, trying to move around in a pond that smells weird and has mud on the bottom so you keep nearly falling in. Sometimes you do fall in and the weird smelling water goes in your waders and you realise you didn’t bring a spare pair of socks and have hours to go yet. Then later someone walks in on you in the pub toilet trying to dry the trousers you’re wearing with a wall mounted hand dryer…

This is the stinkiest pond i have been in yet. I fell over (sat-fell) & filled my waders. And there weren't  even any #newts

Stay positive. This is still 100 times better than working in a call centre. Trust me, I’ve worked in a few. I’ll take a horse fly in the ear and pond water in my pants over another minute in sales or customer services any day!

A bat survey can be just a tree and no sleep if you let it, but it doesn’t have to be. Enjoy the absurdity of some of the situations you find yourself in: Moody derelict buildings; isolated meadows and ponds; wind farms; former industrial sites turned over grown brown field sites; empty city streets at dawn…

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…Relish in the fact that you have a tan and your friends don’t because you’ve been outside for every nice day of the year so far. Notice the wildlife extras you get, like the hedgehog that bumbles past you on a bat survey, or the fox cub that poos on Kelly’s weather writer. Or the buzzard that dive bombs you when you get too close to her nest, and the countless toads that turn up apparently just amuse you.

Sexy toad

Also, no one likes a misery guts. Sugar helps. Skittles are my personal choice of emergency survey pick-me-up.

 

6) Have an ecology bucket list

If you want to see an otter, tell people. If you want to see every species of Speedwell in the UK, tell them that too. Whatever your thing is, talk about it. It might not happen straight away but if people know you really want to do a thing then if it comes up they might just think of you. For me it was reptiles. I hadn’t seen any British reptiles a year ago. So I put it top of my list of things to do and set about emailing various people trying to see if I could get a look at an adder on their nature reserve, with no joy for ages…

#adder #snake #Essex

Caught a very photogenic lizard today

But thanks to a couple of excellent reptile survey jobs I managed to be part of I’ve now not only seen adders but caught one and translocated it, an amazing experience. Not just adders either but dozens of common lizards. Grass snakes are next on the list. No luck yet but everyone knows I want to get pooed on by a grass snake so it’s only a matter of time.

 

7) Make notes

Sounds obvious but have a note pad on you all the time. You’ll be surrounded by people who’re really good at IDing things. When they do, ask them how they did it and when they tell you write it down. Keep your note pads and keep another note of what’s in what pad. This is a good way of wringing every bit of value out of the placement. If your experience is like mine you may be pretty skint for some of the time but if you’re gaining experience and knowledge that gets you a job one day that has a value of its own and not taking advantage of it is a waste.

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Also, keep a note of all the jobs you assist on, and keep a log of all the bat experience you gain. This will be useful for future job/licence applications.

8) Make contacts

If you don’t have a LinkedIn profile, set one up and add your new work colleagues to it. Do the same for any other professionals you meet while you’re on your placement. Same goes for Twitter but remember if you’re using it for anything other than ecology stuff your colleagues will see what you tweet! This way after you finish your placement and lose your work email address you wont lose touch with the people you’ve spent a year working with.

 

9) Repetition is good

Don’t be in a rush to try everything. Variety is good but one of the most valuable things you can gain from a sandwich year is repetition. It’s what makes you good at a thing and what means that when you put it on your CV and get asked about it in an interview one day you will talk confidently about and be able to demonstrate.  Click here for more on this.

 

10) Work towards a  licence & write reports

OK this is technically two tips in one but it keeps the list at 10 and I’m funny like that…

A class bat and/or newt licence will make you more employable. Graduating with one or both of those will put you ahead of many other graduates and a year at a consultancy is the perfect place to do it.

If you’re reading this before you start your placement, it’d be a good idea if you haven’t already to join your local bat group and local ARG (Amphibian & Reptile) group. Experience with them will give you a good foundation to build on during your sandwich year. If you don’t have time to do that before your placement starts then start while you’re on the placement with the aim to continuing to work on it after you leave.

Tell your employers and colleagues that you’re interested in working towards your licenses. This will mean they know to train you up while you’re on the job.

Something I only discovered recently as I happen to know some people who have had interviews at consultancies, is that at such interviews they may ask to see an example of a report you have contributed to. One person described it to me as being “the difference between an ecologist and a consultant”. I had thought we were all just consultant ecologists but now I think about it it makes sense. Being good at field work is really important, perhaps the most important thing, but if you can write a report too, there’s a reason for them to employ you between the surveys.

So knowing that I have recently produced my first ecological report on a project I worked on with Kelly. I emailed my first draft over to her and she returned it with a road map of tracked changes on and told me not to freak out at how much she had changed. Far from freaking out I congratulated myself on figuring out I needed to learn to do this while I still had access to people who would teach me for free!

 

– – – – – 

Inevitably every placement will be different. Even future placements at the company I worked at will probably be nothing like mine. Personally I have found it very rewarding. I’ve gained not only skills and experience with which to compete with other professionals when I graduate but perspective too over the industry I’m attempting to break in to. I know what’s good about it and I know what’s tough about it and I still want to do it.

Placements might not pay very well or at all, but the above tips have helped me capitalize on every opportunity and benefit from every bit of value I can. I hope you have found this useful and wish you the best of luck with yours.

 

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.

photo 1-1

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.

Newt Season

My first newt season to be precise. I’d been looking forward to it…

I had completed the Cheshire Active Naturalists (CAN) course the previous year which taught me Great Crested Newt (GCN) surveying and ID skills (which included ID training in all British amphibian species), and counts as one of the two references I would need in order to apply for a GCN surveying licence one day. But I hadn’t managed to get involved with any newt work before the season ended and my work placement year at an ecological consultancy began in July. I knew there would be newt work come the new season. There’s always lots of newt work said the ecologists.

Newt work has an element of mystery to it. It’s like the breakfast cereal in the advert that the dad tells his kid they wouldn’t like. Ask a newt worker what newt work is like and they’ll tell you the hours are antisocial and the ponds are smelly. There often aren’t any newts at all and you get bitten by mosquitoes they say. And the terrain is annoying to walk on, and you might fall in a pond and…oh and weil’s disease! You might get weil’s disease which in the most severe cases includes symptoms of nausea, vomiting, inability to control physical movements and uncharacteristic violent behavior. Newt work can literally turn you into a vomiting zombie bog creature.

So as I say I’d been looking forward to my first newt season because newts are cool and the worse you tell me something is the more curious I get about trying it. There are two types of people in this world. Ones to who if you say “Try this it’s disgusting” will try it and ones who wont.

Look at this hansom chap  #GreatCrestedNewt

When you actually go out and do newt work you discover that there are pleasures to it which compensate for all of the above and that those same newt workers who extolled its negatives actually rather like it while they’re doing it. I got my first taste of this on a job in Cheshire where Tom, Damien and I assisted Rebecca in several visits to a scrubby area of woodland behind an industrial site which contained a big pond and several little ponds. Our job was to establish population size using terrestrial (checking carpet tiles previously laid out by Victoria and myself on a another visit), bottle (setting bottle traps late afternoon and checking them early the following morning) and torch (surveying the water by powerful torch light after dark) survey techniques.

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Wearing waders – Waders are like having a key to a secret garden. I wish I’d had a pair as a kid. So many times while exploring in the holidays my friends and I would come across a random water body full of who knows what but unable to explore it in our trainers we’d sit on the jetty and just look out (probably for the best).

Waders bring with them a set of challenges however. A leaky wader is as distracting as a mosquito in the ear. The water pressure might mean the wader doesn’t leak until you move into shallower water then it leaks a lot and you try to hurry to a level where the hole or tear is out of the water. Hurrying in a pond is living dangerously.  When you wear waders a lot you get used to them and if you suddenly switch back to wellies you might go marching into a pond up to the knee without thinking about it.

Water Vole surveying

On my first visit to the Cheshire site I discovered the weird world of pond legs. You tentatively try the submerged and obscured ground beneath the water in front of you one foot at a time, like an animal learning to walk. Your arms stick out reflexively in different directions for balance. As you move around your confidence increases and you move faster but then your back foot gets a little stuck causing you to lose balance and your legs suddenly cross themselves in a way that might help, on land. Pond work means you experience that strange other side of yourself that takes over control of your body when you stumble and keeps you upright with a flurry of jerky movements and “wuoOo-uh!” sounds regularly. Most times it works a treat and I’m often reminded of when a flight attendant told me that plains “want to stay in the air”.

#GreatCrestedNewt #GCN #Newt #Cheshire

A right smoothy...

I also discovered the perils of the false floor. You put your foot on it and press down. Feels like the floor so you put your whole weight on it and it suddenly drops, submerging your leg to above the rim of your wader. Water floods in as you sluggishly heave the now very heavy leg out of the pond. I called over to Rebecca and Damien before emptying a pint of pond out of my wader. May as well share the moment I thought. That was unfortunately only 15 minutes into the first pond so I had a wet leg, foot and sock not only for the survey but also during dinner in a local pub. When a member of the public observed me attempting to dry my trouser leg with the wall mounted hand dryer in the toilets I didn’t even bother trying to explain what I was doing.

The traps – Bottle traps if you don’t know are made from clear 2 liter plastic bottles which have been modified so that when a newt gets in it can’t get out. This is less to do with the complexity of the trap and more to do with a newt’s inclination to search for an exit around the side of the trap rather than in the middle. The skill with trapping, which necessitates training and support, is setting the trap such that it contains enough air for the newt to survive. Trap design varies so different techniques may be needed for different traps but for all of them, no air at all and the newt will not last the night and you do not want to find a dead newt in your trap.

It's a trap!

(these are alive by the way)

Another skill to learn is to carry many traps at once. Too few and you have to make repeat journeys to your kit pile. Two many and you become clumsy. I could be imagining it but I’m sure I have stronger fingers now than I did at the beginning of the season. Newt workers hands. I imagine I’d be good at rock climbing now.

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Most important when it comes to traps is your ability to remember where you set them and find them the next day. This doesn’t sound like it should be difficult and with a few simple techniques it is always possible but when you’re setting traps in water deep enough that only a foot or so of your cane is exposed and there are horsetails and various other vegetation obscuring your view you encounter a variety of problems. For example what you could see from a certain angle the night before may be invisible from the slightly different angle the next day. For this and other reasons I have learned that it is not unusual to collect your traps in, count them, and discover you are one short. With so many other variables to consider from balance to wildfowl it is inevitable and that’s why you keep good notes as to how many you have put in, and count carefully how many you have taken out. If you come up short, you retrace your steps and find the one you have left behind.

You never leave without bringing all your traps in. The traps are simple in design but they work. If a newt gets in, it can’t get out. And once in, it attracts other newts, especially if it’s female. That’s why one trap may have none in, and the next, 2 meters away might have 10 in. If you leave the trap in the pond the newts will keep coming and they’ll all die in there. Being too proud to admit you’ve lost a trap would be a very bad quality in a newt worker. If the trap is there, it can be found, you just have to keep looking.

Newt-fest #GreatCrestedNewt #GCN

The other pond life – One of the things I like most about consultancy work is that as well as the species you are there to study you invariably see a host of other creatures too. On bat surveys you see foxes and hedgehogs, on badger surveys you see birds deer.

On newt surveys you see frogs and toads. Frogs are fun, you find them in the traps sometimes. They must have invested some effort to squeeze themselves into the trap only to find themselves stuck. Upon releasing them you have little chance of getting them in the hand, they hop skillfully through your fingers and into the pond where they plop and vanish. Toads I like even more. Their tactic is just to sit in your hand and wait until you get bored and do the plopping for them. Both species go about their business in the ponds as though you aren’t there, or they don’t care that you’re there. As you scan your torch across the surface you sometimes see a toad lounging casually half out of the water on a floating reed stem.

Sexy toad

Then there are the diving beetles. Emerald giants the size of an old 50p but a smooth lozenge shape paddle around the vegetation or rattle in your trap as you empty it.  And the larvae, nightmarish mini monsters, one day to be dragons thrash in the traps. They make me think of that old TV show Land of Giants where people find themselves the size of a key ring and spend an entire episode trying to get away from a cat or off a kitchen table. Dragon fly larvae would have made a great beast if they’d ever found themselves adrift on a pond.

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The peace and quiet – When the traps are in and you’re back doing your torch survey, the sun has gone down and there’s just you slushing carefully through the reeds towards the open water, or along the bank. Maybe it’s spotting with rain but you’ve got waterproofs on and your hood up, torch in hand. The occasional rusting of a coot and the sound of you in the water and your colleagues near by. Your own torch lighting up the water in front of you and one or two others in the distance around the pond. Peace and quiet. Even after a hard, long afternoon of setting traps out, people don’t mind heading back out into the field in the dark because it’s one of the most enjoyable parts of the work.

The newts -My first proper newt survey began with frogs and toads as we set out the traps. If the water is clear you see them sat on the floor of the pond, minding their own business. The cloud of silt stirred by your feet washes over them like a macabre aquatic dust cloud, like those created by a fallen building. They don’t move so you must remember where they were and avoid the spot with your feet as you move on.

It was later on the torch survey that I saw the newts, my first glimpse since the CAN course a year prior. The flash of a tail in your peripheral vision like a waved ribbon disappears into the silt as your eyes snap over to it. Another just missed flurry of action and another…then your eyes scan over a shape on the floor and something in your brain sends them back for a second look. Amid the many slender willow leaves, dark and decomposing on the pond floor is a willow leaf with legs. On closer inspection it’s no leaf, and has a rounded head at one end. You shine your torch on it and it remains dead still. You waggle your torch beam back and forth over it and tickle the beast into action, an energy packed split second sends it off like a kite tail in a gale, off into the silt or vegetation. You make a mental note.

If there are many newts on your torch survey you might keep a check score on a note pad of species and gender, or if you have a good memory you might keep track in your head. Someone recently told me their trick for keeping track of having female and males either side of a decimal point. So 24 female GCN, 5 male GCN, 14 female smooth and 19 male smooth would be 24.5, 14.19.

The next morning I discovered the pleasure of checking your traps. Finding newts in the trap you’ve set is good for two reasons: you know you did a good job setting it; and you get to see a newt close up. Newts are awesome! They’re exotic looking and they don’t try very hard to get away from you until you put them back into the water. If you have one in your hand you can look right into their eyes and wonder what on earth you look like to them. Then they clamber over your fingers like a monster in one of those old movies where they filmed tortoises close up to make them look giant.

#Monster

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Newts are like watching Malcolm in the Middle. My favourite changes depending on who I’m looking at. A big male GCN in the water with their crest visible, a big female GCN in the hand, a female smooth creeping through the vegetation or a male smooth close up, they’re all such impressive beasts and after seeing hundreds this season I’m not bored yet. I’ve been lucky enough to be part of several newt projects, some with more newts than others. It’s great when there’re lots, but when there are few you get even more excited finding the odd one in a trap after several ponds or traps with none.

I’ve put in for my licence now so will hopefully soon be a licenced newt worker. I’ve loved my first newt season and look forward to doing it all again next year. With the new eDNA technique being trialled this year it’ll be interesting to see how newt work evolves. I was lucky enough to get to try the sampling process recently. I’ve heard some say that this will be the last newt season as we know it. It certainly has the potential to change the industry but I suspect there will still be need for newt workers to trek through long grass with arm fulls of canes and traps for some time yet.

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I was on a bat survey with Helen the other day. We were walking though a field in Staffordshire on a transect survey when Helen suddenly exclaimed: “Hello! What are you doing here!”. There was a large, female GCN romping through the grass in front of us.

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.

#work

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.

Finding Richard Buxton

I mentioned the botanist Richard Buxton in a recent blog about The Manchester Herbarium which I had been treated to a tour of a week or so ago. The herbarium curator Rachel had told me a little about him and other important botanists who had contributed to the collection. The snap shot description had described him as having been a working class man, a shoe maker’s assistant who had taught himself to read and gone on to write the first flora of Manchester.

In the days that followed this story never strayed far from the front of my mind. I was intrigued by this idea of Victorian working class botanists. People who worked long hours in hard jobs and dedicated their spare time to the study of their local flora.

Photo sourced from Tony Shaw's blog - Link at at end

This guy in particular was interesting due to the idea that he had had a tough life. He lead a humble life from start to finish but during it managed, against the odds to produce a complete flora of Manchester.

My interest peaked I found myself embarking unwittingly on a mini voyage of discovery around this man who had lived and died in Greater Manchester between 1786 and 1865. If you want to know all about him he is an easy man to research on Google. Here’s a brief account of how I came to know more about him…

While writing my blog on the herbarium in which I mention him, I had read the overview of his life on Wikipedia. I noticed that he was buried in St Mary’s Church in Prestwich and I thought to myself that if I were to find myself in Prestwich some time perhaps I could pay the church a visit and see if I could find his head stone. Is that odd? I think it’s a certain kind of curiosity that makes you want to visit a stranger’s grave. Perhaps it’s a desire to add something solid and actual to a subject that until then has just been a concept.

I found out I was to assist Vicky on a Phase 1 habitat survey near Darwen in Lancashire this Tuesday gone. When Vicky and I were discussing where would be easiest to pick me up (she was travelling there from Sheffield) I noticed the line of direction on Google Maps passed through Prestwich and I suggested I get the tram there from South Manchester where I live and wait outside the tram stop.

Further investigation of the map showed me that St Mary’s is a 2 minute walk from the tram stop. I asked Vicky if she’d mind picking me up from the cemetery at St Mary’s instead (and explained why). She laughed. I thought: “Is this odd?” I decided, as I generally do, that it wasn’t.

Come the day I arrived in Prestwich early enough to walk over to St Mary’s with a few minutes to seek out the head stone and take a photo souvenir. On arrival I discovered that St Mary’s, which you can’t see until you’re almost upon it, is actually pretty big. I approached two old chaps at a shed near the gate and told them I was looking for a particular grave and asked if they had any advice on finding it. They laughed and said that there were over 30,000 graves there and that I would never find it. I should give them the details and they’d have someone look up a plot number and get back to me. As I had time to kill I went for a wander first, hoping I might happen across it by chance.

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The cemetery is vast, extending down hill for a couple of hundred meters. It’s one of those cemeteries where you have to walk over grave stones which are laid out like paving, just to get around. You constantly try to navigate around what look most like the feet ends of the stone because it feels rude to walk over the head end.

I couldn’t find it. Vicky called to say she and Tom were outside. I headed back to the gate, via the old chaps who I passed a piece of paper on which I’d written ‘Richard Buxton – died 1855’ and my details. “Richard Buxton the flower guy?” one asked. “Why didn’t you say? He’s over there”

Paid a visit to a Prestwich cemetery to see the botanist Richard Buxton

So now I’d seen his resting place and the stern Victorian photo portrait featured at the top of this blog and on most other websites you’ll find with an internet search. From the photo he looks quite down trodden; staring worried into the middle distance. It’d be easy to think no further on this. It was Victorian times and he was poor, of course he looked like that, but I’d read that one of his favorite flowers was Germander Speedwell…

That’s my favorite flower too and I know how I feel whenever I see it. So my mind’s eye takes the face from the stiff, monochrome Victorian photo and imagines it in colour on a man lying down in the countryside on a warm spring day, pushing apart the vegetation with his callused, shoemaker’s hands and breaking into a smile at the site of some familiar, pretty blue flowers concealed among the grasses.

You don’t botanize miserably. You do it cheerfully or not at all.

I decided to write up the above in this blog. My discovery of the man, my trip to his grave and my thoughts on what might be a misleading photo. While doing some background research I discovered to my surprise that his 1849 book ‘A botanical guide to the flowering plants, ferns, mosses and algae, found indigenous within sixteen miles of Manchester’ is available for free as an E-book here:

https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=o00EAAAAQAAJ&rdid=book-o00EAAAAQAAJ&rdot=1

On reading it I discovered that in place of a preface he writes what he describes as a sketch of his life. He describes his life and botanical work from childhood to the age of 62. He writes wonderfully about the importance of appreciating the beauty of nature, not just in botany but the natural world as a whole. Quite remarkable for a man who taught himself to read and write at sixteen. I could have quoted it all here but I urge you instead to read it. I found it inspiring. He embodies the spirit of a modern day naturalist more than a Victorian botanist. The affection with which he discusses the natural world is quite moving at times.

Here are 3 short quotes. They are not my favourites, those read best in the context of the whole ‘life sketch’, but they illustrate nicely I think that I was right to look past the stern man in the photo. He may have been poor but his life was rich with a passion for nature.

RB1

RB2

RB3

My personal hero of botany. Who’s yours?

Here are some links to other sites/blogs about him…
http://herbologymanchester.wordpress.com/2013/02/27/is-that-richard-buxtons-nose/#comment-708
http://herbariaunited.org/wiki/Richard_Buxton
http://tonyshaw3.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/richard-buxton-in-prestwich-artisan.html

I hope you enjoyed this blog. I love botany but also blog about various other ecological subjects as I find them. I’m a mature student studying Ecology & Conservation at Manchester Metropolitan University, currently on a years sandwich year work placement at an ecological consultancy. Comments on the blog or just general story sharing are always welcome.