A year in fieldwork

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It seems like an awful long time ago since I last wrote a blog. In fact, it was an awful long time ago. My last post was dated June 2017, and that one even started with an apology for being 7 months late with it.

Well, another eight months later and here we are! I can only apologise for the sparseness of my blogs in the last year. And thank you for the sincere and lovely messages of concern, asking if I am alright and when I’ll be writing again – they really were appreciated. But I can assure you, I am more than fine. My reasons for not blogging are all nice ones, and not because of bad circumstances or a shortage of subjects to write about. Quite the contrary in fact – I have a notebook of frantically scribbled ideas, their enthusiasm and earnest intentions leaping off the page. But 2017 passed me by in a whirlwind of excitement, and those ideas remained confined to the margins of a a5 recycled notebook.

So where have I been the last 12 months? Well, perhaps the more accurate statement would be: where haven’t I been. 2017 was the year I’d dreamed about; a year packed to the brim with travel, conferences abroad, and fieldwork adventures. The year that I’d envisioned when I first created my PhD, and not-so-subtly cajoled and wheedled my supervisor into agreeing to. The compromise? The first year of my PhD would be largely desk based, working my way through an extensive reading list and studying the content found in news articles. All PhD students know that your research isn’t always fun and games – a lot of it is a balancing exercise, juggling what your heart desires with what your supervisors or funders want you to do. There’s awesome stuff, but also and endless stream of papers to be written, assessments to be completed and compulsory conferences to attend in not-so exciting places. As such, in 2016, my year consisted of either staring at a computer screen, trying valiantly to pass my driving test (I would fail four times in the process, which was painful as it was the key to my fieldwork beginning), staring wistfully out my office window (that doesn’t open), and wondering whether I was doing the right thing. Hence all the entries on this blog – I started it as a means to escape the office, get outdoors, and reconnect with all the things that started my passion for conservation in the first place.

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Not a happy office mouse…

2017 couldn’t have been more different. It started with an incredible, two-month stint in Madagascar. I decided to reward my heroic efforts to stay desk-based and sedentary by hiking through humid jungles and surveying coral reefs in crystal clear tropical waters (for a cold-water scuba diver, something of a revelation – you could see things at 20m, not just your hand in front of your face). Here, my batteries were recharged, and my inquisitive nature reawakened by the vibrant, weird and wonderful wildlife that seemed to burst from every pore of the country. I also witnessed the devastation of this wildlife and its environment, occurring with an astonishing rapidity. I returned refuelled with the passion that started me off initially on this career path; it reminded me of the importance of what I was doing.

This was fortified by two other trips abroad: one to Sweden, and one to Colombia (pro tip: find the most far-flung and exotic conferences you can, somehow make it out to be hugely relevant to your subject and therefore totally unmissable, and wheedle funding). They were two completely different experiences. Sweden involved picking my way through dense meadows of wild-flowers and skirting placid lakes in search of beavers; exploring vast pine forests on the lookout for great grey owls with a mixture of hope and concern that I might also find a brown bear; and learning as much as I possibly could about large carnivore conflicts over good coffee and Fika (the Swedes have it right – short work days and an emphasis on taking regular, lengthy breaks). Colombia was the crazy, vivacious antidote to Sweden’s cool, sophisticated calm. Green parrots crowded the trees, and chattered noisily against the vibrant street sounds of Cartagena. Black vultures dried themselves on my balcony after a sudden, and tremendous, tropical storm, whilst geckos scuttled up the walls. I kayaked through mangroves cloaked in choking humidity, feeling like a true jungle explorer; and had lunch in the company of three sleepy sloths.

That year also brought the key to my freedom: a car. I’d finally managed to pass my test a few months before leaving for Madagascar, and on returning my priority was then purchasing a chariot to carry me across Scotland. It didn’t matter that the best deal I found was a weird colour (a sort of mix between mustard yellow and an odd sicky colour – I say gold, my boyfriend says snot) and had huge, bulging headlamps, that give the impression of bug eyes. It was my golden (okay, snotty) ticket to my fieldwork season. Almost two years’ worth of planning, phone calls, emails, concept notes and a ridiculous amount of driving lessons had led up to this.

 

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‘Simba’ – my little bug-eyed car

 

For a conservationist, my fieldwork is unusual. I study people. My field is called ‘conservation conflict’, which, as the name suggests, refers to the conflicts that occur between people over biodiversity objectives. I work specifically on the conflict between raptor conservation and grouse moor management, which involves many different ‘stakeholders’ at various levels; from members high up in organisations to the more practical people who work on the ground. Conflicts mostly stem from a heavy mistrust between these parties – sometimes, relationships are good and people work together, but often, they are the opposite. Decades of arguments, disputes, and failed collaborative projects have all contributed to feelings of anger, frustration, and an unwillingness to communicate. I try to understand these conflicts – what drives them, why trust has broken down between people, what are the wants, needs and concerns of the stakeholders involved?

To do this, I conduct interviews. My data is essentially words – something that for a previously ‘hardcore’ ecologist was difficult to comprehend at first. But in a situation as sensitive as this one, it would not have worked just to land at someone’s front door, brandishing my Dictaphone and a cheery smile. For people to be open and honest, they would have to trust me. I had to put the ground work in. I would have to work hard to establish relationships with people; to understand their work, their way of life. Make an effort to immerse myself fully in their day-to-day, and have conversations about not just raptors, but their whole ethos. Raptors are just one part of the jigsaw, slotting into place inside a whole picture of personal experience, preferences and views of the world. And the best way to do this? Well, you’ve heard the saying: “to get to know someone, you have to walk a mile in their shoes”. And so I did, multiple times over.

For the last two years, I’ve been having adventures – all in the name of conservation. I’ve travelled to some of the most beautiful parts of Scotland, meeting and working with some of the best in their field. I’ve spent lengthy days hiking with the finest raptor monitors in the business, helping them to search for hen harrier, golden eagle, sea eagle and red kite. Together we’ve walked up and over hills, camped out in heather, scaled trees and teetered along sea cliffs. I’ve been taught how to identify pellets; which behaviours to look out for (harriers skydancing in Spring is great news, in Summer not so much); how to carefully pick out bones without damaging a carefully constructed nest; and how to sit patiently for hours waiting for that one sighting.

I also knew, having no background whatsoever in shooting or hunting (just not my thing), I’d have to get to know the grouse shooting industry. I attended game fairs to experience the culture, and had endless coffees with the leaders of moorland groups and game keeping organisations. Whilst on estates, I offered to help wherever I could; building dry stone walls, battling with ragwort that grew taller than me, and digging dirt tracks up the hillside to allow vehicle access as the harsh July sun beat down on my back. And during the shooting season, worked as a ‘beater’ – one of the long line of people that trek up and down heather-clad hills, flapping (or ‘beating’) a bright orange flag in to flush red grouse out their nests and over the heads of the guns, waiting at the top. This last one went against all my personal values, and I must admit my flag was waved a little less enthusiastically than the others. But still, if I was trying to win trust, at least trying to understand and get on board with a livelihood so different (not wrong, different) to mine was vitally important. And all that work paid off.  I proved myself to the keepers, and as such our conversations were long and detailed, interspersed with anecdote and a shared sigh of relief at the end of a long day. I was shown every aspect of a shoot, introduced to more and more keepers, then factors, then landowners. And I didn’t have to hide my own feelings or opinions; because I’d shown an interest and respect for their work, they showed and interest and respect in mine.

I am at my happiest in the outdoors; the same as nearly all of my interviewees. I loved the long hikes; the hands-on work and bumbling up the hills in a rickety land rover, looking for wildlife and being shown things I didn’t even know were there. That’s not to say it’s been easy. I’ve sweated, froze, camped, slept in my car, battled with midges and driving rain. I’ve been pushed out my comfort zone – the most standout memory being an abseil off a towering sea cliff into a sea eagle nest. But I’ve also been wheezed at by hen harrier chicks, stood inside said sea eagle nest (you could fit three of me in there quite comfortably), learnt how to train gun dogs and released rescued manx shearwaters off the ferry to Skye. I’ve been welcomed into houses, drunk bottomless cups of tea (I always provide the cake though) and had more than a dram of whisky by some roaring fires. I’ve shared flasks of hot chocolate and packets of biscuits whilst cushioned by heather, and cooked up freshly caught mackerel over a camping stove, watching the sea. And these experiences have given me the best data I could’ve hoped for – the honest, detailed stories of people who are at their most comfortable, chatting while doing something they love. Some have revealed things they’ve never talked about with another human being, and I feel honoured to be the person they have trusted with this information. It’s now my responsibility to do something worthwhile with it – that’s this year’s job.

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On top of that, I somehow managed to write a book on my favourite topic – British wildlife and where to find it – due out in May this year. A complete labour of love; all my words and free time went on this project, so I hope you’ll forgive me for neglecting the blog…!

2017 was an amazing year, filled with experiences I’ll never forget and new friendships that I’ve picked up along the way. Although they are completely anonymous, I am super thankful to those who have been part of my project, who have helped me to build an understanding and offered their hospitality. To the travel buddies, the experts, the pioneers who gave up their time and knowledge to an eager, and rather persistent, zoologist.

I can only hope 2018 is just as good…

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