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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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Saturday, 19 March 2022

To hell with birdies, I want BATS!

Spring has sprung, the grass is riz,
I wonder where the birdies is?
Cancel that - I don’t care,
But when will bats take to the air?

I’ve hugged the fire and shivered lots,
I’ve had enough - I want some hot.
And when it comes, what I want most
Is wakeful bats - not one, a host!

All this tweeting is quite nice,

But I’ll ignore it in a trice.

It’s chips and chops I really like,

Hollow claps, clicks and suchlike.

My detectors polished til it gleams,

Batteries are charged, ready it seems.

‘Tis patience I am really short of,

I need some bats, to adore and love.

So, don’t keep me waiting, little bat,

‘Tis time to make your belly fat.

I’ll wait no more, I can’t, I vow,

So shift your butt and fly right now. 

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Tuesday, 8 March 2022

Driving to bat surveys - don't risk becoming a killer

On 28 February 2001 Gary Hart was driving in the dark on the M62 motorway when he lost control of his vehicle. Later investigations revealed he was sleep-deprived and failed to apply the brakes. The car and it's trailer careered down the embankment onto the East Coast main railway line, where it was struck by an InterCity 225 train. Ten people died in the ensuing carnage and 82 were seriously injured. 

Every year I hear stories from people who work in those consultancies (you know the ones I mean). They describe doing back to back sunset and dawn bat surveys, day after day, often with long journeys between and I can't help thinking of Gary Hart. He was sentenced to jail for five years, but I suspect a much bigger punishment for him was the knowledge of ten lives lost and 82 more whose lives were changed forever.

Selby was clearly exacerbated by circumstances, but imagine a head-on collision at 60mph. With a closing speed of 120mph it's entirely possible that you, your passengers and the family of five in the other car would all die or suffer life-changing injuries. And it would only take a moment's inattention.

With the new survey season approaching I thought it might be time to share a few thoughts on ways to limit the risks associated with driving to and from bat surveys at night, so here are my top ten suggestions. 

1. Get to know what your level of tolerance is for fatigue and stay well inside it. How will you recognise when your abilities are impaired? You need to know. Be aware that your tolerance for fatigue decreases with age - I'm 56 and I can see a noticeable difference between now and a decade ago.

2. Heroes are those who save lives by being sensible. Pushing yourself beyond your limits to get that one last piece of survey work completed doesn't make you a hero - it definitely makes you the other thing.

3. Plan your workload and your sleep patterns. Within our team we avoid back to back sunset/dawn surveys like the plague and our full-timers are encouraged to take time off during the day to rest and ensure they are fresh when they need to be.

4. If you're under pressure to go beyond sensible limits you need to think carefully about what your options are, but you must address the issue. Dont fall into the trap of thinking it'll be fine, because one day it won't.

5. Do everything you can to keep your mind active whilst driving. I use talking books from Audible to help me stay alert - listening and thinking about what I'm hearing keep my brain fully functional. Music may help some people, but I worry that rhythmic sounds may be counter-productive.

6. If you have passengers in the car, get them to help. The best person ever for this (she knows who she is) was a member of our team who could sit in the front passenger seat and talk continuously and animatedly for two hours about her pet ferrets, horse-riding, pole-dancing, her various part-time jobs and heaven knows what else - it was impossible to doze off with that going on!

The aftermath of the Selby crash, caused by a sleep-deprived car driver.
(Photo credit: Yorkshire Live)

7. I hope your car's fully serviced. with good tyres etc, but there are things you can do to reduce your workload. Make sure your windscreen is clean - bugs, smears etc are much more obvious in the headlights and peering through a murky wind-screen is not going to help you.

8. Are your headlights clean? It is gob-smacking how much less effective they are with even a thin layer of traffic film. I use my headlight washers at least once every journey. If your car doesn't have washers then carry a wet cloth in a bag and wipe them before setting off in the dark. The more forward illumination you have the easier it is to focus on driving safely.

9. You're in a hurry to get home - aren't we all, when it's 2am and a warm bed is calling? You know what I'm going to say - drive to the road conditions and resist that massive temptation to put your foot to the floor, especially on winding country roads.

10. If you recognise that you're fatigued, whatever you do, don't press on regardless. I find power naps suprisingly effective. Recline your seat and set an alarm for 20 minutes (no more than that or you risk going into a deep sleep and waking up more tired than you started). Close your eyes and empty your mind. If that doesn't work then it's time to accept that you've got it wrong and either dig out the sleeping bag or find the nearest Travelodge.

Please don't think this is a definitive guide - I'm not a sleep expert or an advanced driving instructor. But we work in an industry that tends to overlook this issue or worse, treat it as a macho thing. And that's just plain stupid.

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Wednesday, 5 January 2022

Getting into ecology - guest blog

Izzy McQuillan is a graduate ecologist at WSP, with a knack for communication. She recently  condensed her experiences of gaining her first steps onto the ladder of professional ecology into a series of LinkedIn posts. They are solid gold advice for anyone looking to follow in her footsteps and Izzy has kindly combined them into a guest blog for David's Bat Blog.

So this time last year, I saw my job role advertised on Linkedin and decided to take the plunge and apply.

I thought it would be useful to target some posts at current students, recent graduates and anyone trying to 'break' into ecology. There are a few useful tips that I wish I had known in my final year, or during my job search.

Want to become an ecologist?

First point...

You need to be able to drive. Preferably with your own car, but having a full-clean licence is the main point which might be tripping up your application.

Also, having survey experience is essential.

I would say, it makes the most sense to focus on bats, if you are looking for a seasonal position. If you have on your cv that you have assisted on dusk/dawn bat surveys, and know how to use a heterodyne bat detector, you are showing you can step into the business and start helping straight away, it makes you a useful asset.

Otherwise, gaining botanical i.d skills and GIS skills will also greatly benefit you. Phase 1 surveys, hedgerow surveys and preliminary bat surveys of trees could make up a lot of your day work, meaning having a grasp of common botanical species will be extremely useful. Understanding GIS will also put you ahead, being able to create a red line site boundary or Phase 1 map will help make you essential in the team. It seems in consultancy, Arc is the one to focus on, but QGIS is free and you can still get these tasks done on Q (I use Q, and am hoping to get my head around Arc this winter).

I wish I had known this, as no one told me this during my degree.

So, here is a big list of useful courses, both free and paid that will hopefully help you feel prepared and ready for the upcoming season!!

🦇Free- Volunteer and join with your local bat group!

For Manchester this is the South Lancashire Bat group


🦇Paid- I am enrolled on BatAbility, the classes have been excellent and there are weekly videos, you can also access all of the past recordings, getting up to speed with everything bat related!!

🦡Free-Useful free Field Studies Council (FSC) Youtube videos:

Mammal tracks-
Hazel dormice-
Water voles-

Paid (subsidised)- I attended several FSC courses prior to getting my role (biological recording, phase 1, QGIS) , and I think this is what gave me the edge with my application. There are funding opportunities for those aged 18-25 which means you can access scholarships through Generation Green in England.

🌱Free- Botanically, I would suggest going out into the wilderness and using an i.d app such as Google lens or Plant net and then getting your head around the species you see around you!

Do you use Linkedin?

OR... are you lurkering around, liking but never posting.

Has your university careers service told you to start using Linkedin but you have no idea what to do?

I was in this position in 2019. I wasn't sure what to do!

But, both of my last two consultancy roles I have found through Linkedin.

Top tips-

⭐Research and find companies you would like to work for. Look at the employees who work at your desired office and send connection requests. You are more likely to see if these offices are hiring as these people will be the people posting the roles you might want.

⭐Post! If you are nervous, start by re-sharing content. This gets your name out, and potential employers might recognise you, making you more likely to get the interview.

⭐Leading on from my last point, create content. This is the best way of getting your name out and noticed. I use Canva, it is free and there are lots of tutorials on Youtube. In a perfect world, posting 3 times a week is best, most people don't post that frequently. A way of hitting these targets is using scheduling websites, such as Hootsuite or buffer.

⭐Engage! Comment, like and engage with content created by people on your network.

⭐Use emojis as bullet points and line breaks, they will make your posts more visually appealing.

How much have you thought about your CV before popping it at the end of your application...

Following the application, where you have to fill in several boxes on 'How you align with the company ethics' and 'What skills do you have that make you suitable for this role', often you can overlook your CV and cover letter, when it fact, it could be the reason you are being overlooked yourself.

Some companies filter through job applications just looking at the cover letter, if you just have a few lines, your job application is going to get rejected.

So, some tips for your application from someone who has applied for lots and lots of jobs...

⭐Have you recently left university? Make use of their careers service, I went to the University of Manchester and we had 2 years post graduation to make use of the service. Get your CV checked, have a mock interview, speak to them about potential companies you should target.

⭐ Tailor your application. Make sure your CV is relevant to the job you are applying for, look at the words used in the advert and translocate these into your CV. Answer the points in the advert 'Must show excellent team-working skills'- use STAR (Situation, Task, Action, Response) and show HOW you have developed these skills. Problems I have seen with some graduate CVs is that they have one line about their degree. You've spent years, and thousands of pounds on your degree, make it work! Use bullet points and make everything cohesive, clear and accessible.

⭐The cover letter. What have you put in it? I was following the University career services guide on what to put in my cover letter, and it was actually causing me issues applying for ecology roles!

The format I previously followed was Paragraph 1- Where I had found the job, 2- What I know about the company and why I am suitable to work with the company, 3-Why I was suitable for the role. Then I changed my cover letter and I got an interview for my current role. As survey skills are so important in ecology, if your cover letter is missing these points, you won't be selected. In your opening paragraph, mention the experience I have mentioned previously is so important. Bullet point these skills. For example:

'Thank you in advance for taking the time to read my application. I have found XXX role advertised XXX. I am extremely keen to secure my first ecology role, as such I have recently developed skills in:

🦇Bat call sound analysis, using Kaleidoscope.

🗺️GIS skills, including the production of red line boundaries and Phase 1 maps on QGIS.

🌱Botanical skills, including identification of common hedge species such as Hawthorne, blackthorn and woodland indicator species such as Lords-and-ladies.

(All the above are free skills you can develop over the winter in order to be prepared for the upcoming ecological season)

So you're on Linkedin, you've found a role and company you want to work for and you've tailored your CV, now what?

How do you ensure you apply and can secure an interview?

Applying for roles can honestly feel like a job in itself. Each application can take hours; ensure you shift through the roles appropriately and allocate a few hours for the initial application. With consultancy, you will also likely have a skills based test post-interview which is still a part of your application.

Prior to my first graduate consultancy role, I was asked to produce a desk study of a site. Be prepared for this additional assessment when you put in your application. I was given a week to produce this report. During this week I was working full-time and it was also my birthday so I had to allocate time appropriately in order to ensure I didn't miss this role with a poor application. I visited the site in question, conducting a site walkover in addition to the desk study, this strengthened my report and impressed my future bosses. I secured the role.

During my ecology interview, I had a species test. I would say this is quite common within ecology. As a seasonal this should be common species you might see out on site (tracks or species images). Be prepared for this, have a research on Linkedin seeing what your potential future colleagues might share around species, you might be pointed in the right direction on what they might test you on.

And my last piece of advice?

Be yourself!

Remain professional but don't hide parts of your personality in order to 'fit in'.

If you are pretending to be someone you are not in order to secure this role, you will not feel comfortable at work. If you get rejected for being yourself, it isn't the end of the world. You are one step closer to finding a team that is perfect for you!

Don't be dis-heartened, I applied for so many roles over the years. I'd come close, had interviews but never got past that stage until 2020. Hopefully, these ideas help you.

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