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A Day in the Life of an Assistant Ecologist

Among the many areas within the environmental sector is the role of an assistant ecologist. In the case of Thomson EC, the duties of the employee who takes this position can involve a variety of tasks to help determine whether or not development can take place on specific areas of land.

Assistant Ecologist Byron Humphries explains a day spent working between Birmingham and Nottinghamshire, surveying for great crested newts in a potential development area.

10am – Due to the late evening ahead, my day starts a little later today. I spend a few hours doing admin, and reminding myself of the various traits to look for in order to accurately identify a great crested newt – including its gender and rough age.

12noon – After lunch, I spend the next few hours preparing for survey activities. This means checking the precise location of the site, liaising with the surveyors who will also be working with me this evening, and checking that I have all the right equipment and PPE ready to go. Then I have a chilled few hours before heading out.

5pm – We make our half an hour journey to the site in Nottinghamshire, where we meet a few fellow ecologists. The site is a nature reserve with a few ponds, which at first glance seems like an ideal habitat for great crested newts.

First of all, we need to determine just how suitable the habitat is for this protected species. To do this, we need to commence a Habitat Suitability Index assessment. This involves looking at the size of the ponds, checking the water quality, geographical location, and other species present. We look for certain vegetation, as well as waterfowl, fish, and other invertebrates.

7pm – After sunset, when night sets in, great crested newts become most active. To maximise the chances of finding newts, there are three different survey techniques to undertake. Firstly, we use a method known as ‘torching’, which simply involves using a bright and powerful torch to illuminate the pond to try to spot great crested newts with the naked eye.

Next, we carry out an egg search – great crested newts are known to lay eggs individually on vegetation located around the pond. Finally, we carry out ‘bottle trapping’. This involves placing bottle traps, which are made of plastic bottles and wooden canes, around the ponds. To avoid waste, these traps are used repeatedly during other surveys. The aim is to safely capture great crested newts that climb inside, until the following morning when they will be returned.

These three methods are used because they are believed to be the least invasive, safest way of determining the presence of the species. Plus, they yield the best results. Other, less desirable methods include ‘netting’, which involves sweeping a net over the pond floor and then physically checking what has been caught. Because of the disturbance this technique causes, it’s only used when the other methods have been ruled out.

10.30pm – after several hours we finish our surveying and head home.

6.30am – we have an early start this morning, because we need to go back to the site to check the bottle traps. We must go as early as possible to make sure the newts are released before the sun gets too hot. We record our findings before releasing the great crested newts, and all the other creatures that have crawled in the bottles.

9am – we return to the office to prepare our data and photo evidence for submission to the client. Any health and safety concerns we find must also be reported to both the client and our HSQE Manager.  All the equipment we used is then cleaned and checked for damage, and prepared for the next survey. After this we head home, where I get some rest to help prepare me for my next ecological adventure.

If these details of a day’s work as an assistant ecologist have piqued your interest, find out more about ecological surveys. There are a number of ways to help the UK’s protected species, and surveying for their presence can be among the most rewarding.

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