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Student placements in wildlife and conservation – providing a quality experience in return for a valuable resource

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Undertaking voluntary work is often invaluable when starting out on a career in ecology and conservation.  A well run placement can be a life-changing experience for the student, and provide an organisation with much needed support.  Brian Heppenstall (Hengistbury Head) shares his top ten tips about how to arrange a successful placement…

Hengistbury Head is a 162 hectare Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and Ancient Monument, located in Bournemouth on the South Coast. With a million visitors a year, the resident wildlife is under a fair amount of pressure, with Dartford warblers, skylarks and Natterjack toads all examples of those species clinging on here. The varied habitats of reedbed, salt marsh, heathland, woodland and ancient grassland, to name but a few, help to support many different species of invertebrate (our moth species list now exceeds 820).

Managed by a team of three Rangers employed by Bournemouth Borough Council’s Parks Department, the support of student placements has become crucial to the running of this amazing reserve.

With a little bit of effort and forethought on the part of the host, placements can bring huge benefits, especially to nature reserve managers who are struggling for resources. Many think of placements as time drains – but you could offer a rich and rewarding experience, whilst at the same time have more hands and heads to help you.

Belted Galloway, heritage breed (Photo credit ©Brian Heppenstall)

Our Ranger team enjoys an excellent relationship with Bournemouth University, our local institution. We have fostered this link, got to know academics and placement advisors within the University, worked on joint projects and are even teaching the students by offering short courses. This has raised our profile with the students, which has partly fuelled a “golden age” as a stream of placements choose to spend time with us during the academic year and over the summer (seventeen students altogether in 2017, around twenty so far for 2018), and we are now attracting students from further afield – Southampton, Reading, Twickenham and Canterbury, to name but a few.

This may raise an eyebrow of some organisations and team leaders; we are a team of three paid staff, how do we have the time to manage all of these placements and still get on with our core duties?

I am going to lay out the steps we take to ensure a successful, reciprocal and rewarding placement.

1. Interview.
The crucial first step for any new member of a team – paid or otherwise. A team can be a finely balanced set of individuals, one wrong part and it can send everything off kilter and cause tensions, this is no different for placements.

The placement interview is an opportunity to learn about the individuals’ key interests, experience, placement requirements and availability. Around two in every ten students that email me to ask for a placement do not reply when asked to attend a short informal interview; whatever the reason for this, I consider this an easy way of ensuring that those who reply and turn up for interview, are enthusiastic to work with you.

The interview itself does not have to be longer than half an hour.  In the context of our work, I like to know what species and habitats they know about, or want to know about, what they feel they might want to do when they graduate, if they drive and also if their course requires them to do a research project – more on this later.

2. Tailoring the placement offer
Timetabling any number of placements into your work schedule takes a bit of thought. Most of our placements want to spend time with us once the academic year ends in June – because of demand we create a rota and talk through at interview when students would like to come. We take no more than six at a time in order to keep it manageable and to ensure that the experience is a quality one. Once June is full, we inform students that other months are available.

Some students like to stretch their placements out, MSc students increasingly seem to want to spend one day a week over a longer period, nibbling away at their required placement time. The key with any requirement is to look at the work you have on, see where this persons’ existing skills and key interests apply and make them a placement offer that you think could work for both parties.

Brian Heppenstall (left) with another member of staff and placement students from 2017

3. Inductions and welcoming placements.
As with any role in the modern workplace, inductions are essential. We run through a health and safety checklist, give out contact numbers, a tour of the buildings and reserve. Next, an introduction to staff and then we ask them to sign a volunteer agreement and fill out a form with emergency contact details and any medical issues.

This has the potential to be a very dry introduction and set the tone for the entire placement, so we try and keep it as light and friendly as possible and try not to overwhelm them with too much information. This particular stage is actually much easier with more than one student, I am sure we all know what it is like to begin a first day somewhere, they are more likely to hit the ground running if they are with someone they know from their University already, or are starting on the same day as other students.

4. Monitoring the abilities of placements and assigning roles
A good manager should have an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of staff, and even though you may have placements for only two weeks, this also applies. They may have told you at interview what they want to do or are competent at, but you should take note of how they are doing in specific areas, this can be through working alongside them, direct questioning or feedback from other staff and placements.

As an example, we carry out a daily moth trap on the reserve, the placements generally really enjoy helping with this because moths can be easy to learn (they tend to sit still) and we have so many species. After a day or two of having them sit in with one of the core staff, I will often hold moths up to them that I know they have seen and test them on identification – you will always spot who is more engaged with this task than not. I will leave the most engaged student in charge of going through and recording the moths when I feel confident that they understand the importance of correct identification. This not only gives them ownership of this activity – it frees up staff time. The placements can store any moths they are unsure of for identification later (or take a photo). This principle works with many tasks, the key is to monitor how your placements are doing on an individual basis.

5. Training
Resources have always been scarce in the countryside management sector, the idea of spending money on training volunteers might frighten the life out of a lot of practitioners. So consider what you can offer for free – we have found that the benefit of good training for placements can bring you great benefits.

In our setting, we can provide in-house certificates in competence for small machinery, for example brushcutting. Often the training for this can take care of a great deal of path clearance whilst at the same time, adding a skill and experience to the placement’s C.V. We also provide training prior to the main placement period for our incoming students, this is a developing programme, but we have used external experts who have been happy to share their skills for free, knowing the students will be putting what they have learnt into practice, this has included:

  • How to run Field Studies for school groups.
  • Dragonfly Identification Workshop.
  • Lichen and Moss Identification.
  • And in 2018 we will be including training in NVC surveying.

This sets placements up nicely for the summer in terms of knowledge of methodology. After some experience in identification, students are then competent enough to collect data that can be used as part of regular monitoring. We had a huge bank of data collected by volunteers last year, which was used to inform the management plan.

Photo credit ©Brian Heppenstall

6. Specific projects
If you have specific projects, then this is a great way of involving placements. Last summer we ran education activities for school-aged children every day for three weeks. Because of the help that we had from placements, this only required the time of one member of staff. The children were from deprived communities and one noticeable benefit of the project was the connection of these children to students, there was evidence that some perceived barriers to higher education may have been lowered, as these children could see that university can be fun and take into account a wide field of interests.

If you know you have placements coming, then it may also increase your chances of committing to projects or surveys that you have wanted to do for a while but have never had the resources to do. The first year we had a few placements, they undertook basic vegetation surveying in our reedbed (heights, density etc) which helped us look at the impact of our current management regime.

7. Dissertations/research projects
Students wanting to carry out research projects should be encouraged, not only are they looking to study your reserve or a species (potentially giving you data to help inform your work and progress), but they are an awesome resource for other students to.

In 2017, five research projects, all completely unrelated, took place on our reserve – all student led, with our consent. These projects offered other placements a chance to get involved with data collection, supervised by the student who was running it. This helps the researcher in data collection (primary and secondary) and exposes all of the placements involved to a wide range of methodologies, sampling and discussion around the varied topics. Your involvement is likely to be necessary, certainly in terms of permissions, but likely also in methodology and some surveying support, but the data and results could be useful for your management regimes.

Photo credit ©Brian Heppenstall

8. Learn from them!
We all know how busy, time and resource limited we are as Countryside Managers – sometimes our own training and development is forgotten about; however, I am sure we have all met those in this sector who still take everything they know from the textbook they used when they were training some thirty years ago.

Students, through their studies, often have access to the newest thinking within conservation science, research is constantly going on around us and it is easy to miss some of the developments.

I constantly find myself clarifying new terminology that I hear from our placements (ecosystem services!?), which made me more motivated in keeping abreast of research and training opportunities, and also taught me to listen to the students and ask their opinions on the work that we do.

Placements often see things with a fresh set of eyes too, don’t be surprised to find one coming up with a solution to an old problem, and don’t be embarrassed to take their advice. Knowing that they have had an effect on their placement setting will only reinforce the idea that this is the role for them.

9. Think outside the science box
Our roles as Rangers have become hugely varied – from habitat management to entertaining children, the role is ever evolving. The requirement in some cases to hold educational events and ensure a quality output on social media of everything that we are doing can be enjoyable, but time consuming – and is in some cases, outside of our skill set. If you find yourself losing the battle to get followers on Facebook, or come up with an eye catching design for a poster, enquire at your local university for students wanting to add to their portfolios, or even students from different courses needing to carry out placements.

We have enjoyed the benefits from students from Media and Marketing courses in areas including design, planning and recording events. For them, it could be an opportunity to help in an industry they know little about, stretching their talents and giving themselves experience and a product that sets them apart at interviews. Our reserve receives one million visitors a year and has a busy visitor centre – for students to have that kind of exposure with design work, for example, can be a very big plus for them.

10. Feedback
As important as the welcome!

Giving feedback during a placement is important; it shows the student that you are taking notice of their work and provides an opportunity to talk about how they are getting on and if they want to take on any extra responsibilities or focus more on something they are particularly enjoying. Most placements will require a review of some kind at the end of their placement, this is usually written or typed. Make sure that this is personal and gives an account of how that student did and what their strengths (and weaknesses) were.

There are two reasons that make this important, firstly the student has chosen you as a placement host and has hopefully helped you and your team, this deserves some effort on your behalf, and it’s a chance to provide constructive comments regarding a student’s time on placement. Secondly, students and faculty members discuss placement providers amongst themselves, this is your chance to show the university that you are benefitting from their students and they are benefitting from you, it sends signals that you are providing a quality offer. You will find, through word of mouth, that this generates interest in your placement offer which should result in students from those universities contacting you for years to come.

Header Image: ©Brian Heppenstall

About the Author: Brian Heppenstall is Senior Ranger at Hengistbury Head, a 162 hectare SSSI and Ancient Monument in Bournemouth, on the South Coast. Brian has worked in Conservation since 1999 in various roles and is a member of CIEEM. He has a keen passion in involving people in conservation and using education as a tool to further preserving our natural environment.