By cohort 3 BGF-er, Hazel.
I wanted to find a work placement relevant to both environmental causes, and my passion for biology. I knew overlap exists, as biology studying life, and the environment is the world we all live in. I just wasn’t sure where I could find that overlap near me.
So, a contact pointed me in the direction of this group - Galloway Fisheries Trust. They manage the waterways of my district, something I would quickly learn was a daunting task. The work they did in conservation would serve me well if I pursued that pathway of biology. I started my placement the last Monday of June. I hadn’t really known what I was getting into when I organised this placement, but in my mind I had the vague idea of working outside. Better make sure it’s nice weather, I had thought to myself. Not April or August- too wet. It has to be summer.
There was a thunderstorm that Monday. Luckily, I was working in the office that day because of it. The real work started Tuesday, when we picked up the work we had to miss on Monday. Spraying Giant Hogweed along the bank of the River Urr. Okay, I thought, not really knowing what I was getting into. The sun was warm that day. I borrowed a pair of waders and thought I hadn’t dressed appropriately.
In this job, you really connected with nature. You’re up to your nose in it. The grass was that tall, and sometimes the mud felt that deep. We did not walk besides the River Urr along a tidy path, nor did we tread through fields the river split. We treaded through the river, and clambered up and down that banks. (In hindsight, what had I expected? The giant hogweed grew metres from the water; that entire width was thick with trees, plants; knots of grass and deep ditches where the river crawled off to burns and streams.)
The thought did pass my head- weed killer? Is that green? Is that safe? But, it was explained to me, it was a balance. Giant Hogweed was an invasive species that competed fiercely with native ones, and brushing against the plant results in the most horrendous burns, essentially making you allergic to sunlight. Comparatively, a carefully applied weed killer by licensed professionals could be beneficial. If successful, the weed killer need only be applied to a site once, or at least in gradually diminishing amounts. Giant Hogweed, on the other hand, would poke its toxic head out again each and every year.
The following two excursions were similar adventures, if less physically taxing. Every year the government requests the various Fisheries Trusts around the country to monitor the fish populations of the waterways. This is achieved by a computer randomly picking 20 sites across the mapped waterways in an area, where the trusts will then perform electrofishing. Genetic data is then gathered, as is data on their size and the diversity of the waterways.
(Electrofishing: wading through water and supplying a small current. When done correctly, this stuns the fish, making them swim towards the net and so easier to catch. It does not harm the fish.)
There are a few challenges here. The major is the fact that these coordinates are computer generated. The computer provides you the sites. It does not care if you cannot actually or easily reach the sites. So, I went out with two others to perform reconnaissance. This let us check whether it was possible to get the electrofishing equipment down there, and to pick a good path. It also let us find landowners and ask for permission to drive vehicles on their land. It was easier and more time-efficient to drive close to the site before walking to it with the heavy equipment.
The sights I saw. On Friday, I stood in a clearing facing the deep blue of this river, and thought to myself this is paradise untouched. I decided if there was some sort of situation where I had to flee to the wild and fend for myself, I would pick here. Behind was a pine forest with moss creeping down the bark, and offering cool, green relief from the sun. Around was a clearing drowning in thick grass and ferns. A strand of tall grass was dipped into the water to guess the depth of the site. Thinking it was a fly, a fish snapped after it. (The river was too deep to perform electrofishing, ultimately. Fifteen metres downstream would’ve been perfect, but the computer coordinates were precise.)
Before this week, I wasn’t sure where I was going to take the biology degree I’d be starting at uni this year. I could go into neuroscience, maybe plant science, or, crucially what this placement was relevant to, conservation. How did I feel after this week? It’s difficult to say. I’ll forever savour the memories of these beautiful places I likely would never have seen if not for this placement, so far off the well-beaten track as they were. So far off any track, that I think any reasonable person would’ve turned back a few steps in.
And the work felt so worthwhile. What I saw was only the slimmest glimpse into the work they do. And to be honest? I’m the sort of nerd that proper scientific practices excite me. (Often, I feel environmental campaigns lack a solid foundation of science behind them. To hear words like studies and to see scientific papers scattered around the office filled me with optimism.)
But equally, its hard work. Energy intensive throughout the entire day. Maybe not as research-heavy as the dream career I imagine.
There was little about this placement I didn’t enjoy. (Sitting in the back of the Fisheries truck, does come to mind, bouncing with the poor suspension as we drove across not farm tracks but farms themselves.) Ultimately, it was valuable to me, and it was exciting to see what was the forefront of conservation work was in my local area. I understood some of the problems they face now, from grumpy farmers and the strangely controversial topic of Pike and Salmon. (If you know what’s best for you, you won’t bring it up in an angler’s pub). Appreciating the reality of funding shortages was another part of this experience, overhearing conversations between the permanent staff at the office. Time and manpower are such valuable resources in this line of work, especially when I did my placement, when hogweed has to be sprayed, populations sampled, fundraising auctions organised, and more and more and more. The 6,000+ squared kilometres of my local area is a large place for a relatively small team to cover. Let no-one claim that they have the easy job.
But is it a worthwhile, necessary, and enjoyable job? From what I could see from my week there, yes. As long as you don’t mind getting a bit damp!