• Jess

What Exactly is an Ecologist?!

Updated: Sep 28, 2020

Woman ecologist artist holding a toad

"So what exactly is an ecologist....?" - a question that I get asked ALL of the time, either that or just a blank face waiting for me to explain further. Fair enough, I didn't know what one was, or had even heard of it as a job until I started training as one! After finishing university, having studied 'Environmental Geography', I was no clearer as to where I wanted to go in my career. I was working part time in a second hand book shop but knew that I wanted to do something relating to animals and wildlife. I started volunteering for The London Wildlife Trust, London Zoo and in the butterfly house at The Natural History Museum which I absolutely loved! Whilst volunteering and working, I started Silverpasta Crafts, mostly as a hobby that brought in a little bit of money. At first I made lots of earrings and brooches from fimo which were mostly food related and not very animal inspired! A year later I started working at Kew Gardens but in an office in the Herbarium building... I enjoyed it but longed to be outside with the trees and the wildlife rather than stuck indoors...

Slow worm reptiles under a ecology survey mat
Slow worms under a mat

In 2014 I started looking at masters degrees and other courses I could undertake to further my career and take me on a path to something I would really enjoy. I came across a training course on becoming an "Ecological Consultant" - I had never heard of it but as I read the description I thought it sounded great! You got to spend time outdoors, undertake wildlife surveys, see and handle wildlife, and save protected species from development. I signed up straight away and started the course a few weeks later!

Woman ecologist artist holding a hedgehog

So what is an ecologist? In short, I basically visit sites which are going to be developed on and survey the land to see what protected species might live there. In the UK, legally protected species include some plants, bats, badgers, water voles, dormice, reptiles, great crested newts, breeding birds and otters, amongst some others. This means that if these species are present on a piece of land, developers, by law, have to act accordingly and either not build there, or make plans to help remove and re-home animals elsewhere so they are not harmed during the development. This requires permission and a licence and usually creation of new habitat for those creatures. My job is to find out what wildlife is on site and then to ensure that the developer doesn't harm any animals pre, during or post development or remove their habitat without replacing it like for like.

Bat detector batbox duet echometer touch 2
Setting up for a bat survey

The majority of my work revolves around bats, so most summer evenings I spend my time sitting outside buildings which are either being knocked down or being altered in some way (i.e. extensions, loft conversions etc). To undertake a bat survey you need to observe the building 15 minutes before sunset, until at least 1.5 hours after sunset. Around sunset, any bats living in the buildings will emerge and you can record where they emerged from, how many there were and what species of bat they were. We have 18 species of bat in the UK and you can determine which species is which by using a bat detector - this records bat echolocation calls and converts them to audible sounds that humans can hear - pretty incredible!

Person holding a bat gloved hand

If bats are living in a building, the building is legally protected as a "bat roost" and if it is going to be disturbed or altered, you need a licence and plans to reduce disturbance as much as possible, preferably when the bats are elsewhere such as hibernating, as well as replacing the roost features if you have to remove them, so the bats can return again in the summer.

Woman ecologist artist holding a grass snake

However bats aren't the only species I survey for... I also regularly undertake reptile surveys - most of the time that involves recording/moving slow worms but occasionally I come across grass snakes and lizards which need moving too! And yes, grass snakes aren't venomous but it can still be pretty scary having to pick one up, not to mention a bit smelly if they play dead! I also undertake great crested newt surveys, breeding bird surveys and of course, my favourite, dormice surveys! I started training for my dormouse licence in 2014 and successfully gained it in 2016, along with my own dormouse monitoring site in Surrey which I visit monthly to check how the local dormouse population are doing there! Hazel dormice are legally protected in the UK and you are not even allowed to disturb or look for them without a licence. They are the most adorable creatures and at risk of extinction in this country due to habitat fragmentation, habitat loss, climate change and many other reasons. Providing nesting boxes for them and regularly monitoring population changes helps us understand this creature a lot better and gives us a chance of conserving the future of the dormouse in the UK.

Two torpid dormice in a hand

As a wildlife artist, I am incredibly lucky in my other job that I get to see incredible, rare creatures like this on a daily or weekly basis during the summer months. I am able to use my experiences as an ecologist and my own photographs to take inspirations for my digital wildlife illustrations and my wildlife inspired ornaments. I am often also inspired by wildlife that I see on the TV, on David Attenborough's incredible wildlife series, however the experience of seeing British wildlife up close and personal gives me so much inspiration to recreate these amazing creatures in illustration and clay form! I love the idea of people having a little piece of British wildlife inspiration in their homes. For example, this little grass snake below who I came across one reptile survey, curled up perfectly under a reptile mat - such a perfectly formed animal encounter, just waiting for an illustrated version! And of course all of my products are designed, printed and made in the UK so being inspired by British wildlife goes hand in hand with this!

Grass snake illustration silverpasta

As I gain most of my inspiration from the natural world it is only natural to want to preserve this environment and give back to the planet. Therefore, all my orders are sent out with plastic-free, eco friendly packaging and I plant a tree for every 10 items sold. You can find out more about my tree planting in my previous blog HERE!

If you would like to see the British wildlife which has made it into my art collection then you can check out my shop HERE!

If you would like to follow more of my regular inspirations from wildlife and nature, make sure you follow my personal Instagram account @crazy_dormouse_lady where I regularly post photos of wildlife amongst other things like wild swimming!

#lifeofanecologist #ecologist #ecology #wildlifeinspiration #wildlifeartist #treeplanting #digitalillustration #wildlifeillustration #ecofriendly #silverpasta #ecoartist #Britishwildlife #MadeintheUK

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