Working as an ecological consultant provides experience with a range of animal groups, and all ecologiss tend to have their favourites. Assistant Ecologist, Hannah Frame, shares her interest in amphibians and reptiles and why volunteering with ARC to help protect them, has also benefited her work.

A sunny day clearing pine trees on Hankley Common © Hannah Frame

Since starting as an Assistant Ecologist with Thomson Environmental Consultants in March last year, I have enjoyed working with a variety of animal groups but still have a soft spot for our UK reptiles and amphibians. During my degree I was able to volunteer with wildlife groups in both Swansea and Surrey, which helped me start my career in consultancy. Over this winter, I have been lucky enough to continue supporting my favourite species by volunteering on Tuesdays with the Surrey branch of the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (ARC).

ARC’s dedicated conservation field team, relies heavily on the work of enthusiastic volunteers at their regular volunteer sessions. The majority of winter work is the removal of scrub and keeping the habitat in good condition. Volunteer sessions therefore take care of some crucial sites which support some of the only remaining populations of rare UK reptiles - the smooth snake (Coronella austriaca) and sand lizard (Lacerta agilis).

A female sand lizard (Lacerta agilis)
found during summer surveys on
heathland in Surrey. © Hannah Frame

For my undergraduate research project, I worked with Surrey Amphibian and Reptile Group (SARG) on a sand lizard project at Crooksbury Common – a site which is managed by ARC with a population derived from animals successfully released in the 1970s.

Currently their lottery-funded ‘Snakes in the Heather’ project is an ambitious collaboration between wildlife groups to “conserve the smooth snake throughout its range in Southern England”. Projects such as this rely heavily on volunteer effort - as with most wildlife charities. In this case, the Trust is training an army of ‘Reptile Survey Volunteers’, with the project planned to run until 2023. As an ecologist with a keen interest and history with reptiles and their sites, this is a very exciting project for me personally.

A busy winter for volunteer groups

During the winter, the main ARC volunteer tasks involve removal of pine saplings, overgrown gorse, and occasional larger trees from heathland reserves in order to maintain suitable reptile habitat. Without management to remove trees from heathland, these areas would become woodland; this is less suitable for reptiles and would result in the loss of rare heathland habitat. Scrub clearance often results in the creation of a well-controlled bonfire which helps keep everyone toasty. Burning this cut material prevents nutrient enrichment and shading out effect, both of which are undesirable for heathland management and would occur if material was left in piles to rot.

The tea-fuelled volunteer crew puts in an incredible effort every week; even on days of heavy rain the team can be found out on one of the many reserves owned or managed by ARC. We often work in areas such as Hankley Common and the ARC-owned Witley Common, both of which lie within a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) as some of the largest remaining heathlands in Surrey.

Volunteers working hard to clear overgrown gorse on Thursley Common NNR. © Hannah Frame

In December, one of the pine-removal tasks offered volunteers the chance to not only pick but also cut down their very own Christmas tree! All while supporting vital habitat management for rare reptile species.

One week in January this year, we were given a slightly different task – digging in a fence line along a road boundary to prevent car-based toad fatalities. Across from this road is a locally-important toad breeding pond; this trenched boundary allows the local ‘toad patrols’ to easily locate and
collect any migrating toads. This proved to be successful last year.

As there was a warm start to the year, amphibians were on the move early this year. Many more made it safely across the roads thanks to the dedicated toad patrol teams and their offspring will now be in the process of leaving the ponds.

Working together

As an ecological consultant volunteering for ARC, it has been amazing interacting with wildlife conservation managers to understand how they work towards supporting wildlife. This has provided insights into practical habitat management for reptiles, which will help me to design and implement effective mitigation and enhancement measures for client’s projects in the future. For wildlife charities, it’s always beneficial to have extra volunteers, especially those with existing ecological knowledge.

Winter in consultancy

Winter can be a fantastic opportunity for budding or current ecological consultants to grow their knowledge, support their local groups, and continue to engage with a range of stakeholders to improve their consultancy skills.

Smiley volunteer faces after a task at Mare Hill © Mike Berwick

Volunteering has provided me with key experiences to take forward into my career. It also provides the opportunity to engage in additional and more varied fieldwork, which benefits both physical and mental health during the winter. For aspiring ecologists, volunteering with wildlife groups is excellent for improving surveying skills and building a strong understanding of protected species – both of which are vital for pursuing a career in consultancy.

Utilising ‘shadowing credits’ to attend during work time is giving me the chance to support one of my favourite wildlife charities and improve my herpetological knowledge while doing so.

While we look forward to COVID-19 government restrictions being lifted our current advice can be viewed here