Ecology placement

Hi, I’m Beth, an MSc student studying Species Identification and Survey Skills at Reading University. Part of the degree involves doing a six-month placement at an ecological consultancy. This blog will document my experiences during my placement at Ecology by Design.

Having completed the study side of my MSc at Reading University, I was excited to start my placement at Ecology by Design and to gain some practical experience of all that goes into the profession. I confess that I did not know a huge amount about ecological consultancy until the MSc was recommended to me, but the opportunity to do a job that involves spending plenty of time in the field and making a positive impact on local ecology really appealed to me.

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My first two days were a survey trip to Hastings to check Dormouse boxes and to survey ponds for Great Crested Newts (GCN). The project is the Hastings link road which cuts through acres of farmland and woodland, hence the need to monitor the impact on vulnerable species. Firstly, we set up bottle traps around the perimeter of the ponds and conducted a search for GCN eggs, which are found in the folded leaves of submerged plants. After sunset, we torched the ponds to look for newts swimming under the surface. In the morning we removed and checked the traps for newts, although there were no GCN this time, we found plenty of smooth and palmate newts and some interesting invertebrate species like diving beetles. Before and after the GCN surveys we checked dormouse boxes in the surrounding woodland, we didn’t see any but there were some interesting wood mouse and bird nests.

The next day was my first Preliminary Ecological Appraisal (PEA) at a site in Reading. The site was relatively small but a good first attempt at putting my experiences at university to the test. Due to plans to build a house there, it is important to document the habitats and species in the area and any potential impacts on wildlife during and after construction work. The next few days I learned how to do a Background Data Study (BDS), which documents important areas and species recorded around sites, and a Habitat suitability Index (HSI) calculation which assesses the suitability of ponds for GCN within 500m of a site. I also completed another two PEAs and did my first Preliminary Roost Assessment (PRA) at an old theatre in North London. PRAs assess the potential of buildings/ areas for bats and are especially important for old buildings.

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My next Hastings trip followed and sadly still no Dormouse or GCN finds! During the next week I did my first reptile mat check, no reptiles were seen this time but there were a couple of startled voles taking advantage of the warmth and protection of the mats. My next new experience was taking eDNA samples at a service station near Birmingham. The samples confirm the presence of GCN DNA which can avoid the need for further surveys. The following day I finally saw my first ever GCN! It was a female found in one of the Hastings ponds and I was surprised at just how much bigger they are than the other newt species, I am hoping to see a male on my next trip down there. Towards the end of my first month I completed another eDNA collection, which I now feel confident with, and did another two reptile checks. I still haven’t seen reptiles during the checks, but I did see a grass snake and common lizard during one of the Hastings trips.

Next were my first bat surveys, which I had been apprehensive/ excited about. Bats are such a huge part of ecological consultancy and I expect to do many over the summer, so I really wanted them to be something I enjoy! Luckily, I did enjoy them and it was exciting picking them up on the bat detector and then seeing them whizzing about over your head. I did an activity transect along a canal, which involves stopping for intervals and recording the species that pass by on their way to and from their roosts, and an emergence survey, where I had to sit and watch a potential bat roost (loose tiles on an old roof) to see if any bats flew out of that area. None did but there were some Soprano and Common Pipistrelles foraging in the area which was fun to watch.

I really enjoyed my first month on placement at Ecology by Design and I am pleased that I got to experience so many different surveys so early on. My goals over the next few months are to see some reptiles, dormice and a male GCN, to learn more about the report writing process and to continue gaining survey experience.