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Thursday 1 December 2022

A consultant ecologist's creed


When I began to consult as an ecologist

     Said I to myself — said I

I'll work on a new and original twist

     Said I to myself — said I 

I'll never assume that a client with cash

Is a person with whom I never must clash

Because my new car is expensive and flash

     Said I to myself — said I

Ere I survey at sunset I’ll always take care

     Said I to myself — said I

Substandard equipment I never will bear

     Said I to myself — said I

When a bat flutters past and I don’t know where from

I’ll not scribble notes with egregious aplomb

So that licensing work is certain to come

     Said I to myself — said I

I won’t write reports that contort and confuse

     Said I to myself — said I

Or use fifty words when just four I should choose

     Said I to myself — said I

My recommendations shall be honest and true

Never used to assist my income to accrue

Even though my bank balance is making me blue

     Said I to myself — said I

Though shag-nasty surveys may seem commonplace

     Said I to myself — said I

I'd like to believe I've an honest face

     Said I to myself — said I

I owe to myself and the bats my best work

Though the dodgier clients may offer me perks

That kind of behaviour’s the province of jerks

     Said I to myself — said I

With profuse apologies to Gilbert and Sullivan, for ripping off the Lord Chancellor’s song from “Iolanthe” and to all the upstanding consultant ecologists who would never dream of such behaviour.

If Gilbert and Sullivan are new to you, they wrote a series of popular Victorian comic operettas which poked fun at the establishment, in this case the incredibly corrupt legal system of the 1800s (seriously – Victorian lawyers and judges made Boris Johnson look like an honest little angel).  The Lord Chancellor's song

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Tuesday 10 May 2022

The bane of bat surveys - that b***dy PIR flood-light!


I’m sitting here, very still.

Of bats I hope to get my fill.

But all ain’t well. It isn’t right:

That bloody PIR flood-light


Bolted there, upon the wall,

It’s glaring eye stares at all.

The owner promised it wouldn’t work.

Now it’s clear he’s a lying jerk.


If I move a tiny bit,

All around is brightly lit.

Bright as any supernova,

My survey will be truly over.


So here I sit and curse my lot,

Want to move, but I cannot.

Cramp in foot I cannot sate,

My itchy nose must also wait.


Frustration grows, no longer care,

Desperately around I stare.

I see my answer, my lips I lick,

As my eye falls onto a half-brick.

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Thursday 5 May 2022

Intermediate bats and Nellie nights

I love this time of year: the start of the survey season kicks off; the team are fired up and ready to see some bats after so long; new seasonal field ecologists are excited to start their first bat survey season and at last we get to do the surveys which have been stacked up for months, waiting for the start of May.

Perhaps I'm especially enthusiastic, given that these days our team has grown to the point where I can pick and choose which surveys I want to lead and know that the others will be entirely under control, whether I'm there or not.

My first survey of this years season was a great site - a lovely converted farm building alongside a nature reserve. A previous survey of an adjacent building had noted that there was a Soprano pipistrelle maternity roost at the south-facing wall-head, so it was already promising.

Just as exciting was that the survey was a "Nellie night". Three shiny new field ecologists, having completed their theoretical and practical training were there for the final stage of their training, where they complete their first actual survey with one-to-one supervision and guidance from one of our experienced people. In the 21st century business world this would be called shadowing, but I rather like the old-fashioned name for it: "sitting next to Nellie". There's nothing quite like seeing the sheer pleasure an early career ecologist gets from putting their training into use for the first time and recording useful bat survey data.

I pointed out the bat droppings under the known maternity site, on the ground, sticking to the wall and on a window-ledge and gave the team a warning. The start of May is a fascinating period, when bat roosting activity is fluid and the greater clarity of roost use we tend to see in the summer hasn't started yet. Just because we know where the maternity site is doesn't mean that that is where the majority of the bats will emerge from - the maternity group probably won't have fully coalesced yet.

I do like it when bats do what I say they're likely to do - so often the gods of bat-work overhear me and take their vengence by ensuring something totally different happens. On this night however, the Sopranos behaved very nicely. In all 175 bats emerged from the building during the survey, 99 from the known maternity site and the remainder in groups of up to 13 from a dozen other roost locations around the building. Classic spring intermediate roosting - a great learning experience for the Nellie-nighters and it will be interesting for them to compare results later in the season with this survey.

There was another early season bonus too. As temperatures tend to drop fairly rapidly after sunset this early in the year, the foraging period is often short and the result of this was that some of the nellie-nighters were able to observe swarming behaviour, as some of the bats returned to the roosts before the end of the sunset survey.

All in all, a really nice survey, but for me the best bit came at the very end, as equipment was being packed away. I'm a strong believer in hiring clever, capable people and empowering them to get on with it, trusting them to make good decisions and telling them not to allow me to micro-manage them. Noticing the contents of one of the survey kits wasn't properly packed away yet I leaned over to deal with it, only to be headed off by one of our brilliant assistant ecologists, who already had the matter in hand. When the team feel sufficently confident to shoo the boss away, with a stern "get away", then I reckon we're getting things about right!

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Thursday 14 April 2022

Freelance ecology - the money game

With increasing numbers of ecologists breaking free of the large employers and setting up on their own it’s worth exploring some of the challenges they will face. I recently wrote about some of those challenges (Setting up on your own - the ecology business) and I thought it would be worth considering a particularly thorny problem for many freelancers - it’s hard enough to find work, but getting clients  to cough up payment this side of hell freezing over can be a real challenge. 

Cash-flow is everything in business. You can be massively busy and owed loads of money, but if it's all outstanding, you can't pay your bills and many small businesses are killed off by cash-flow problems. In my early days I had a torrid couple of months when I really struggled to pay bills, yet was owed about £40,000.

It seems straightforward enough, doesn't it? You do an honest piece of good quality ecology work, you send the client an invoice and within 28 days they send you payment. Simples! Oh, that it were so! There are people out there who firmly believe that your entitlement to be paid is correlated with the amount of effort you put into persuading them to pay. Much as I would love for them to be hit by lightning, it isn't going to happen, so we need some tactics.

In James Herriot's "All Creatures Great and Small" books James' boss, Siegfried Farnon deployed his "PNS" system, to persuade Dales farmers to pay up. P for polite, N for nasty and S for solicitors. From what I recall, it wasn't very effective, but the idea of gradually ramping up the pressure makes sense and works for me.

The first thing is to know your enemy. Who are you dealing with? Mrs Miggins, having an extension put up might just have lost your invoice in the heap of stuff on her kitchen table and a friendly, gentle reminder may well do the job. Most individuals and small businesses who play fast and loose can usually be brought to heel with a sharply-worded letter, threatening the small claims court. I also have a big rubber stamp with "PAYMENT OVERDUE", which works wonders, especially when used in red on the outside of the envelope, but be aware that this type of tactic may embarrass the client into paying, but may also make them reluctant to come back.

Mid-sized developers, or anyone else who also needs people to pay their bills to keep their cash-flow healthy are generally reasonable at paying up. The advantage of this size of business is that the person you dealt with might not be responsible for paying you, but they know who is and are able to apply influence on your behalf if you ask nicely.

The nightmare scenario for my business tends to be the massive organisations - the big PLCs, local authorities etc (though with some notable exceptions, who have discovered consciences). Many of these organisations now have a genuine policy of delaying payments for as long as possible, to bolster their own financial situation. 28 days? Three months is often as good as you'll get and much worse is common. One local authority we work for habitually pay after six months. Happily very few now play the "very slowly posted cheque" game, which tended to mean that payment took an extra 1-2 weeks to reach your bank account. Instead they appear to use two nefarious tactics. 

One of these is for the accounts department to be virtually uncontactable. "We accept calls between 09:30 and 11:00 on Mondays and Thursdays" is not uncommon (they're invariably engaged). Emails of course don't get answered, making it virtually impossible to get hold of someone who can fix the problem, which is what they want. 

The second tactic used is the "we need to set you up as a supplier" game, with increasingly loopy time-wasting requirements, dressed up as due diligence. Asking for insurance certificates is reasonable, but demanding a copy of your policy on Patagonian Narwhal protection seems to be the way they're heading. I maintain a large folder with PDFs of every possible thing they might ask for (there's about 40 documents in it and it's steadily growing). The ones who annoy me most get the whole damn lot as a massive zip file.

So how do you get past the financial Rottweilers whose job it is to avoid paying you? The first thing to understand is that they probably don't know the person who commissions work from you, are in a different office and probably a different county. So you can be (politely) aggressive, without fear of losing future work. The next thing is to accept that wearing them down is your best tactic - email them frequently, write to them often and when you have a spare five minutes, pick one or two to phone. The more you hassle them, the more you move up their payment list. I've also had a lot of success from hunting down someone very senior in the organisation (Google and LinkedIn are your friends) and contacting them direct, asking them to help. They are often appalled to discover that the money-wonks in the basement are treating people in this way.

Work out who the bad guys are and plan ahead. Add 10% to your fee bids for them, to cover the time you'll waste extracting payment. Make sure your terms and conditions include the right to charge interest on overdue payments. You could even ask for payment up front, but that's a great way to lose work.

There are companies out there who can help your cash flow by taking over your invoices and chasing them for you, paying you immediately. But this service comes at a cost. You might think it's worth it. I don't. A former accountant of ours suggested offering a 10% discount for invoices paid within seven days. Sadly, the only people who took us up on it were the ones who would have paid promptly anyway, so I don't recommend that!

Your final resort of course is the small claims court, which can be very effective, but it's time-consuming. It's also expensive, if the client turns out to be broke. I've only ever used it twice. In both cases they paid up before the case came to court, so now I threaten the court vigourously, deploying it's reputation, but not it's process. 

If all else fails try showing up on the doorstep, especially if you have that wild-eyed "just back from a dawn survey and still got bat droppings in my hair" look. If that doesn't scare them into paying up, nothing will!

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Sunday 3 April 2022

What does the future hold for bat groups?

Like many licensed bat-workers, my journey commenced with membership of a local bat group. I was lucky enough to also get involved with a couple of research projects, which expanded my opportunities, but many of my earliest experiences with bats were gained by helping Lothians Bat Group with things like bat box checks, roost counts and hibernation surveys.

A group of delightfully mad Lothians Bat Group members, helping to convert a WW2 bunker into a hibernaculum.

Bat groups have long been at the heart of bat conservation: local groups of like-minded people, coming together to devote time to monitoring and conserving bats, to encouraging the public to understand and care about them and of course, to training new bat-workers and giving them opportunities to work towards their own licenses.

Success for bat groups has always been a hit or miss affair. Like most voluntary groups, it all depends on having enough people who want to put in as well as to take out; on people with organisation and leadership skills and most of all, on people who can spare some of that precious commodity, time. Groups need committees of people, able to work together to arrange events, drive the group forward and inspire others to take part. 

When I was first actively involved Lothians Bat Group had the benefit of Dr. Stuart Smith, who ran the group as a sort of benign dicatorship. Stuart was a great combination of encouraging mentor and organisational demon, so much so that everyone was happy with the status quo and things went swimmingly, until Stuart retired and moved away. Happily, the group is still active, unlike in some areas, where groups have folded. Like so many voluntary groups we have a committee of very busy people. We all have lots of other commitments: family, children, work etc and inevitably the bat group has to take it's turn. I suspect we all feel slightly guilty for not doing more, but there are only so many hours in the day.

Many of us who hold bat licenses also work in conservation and consultancy and, let's be honest, you have to be phenomenally keen to spend five days a week working with bats and still be willing to go out and do voluntary bat work. Many of us do it, but when I think back to how much more voluntary bat-work I did before I worked in the field it's quite thought-provoking.

In rural areas it is even harder, as human populations are more thinly spread and greater travel is necessary to meet. In one region I've been involved in, the same faces were committee members of the local amphibian and reptile group, bat group and badger group, further diluting the available time and effort available to each group. Good on them for keeping the flags flying though!

I have a sense that bat groups today are not as active as they were a decade or more ago (I hope I'm wrong) and that is very worrying. The Bat Conservation Trust are active in encouraging and supporting people to set up new groups and in running projects intended to raise awareness and encourage the creation and development of bat groups. Here in Scotland we have had a series of highly active Scottish Bat Officers, funded by NatureScot, who have done some superb work.

So what's the answer? Bat groups are essential to successful conservation. If we don't have gangs of enthusiastic bat-fanatics manning stalls at events, leading bat walks and helping roost owners and if we don't ensure that the next generation of these members are being inspired and trained, who will take up the slack? The SNCOs don't even have proper funding for their core roles. The NGOs never recovered financially from the last recession and we may be heading for another.

It seems to me that the only way forward is for everyone who cares about bats to do what they can, to contribute where they're able: even the smallest contribution of time and effort is nonetheless a contribution. Perhaps in this 21st century world, when our lives are increasingly time-squeezed, there needs to be bigger committees of people taking on smaller roles within a group? 

Or perhaps someone in south-west England (where he now lives) could hunt down Stuart and clone him for us? Lots of him.

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