Fieldwork – highs and lows

March 2, 2015

I took a trip up to Donegal last January, to download data from the Diver Level Loggers in my wells and sample the water in my dune slacks. I don’t generally get out much at that time of year, so leaving the car I was pretty optimistic. I had neoprene socks, waterproof ski trousers, five thermal layers on top, a Gore-Tex jacket and waders. I also had two large backpacks, a pump, a meter stick and a tablet computer. I set off to walk down the hill, across the valley and into the sand dunes, still optimistic, despite the fact that I was finding it a bit hard to move because I so trussed up in waterproofs and insulation.

Ten minutes later, things looked a little less rosy. Atlantic winds scoured the hillside, whipping up my tablet so it slapped me in the face repeatedly. Rain sheeted across the valley, finding chinks in my Gore-Tex and pooling in my ears. My hands were numb in my gloves and my centre of balance was way too high, causing me to teeter with each squall. My dune slack, which was raising white horses in the storm, was so full of water that I couldn’t even see one of my wells and the other was almost submerged. Undeterred, I donned my waders and walked three steps into the water; it reached my thighs, waves splashed into my waders, and I was still five meters from the visible well. I decided to leave the wells and take surface water samples. This was better, but it took a long time because of the wind blowing my samples away as I poured them from the measuring cylinder to the sample bottle. Or the sample bottle blew away. Or the lid blew away.

So, on my way back to the car, drenched, exhausted and carrying an extra seven kilos in samples, I got to thinking: why is fieldwork my absolute favourite part of this job? I was going to write a list of pros and cons, but then I realised that the pros are the cons, so it is just a list.

  • Meeting landowners and farmers: When you walk up to a stranger’s door to ask whether you can survey their land, you never know what kind of reception you will receive. There is a good chance you will be asked in for tea, a sandwich (not always advisable to accept) and a chat. There are rumours about ecologists being greeted with savage dogs and shotguns, but I have yet to experience either of these. At worst, you are likely to be met with genuine incredulity that you can earn a living counting flowers and a long lecture about the nuisance that is the Department. It is often not clear which Department, but it is sensible to agree.
  • Getting outdoors: At its best, my job is like getting paid to go for a hike in a beautiful area. You have to keep track of where you are by reading your maps and checking the landscape. You also need to categorise the vegetation as you go, and keep an eye out for anything that indicates past land use or a current human impact. This mixture of the mental and the physical means that field work can be exhausting but is almost never boring.
  • Kit: It is easy to understand how I ended up on the slippery slope to becoming a kit-nerd. If you spend a lot of time in the wind and rain and have a budget for personal field equipment, out-door shops are suddenly an Aladdin’s cave of merino wool, down jackets and, of course, Gore-Tex. Lots of Gore-Tex. Now my needs are greater and my equipment is more sophisticated. I can only visit my wells four or five times a year, but the dataloggers in them record water levels 96 times a day. Windows tablets allow a streamlined approach, so that in one trip I can record and store all my vegetation data, download my water level data from the wells and do a bit of mapping on the go. It is not all about high-tech, state of the art, custom designed equipment, though. This week I was very, very excited to receive a delivery of 300 spangley gold and ivory organza wedding favour bags. This April, I will have the best dressed snail samples in the country.
  • Unpredictability: The good thing about the unpredictability of fieldwork is that it can result in any day being a genuine adventure. You might watch an otter playing in a stream, see a red squirrel or find a rare plant. Alternatively you could come across something creepy like a makeshift camp with empty beer cans and washing set to dry when you are on your own in the woods, or be charged by a bull.

The sad thing is that the longer you are in the business, the harder it gets to spend a lot of time out in the field. As you become more experienced, you tend to take on more management tasks that keep you in the office. As we get older, most of us find that the demands of a full field season are not compatible with family life. This affects women more than men in Ireland, because men are not entitled to paid paternity leave. For me, this PhD might be something of a last hurrah, allowing me to take months at a time away from Dublin. So never mind my experience in January, all is forgiven. Roll on March and April, and bags full of beetles and snails.

Aoife Delany

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