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The University of Southampton
Biological Sciences

Hampshire partnership wildlife research project pilot hailed a success

Published: 22 February 2010

Volunteering leads to job offers for graduates

Southampton University graduates in Biological Sciences and Environmental Science headed out into the open air last summer, embarking on a range of wildlife projects in Hampshire. By volunteering to put their expert skills to good use, they contributed valuable research to the Hampshire Biodiversity Partnership which includes Southampton City Council and the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust.

Their brief was to find out more about the state of wildlife in the local area, in the process gaining useful hands-on experience for their future careers. The research findings were all brought together recently when the students presented their work at a Research Exchange event at the University. Representatives from over a dozen partners in the Biodiversity Partnership attended and all agreed that the graduates had made a great contribution to the ecological and conservation work that is going on across Hampshire.

The idea of graduate volunteer research for continuing professional development and enabling students to gain valuable work experience was conceived and implemented by Drs Chris Jackson Simon Bray and Lex Kraaijeveld and received financial support from Head of School Professor Guy Poppy and Southampton City Council. The students also benefited from specialist professional training in field work methods provided by consultant ecologist and ex School of Biological Sciences graduate, John Poland and in geographical data analysis techniques (GIS) by Dr Ilse Steyl. The whole project was so enthusiastically received that it has been decided to roll out the scheme to more graduates next year. The work will provide long term data on environmental change and looks set to be a fixture for productive research collaboration between the University and local organisations for many years to come.

Zoology graduate Mark Rose spent the summer looking for great crested newts on Southampton Common. His project, in conjunction with the City Council, was to survey the population of these rare amphibians and discover their habitat preferences on land. He set out several artificial shelters or ‘refugia’ in different parts of the Common and inspected them each morning to check for any signs of the newts. Mark also measured daily soil temperatures and light levels and noted weather conditions.

“This was a very valuable opportunity to gain real experience of conservation work,” explained Mark. “It led to some paid work experience as a subcontracted ecologist for a transport consultancy, assisting with reptile and badger surveys, as well as more work in bat and reptile surveys as far away as Norfolk. This is all golden for my CV as my ambition is to become a fully-fledged ecological consultant after taking a Masters degree in Environmental Science.”

Checking bats on Southampton Common

Tamsin Roberts (BSc Biology), Emily McVean (BSc Environmental Science) and Becky Brown (BSc Zoology) rose before dawn to check on the bats of Southampton Common. ‘We wanted to find out whether bats were more common in dark places or in areas with lighting,’ said Tamsin. ‘We had a piece of equipment that can transform the very high-pitched bat calls into audible frequencies so we could keep track of them.’ Initial findings suggest bats are attracted to the lights because there are plenty of insects flying around in those areas.’ All three bat investigators hope their experience will help them secure a job in wildlife or conservation.

Lindsay McCulloch is Planning Ecologist for Southampton City Council. She said: “It is vital for local authorities to understand species such as newts and bats in their area. We appreciate all the hard work from Biological Sciences graduates from the University of Southampton. They have provided the skills and expertise we need to draw up a comprehensive picture of wildlife on the Common.”

Simon Kain and Phil Latto’s brief was to investigate the spread of five invasive plants in sections of several rivers in the New Forest. Fortunately only two of the species, Himalayan Balsam and New Zealand pigmy weed were found, but they were able to show evidence of an increase in parts of the rivers since the last survey in 1996, and make recommendations for dealing with the invaders.

Louise Fairless went snake hunting at Testwood Lakes in Totton. Her project, devised in association with the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust, involved visiting refugia on different sites in the nature reserve twice a week to investigate which creatures nestled beneath the sheets of iron and roofing felt where temperatures can rise to 27 degrees Celsius. Finding and photographing grass snakes was her goal to get an idea of how many live in the area. “It’s been a great project and I’ve learned so much about real-life conservation work,” said the BSc Biology graduate.

Rob Styles and Kate Harrington kept fit by walking 7 miles a day, following the paths they staked out to examine bumblebees in their habitat. The two Biology graduates were counting the numbers of bumblebees at the Poundwood Estate near Micheldever. The local landowner had already given over some of his fields to the planting of bird food and pollen and nectar plants, and wanted to take part in the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust’s ongoing project to measure the success of the scheme in increasing the bird and bee population.

“We measured the bee population to see which Environmental Stewardship schemes were most successful,” says Kate. “Many farms are monocultural, but the landowner at Micheldever was very interested in preserving ecology in his fields. With the help of funding from Natural England, he had sown a mix for birds including brassicas, flax, borage and other seeds, and pollen and nectar strips for bees which included wild poppies, bird’s foot trefoil and other nectar-bearing plants. He wanted to take part in the evaluation to find out the impact the scheme is having.”

Rob, who has now started paid work with an environmental consultancy, believes the survey work he undertook led to the offer job offer. “We gained really useful skills such as the use of GIS (Geographic Information Systems) and Phase 1 Habitat Survey,” he says. “It is all really helpful when you are looking for work.”

Debbie King, Senior Biodiversity Officer for Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust, says: ‘The student research projects have been a brilliant opportunity for the Trust to work with the University and we are really excited about their findings. We believe it to be essential that conservation work is based on sound science and the graduate projects are helping us to achieve this. We’re very grateful for all their hard work!’

Guy Poppy, Head of the School of Biological Sciences, says: “This is a great opportunity for our newly qualified graduates to gain first-hand experience with professional practitioners, and it will certainly enhance their career opportunities. Our degree programmes cover many ecological and environmental issues in depth, but there is not always the time to incorporate practical experience. This opportunity fills that gap and I am really pleased that we have been able to collaborate with our partners, giving graduates the chance to translate the knowledge they have absorbed and further their career at the same time. ”

Drs Lex Kraaijeveld and Chris Jackson agree: “This scheme really is a 3-way win for everyone involved. The graduates obtain valuable experience for their CVs, the School strengthens its links with local institutions, and the local partners benefit from getting solid evidence that can support their policies. The proof of success is that of the nine participants, four have already been snapped up by employers. Two are in environmental consultancy firms, one is a consultant ecologist and another a conservation warden. Two more are undertaking Masters Degrees in related areas, and the other three are now starting to look for posts.”

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This scheme really is a 3-way win for everyone involved. The graduates obtain valuable experience for their CVs, the School strengthens its links with local institutions, and the local partners benefit from getting solid evidence that can support their policies.

Drs Chris Jackson and Lex Kraaijeveld - Co-ordinators

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