Our Trainee Ecologists say goodbye

Trainee Ecologists Josh Phangurha and Sofie Borek look back on their time at the Trust.

When we first applied for the Trainee Ecologist position we both knew we were pursuing a unique opportunity. Not many organisations provide a position like this, which enables young conservationists to ‘get a foot in the door’ of a career in ecology. Although many seasonal positions exist they are often part time/zero hours and you might not get the range work we have both got to experience.

After starting with The Trust we both quickly came to the realisation that this was an incredibly friendly place to work, and despite the COVID-19 pandemic and lack of face-to-face contact, we were warmly welcomed and introduced to members of staff. Starting a job during lockdown poses challenges such as receiving training remotely, and we had a lot of new programmes to learn (such as GIS software and bat call analysis software). Nevertheless a great effort was made by our colleagues to help us which was thoroughly appreciated!

Ecological surveys consisted of surveying terrestrial invertebrates, white-clawed crayfish, reptiles, amphibians, small mammals, water vole/otter signs and bats. We both have previous experience in surveying a range of animals, however our roles also included surveying a number of species we were unfamiliar with, which was great. In particular, our experiences working in freshwater habitats entailed a number of new species including the white-clawed crayfish. This species in particular is highly protected, with only a small number of Ecologists in the country having a licence to survey them (one of them being our colleague Ben!). Ben’s work on this species enabled us both to get unique experiences, handling and assessing this rare species (and getting a good few selfies of course!).

Another memorable day for us both was assisting Hampshire Mammal Group with a small mammal survey at Itchen Valley Country Park. Having spent much time surveying for water vole signs, to no avail, the prospect of seeing a range of small mammals in the flesh was welcomed. In total six small mammal species were recorded, including the incredibly cute harvest mouse and pygmy shrew!

Now that our time as Trainee Ecologists is coming to an end, we can both agree what a fantastic time we’ve had, and how beneficial our experience has been for our personal and professional development. As you might imagine, we are both passionate about conservation, and something we’ve found particularly rewarding about the job is that many of the surveys we did contribute to rewilding projects and not solely building development projects. Afterall, rewilding land wherever possible is key in tackling the environmental crisis we find ourselves in today, so it’s great to know that the work we’ve done will support this fantastic movement. It will be great to keep in touch and see how these sites develop in future.

Josh’s Highlights

My plant identification skills were really basic before joining the Trust’s ecology team. After assisting my line manager in botanical surveys at various sites across Hampshire, I can recognise plant species more quickly than I used to and I am more confident in identification. Being introduced to high quality plant ID books has also been useful. As a future ecologist, this is an important skill to have in order to conduct phase 1 botanical surveys.

Although I look for butterflies and moths in my free time, surveying them in a professional manor treated me to my first Purple Emperor and Purple Hairstreak, as well as the scarce Clifden Nonpareil during a light trap survey.

Clifden nonpareil moth

Clifden nonpareil moth © Carmen Green

I had surveyed Great-crested newts in the past, but I had never had to opportunity to carry out surveys which involved handling them under licensed supervision until I joined the Trust. Seeing these remarkable amphibians up close in the hand was a memorable experience.

Assisting our colleagues Ben Rushbrook and Tom Selby in surveys for white-clawed crayfish was a completely new and rewarding experience. The anticipation of seeing my first crayfish while checking the traps in the beautiful Hampshire chalkstreams was exciting. Then actually seeing one in the hand was a special moment! Also, knowing that some of the crayfish we processed were releases from a captive breeding project at Bristol Zoo was greatly rewarding.

Assisting in my first small mammal survey was fantastic. The site we surveyed has always produced a good diversity of small mammals in abundance and I wasn’t disappointed when I visited! Learning how to correctly extract shrews, mice and voles from the traps is a valuable skill for my future ecology career.

One day I was given an unusual task, which was to collect an exotic huntsman spider that had turned up in a school within a banana shipment! The teachers did well to catch the spider in a box, ready for me to take it off their hands. The spider (now known as ‘Barbara’), is living happily in captivity. She came all the way from the Dominican Republic.

It has been a pleasure working with the Arcadian Ecology team and I feel like I have made some great friends while working here.

Sofie’s Highlights

Having worked in a consultancy before, I had a bit of an insight into species legislation and how to carry out surveys for a few protected species, however the amount of exposure to different sites/techniques and species I have gained working with The Trust has been invaluable, and a great addition to the experience I already had.

As mentioned, a good portion of our work contributed to rewilding sites, however a highlight for me, was the unexpected finds on the sites that we surveyed for planning/development purposes. It was on these sites that I got to see my first common lizards (and lots of them) and my first hatchling grass snakes! Unfortunately the latter were much too speedy for a photo.

Common lizard

Common lizard ‘disguising’

Although inevitably, these sites will be developed, it’s a huge comfort to know that its my company doing the ecology work, and I can be confident that they will provide sound advice and arguments for the protection of these species.

It has also been great for me to learn different techniques from my colleagues, as everyone has their own background and experience, which I’ve been able to learn from. For example, I am now confident in using three makes/types of bat detector, and two types of call analysis software! With the dedicated help of my colleagues I am now pretty confident and efficient at analysing bat calls, and this is something that will be great for future jobs in ecology.

I think my main highlight has been getting to work with such a lovely group of people who share my passion for wildlife and conservation. I will miss working with my colleagues and all the ecology banter! But look forward to the future and the opportunities this role will hopefully open up.