Kathryn has just finished her 4 week Certificate course work placement in the Guildford office … as you will see, she had a very busy four weeks, but finished smiling, having confirmed that this is what she wants to do!
Week 1: In at the deep end
Arrived at the office Monday morning, excited but slightly nervous, not knowing quite what to expect. What exactly had I let myself in for? I needn’t have worried, the minute I rang the doorbell I heard a welcome chorus from the three canine members of the team and that was before I had even got through the front door. Alfie, Winnie and Dolly were closely followed by Sarah, then Nick and Charlie the student, on his last week of placement and still alive and kicking—a good omen, I thought to myself.
After further introduction to the two feline team members, Bertie and Ernie, we (Sarah, Nick, Charlie and Alfie, on this trip) went straight out to carry out eDNA sampling of two ponds to test for the presence of great crested newts (GCN). Sampling involves collecting 20 ladles full of water, without stirring up any sediment, pouring each carefully into the collecting bag, which gets more and more full the further you get round the pond, taking great care not to drop it, especially on my first day. Having successfully negotiated angry Canada geese and a herd of cows and not fallen in or dropped anything (phew!) the collecting bag then gets shaken up to mix all the samples and is transferred by pipette to top up the six vials provided in the testing kit. This will be sent off to be analysed and we await the results…
Later that day we visited a development site where a badger outlier sett was being monitored to see if it was being used. Each hole has a pile of sand to collect the footprints of anything that goes in and out or around the hole, each one has a sticky tape between two sticks across the entrance to catch hairs. Nothing badgery to be found on that occasion so we smoothed down the sand and replaced the sticky tape, reset the trail camera and left it for the next check.
Day two brought a bit of office time, a full induction, where everything is kept and how it gets filed. Aside from that, Nick took me through Analook and showed me how to identify different bats from their different call frequencies, something I’d like to get to learn more about for definite, it will be a very useful skill, both in the field and in the office. Going for walks with the dogs is, of course, an important office activity too and a nice break from looking at the screen, with some wildflower and tree identification thrown in along the way.
Day three already and we were off to Essex, to a site with two derelict cottages and a large garden.
The site was having mats put down to entice the reptiles out so they could be translocated to a nearby site. A reptile fence was being put in to stop anything else getting back onto the site during the clearance process. Hi-vis and hard hats on, we helped to put the stakes in and unravel the plastic sheeting, holding it up while it was being attached to the stakes. We also visited the receptor site a short distance away, a beautiful wild open space perfect for reptiles and with the added bonus of having the opportunity to handle my first ever slow worm!
A shorter day the next day, visiting a run down old house to put out reptile mats in the garden, with the challenge that most of the garden is shaded and full of rubble, so finding places for the mats wasn’t easy. No reptiles to be seen, just a common frog. Still, if there’s anything else there then we’ve covered the likely spots. I got to draw the site map, so another first to add to the list. The mats will stay down for a week to bed in and for any reptiles to notice them, then we’ll do seven checks to determine presence or absence.
Back to the office to work on the report for the eDNA sampling. Started using Magic Map and worked out how to measure the ponds and calculate the area. I also found out the site bordered a SSSI, which I hadn’t expected. I was quite pleased I managed to find that out for myself with no prompting.
The week finished with another visit to check for badger footprints (none, just squirrels) and hairs (none), more work on the ponds report and some wildflower ID, some proved a lot more tricky than others. It’s a good job I’ve got a botany course coming up soon!
Week 2 : Some of this is starting to make sense now
My second week started with a Bank Holiday, which, on reflection was a good thing, given the unsociable hours in store for us. More on that later.
We started in the office that week checking some quotes and I prepared an inventory of the office FSC charts to be sent to Exeter. There followed a session in the open air meeting room (aka the garden) on the process of how things work, from the initial call or email from the client through to the invoicing. There really is a lot to think about to make sure things run smoothly.
Later it was off to a pond to set out bottle traps to see if we can catch any great crested newts. Turns out it’s not as easy as it looks to get the bottle trap in the pond the right way up and with the right amount of air inside, without falling in the pond. Luckily no one actually went in but it was touch and go at times. We also searched for eggs, although we didn’t find any, and once it had got dark, searched by torchlight but only saw a couple of newts and no sign of a crest on any of them. The next morning we went back at 5am to check the traps and, although we didn’t find any great crested ones, we did find both palmate and smooth newts so I was able to handle one, another first for me.
Then the next day we started the bat surveys…
This involved getting up at the sort of time I once would have considered the end of the day rather than the beginning and arriving at the survey location at 3.30am, ready to get all surveyors and equipment into position and start the survey at 4. This was early May – in June it’s going to be even earlier! There were four of us, two sat on the pavement in front, two in the back garden of the houses to be surveyed. Static bat detectors in place, we settled down to wait. And watch. And wait. I’m sure this will start to seem like a normal thing to do, given time. In my winter coat and hat, I quickly learned to juggle bat detector, clipboard, phone, head torch, thermos, rug. As it got gradually lighter, I was half expecting one of the residents of the houses to come out and ask the strange creatures sitting in their garden exactly what they were doing, but if they saw us they stayed behind closed curtains.
After a quick nap, time to go to the office to learn about bat licences and mitigation and to download the results from the morning’s survey. My office task for the day was to go through the quote folders and make sure the spreadsheet was up to date and matched the whiteboard, all part of keeping track of the work coming in.
The next day, another dawn… this time watching a barn as the sun came up, but not much activity on the bat detector until the dawn chorus started—turns out blackbirds sound very loud through bat detector headphones! Still, all good experience. Straight to the office to download the calls, brain a bit fuzzy by now, and then home for a well-earned rest.
Week 3: Bat activities galore
Third week already—time is going so fast! Can’t believe how much I’ve done and how much I’ve learned so far. Our first survey for the week is a Preliminary Bat Survey, a PBS (I’m getting to know these acronyms now!). It’s an old house elevated above the surrounding buildings, quite imposing. We started by looking round the outside for any features that would allow bats to get inside the building and mapped them on a plan. We found quite a few holes under the eaves, possible bat hiding places under loose hanging tiles and above the windows. We also found a couple of droppings on the ground around the outside of the building.
Then, plastic bag shoe covers on, we went inside and up a ladder to the attic. Covered in the thickest of cobwebs and with a couple of old wasps nests but no bats or signs of bats, although there were gaps all round to allow them to get in. The cellars proved a lot more fruitful – we found piles of droppings and a few butterfly wings, so they have definitely been using the building. All of these discoveries were mapped onto plans of the building to take back to the office.
After the PBS, it’s off to a piece of woodland to collect fifty dormouse tubes. It’s easy to miss them but we eventually managed to find all of them, very pleased with ourselves, although, as expected, no signs of dormouse activity. We did have to leave one tube behind though as a wren had taken up residence.
We collected up the reptile mats from the site too and made sure we brushed the ants off before they went in the car!
Then it’s back to the office to write up the PBS and annotate photos in Publisher with the features we found. Not something I’d used before so I’m looking forward to finding out what it can do.
After that, another dusk bat survey in a garden, with a bit of activity and another late night. I’m gradually getting used to these irregular hours – this is definitely not a 9 to 5 job!
More on Publisher the next morning after a trip, dogs in tow, to inspect a boarded-up pavilion on a sports ground, again to look for signs of bats. Had to wait for someone to unscrew the boarded-up door to allow us access. The building had had been left empty for a while and had definitely seen better days.
That evening it was off to Hampshire for a dusk emergence survey at a house the owner was planning to demolish and rebuild. The owner was very attentive, not necessarily a good thing when you’re trying to concentrate on listening for bats. Millions of biting midges too, must remember to add insect repellent to my list of equipment. Need a bigger car to carry all of this stuff!
Week 4 : Final week!
It’s Monday already and time for another reptile check, then in the evening a bat activity survey at our GCN pond site. The survey starts at dusk and goes on for two hours so it involves walking as slowly as you can (turns out this is a lot more difficult than you’d think) along a planned route, balancing a static and a hand held bat detector, one in each hand, with a clipboard as well, to record anything you hear and see on the site map.
The next day and a half brought some time out from work experience to go on the great crested newt ecology course as part of my certificate training. It was good to catch up with some of my fellow students and find out what they’ve been up to. The course was excellent, we learned a lot about GCNs, their ecology, legislation, how to survey – a good way to fill in my many knowledge gaps from our bottle trapping, with the added bonus of seeing and handling quite a few GCNs too. The heavy rain overnight topped up the ponds so some of the bottle traps we had set up reasonably close to the edge on the first day seemed further out than before, so we had a few wobbly moments trying to retrieve them whilst being careful not to fall in the pond, lose a welly or worse, drop any newts!
My final evening, another dusk emergence survey, this time back at the reptile site in Essex, turned out to be a bit of a wet one. I think the bats did the sensible thing and stayed out of the rain so we didn’t see any activity but it’s all good experience of course.
Suddenly it’s the end of my fourth week and time to finish my work placement. I can’t believe how fast it’s gone, it seems like yesterday I first met everyone, dogs and cats included. I’m so pleased I decided to do it, it’s been well worth it and I have learned so much.
Huge thanks to Sarah, Nick and all the furry team members. From the very warm, if slightly noisy, welcome, through the variety of activities, I have been included in everything and have been made to feel like a valued member of the team and I’m hoping I will be able to help out some more in future.
Now it’s time to get out there and find some work using my new found experience..!