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A Day in the Life of an Ecologist

Logo: Arbtech

By James Fielding, PhD, BA (Hons), Ecologist (Surveyor)

James crouching down identifying badger setts (Merry Anderson)
Identifying badger setts (Merry Anderson)

Artbech Consulting Ltd. is one of the UK’s largest ecological consultancies, employing 41 staff and handling ecological work all over the UK. At the forefront of its business model are ecologists like James Fielding, a former-research scientist who is in his first year with the company.

James is an Ecological Surveyor, an entry-level role which conducts a range of different ecological surveys for the company’s clients. Most of James’ work involves conducting ecological surveys which are requested to inform planning applications, usually Preliminary Ecological Appraisals (PEAs) and Preliminary Roost Assessments (PRAs).

Identifying potential roosting features during a Preliminary Roost Assessment (Louise Gore)
Identifying potential roosting features during a Preliminary Roost Assessment (Louise Gore)

Although Arbtech is based out of Chester, James works from his home in Devon, where he handles much of the work Arbtech receives in Cornwall, Devon and Dorset. This home-based model allows ecologists to work locally and cuts down on commuting around the country. James’ typical working week involves carrying out four PEAs or PRAs per week, with one or two days spent at home writing up those surveys into reports for his clients.

Although every day brings new sites and new challenges, what follows is a “typical” working day for him.

The day begins with admin and book-ins. James receives his work from the main office and then rings his clients to confirm dates, typically scheduling his surveys three weeks in advance. Once those are sorted, James sets off in his car towards the days survey site – a barn and some surrounding fields and woodland where James will be conducting a joint PEA and PRA.

The day before this site visit, James carried out a desk study of the site, using tools like DEFRA’s MAGIC Map application to look at environmental records and classifications. From this desk study, James knows that nearby sites support dormice, one of England’s protected species, and that he’ll have to keep a particular eye out for them.

Arriving at the site, James speaks to the client, who is tense and keen to get assurances on how quickly the report can be produced. “Liaising with clients is one of the biggest parts of the job. They can range from very eco-friendly and interested to learn about their ecology, to viewing you as an autocratic and unnecessary complication. Sometimes the local authority’s request for ecological surveys has come as a complete surprise to them, and they’ll be desperate for a quick survey to avoid delaying contractors at the planned start of their work.” James reassures the client, and promises to deliver the report by the end of the week.

“In my previous job, I never had to deal with clients, so reassuring them is a new skill for me.” He admits, before setting off into the fields around the barn to conduct the preliminary ecological appraisal. “This is the best part of the job – plenty of time outdoors and seeing beautiful countryside.” He circles the property, classifying the habitat types. The most exciting find is a small badger sett in a wooded area on the western site boundary.

Setting up badger cameras outside the main sett (Louise Gore)
Setting up badger cameras outside the main sett (Louise Gore)

“Badgers are another protected species in the UK.” He explains. “Given the presence of the sett on site, we’ll want to setup night-vision trail cameras.” James also notes that the site contains hazel trees and mature hedgerows, making it a great potential habitat for dormice. Although running conventional dormice surveys using nest tunnels could be a time consuming process, James suggests that they survey the site using the dormice footprint tunnel technique, a survey methodology newly developed by the Peoples Trust for Endangered Species which is both less invasive and faster to conduct.

“I used to work in scientific research, and the academic side of the job is still of great interest to me. We’re really keen to incorporate new techniques and methods into our work to give both clients and protected species a better outcome.”

With the PEA complete, James turns to assess the barn itself. “I’m looking for roosting features on the outside of the building – gaps that bats could roost in, or through which they could access the interior of the building itself.” Although no gaps are readily visible on the outside, once James shines his torch around the inside its clear they are getting in somehow: the barn is covered in hundreds of droppings.

The client is adamant that all the dropping are from mice and rats that access the barn space, but James disagrees – many of the droppings are in elevated positions or trapped in cobwebs on the ceiling, which would require some very acrobatic mice. However, James knows it’s definitely possible that some of them are from mice: mouse droppings are frustratingly similar to the droppings of smaller bats species like common pipistrelle, Pipistrellus pipistrellus. Thankfully, there are several ways to distinguish between them. Bats have a very different diet from mice and mainly eat insects, which fill their droppings with undigested chitin. This gives their droppings a shiny appearance and also leads to the droppings crumbling easily, whilst mouse droppings are firm and unyielding under pressure.

Checking for bat droppings during a Preliminary Roost Assessment (Louise Gore)
Checking for bat droppings during a Preliminary Roost Assessment (Louise Gore)

All of this just about explains why James spends the next half hour carefully collecting droppings and squeezing them between his fingers. This “crumble-test” is definitely one of the least glamorous parts of the job, but after several tests James is confident that several of the droppings are indeed those of bats, meaning the barn is a confirmed bat roost and will require three dawn and dusk surveys later that summer.

After the survey is completed, James returns to the client, explaining the further surveys that will be needed and working out how to reconcile these with the client’s timescale. With the client reassured, James returns to his car and prepares to head home to write up the report. Before he leaves, James also collects several samples of the potential bat droppings in sealed plastic bags, ready to send off for DNA analysis to identify the exact species that is using the space.

“At this point, the glove compartment of my car is absolutely full of little baggies of bat droppings.” He laughs. “A few weeks ago I had some security guards inspect my car whilst entering a festival. They were very confused at the contents!”

If you’d like to find out more about James journey to become an Ecologist, you can check out his youtube series “Ecology Zero to Ecology Hero

Find out more about Arbtech on https://ARBTECH.co.uk

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