Don's diary: Happy as a pig in mud

September 20, 2002

Back to the Pig's Nose Inn in East Prawle, Devon, to prepare for the next group of Earthwatch volunteers. Dinner tickets, field emergency plans, clipboards, first-aid kits, fluorescent jackets, camp beds, differential global positioning system (DGPS), computers, printer, switch the fridge on... and it's ready.

The Earthwatch Institute is an international environmental charity that promotes field research by mobilising an army of volunteers. I am a real fan: the volunteers pay to come and collect data, but they are also encouraged to use the skills they learn back in their communities.

Our research is funded as a "Discovery Project": we have each team of volunteers for only five days while full international projects run for two weeks. Great for volunteers because they can use our project as a "taster" for an international one, but harder on the scientists who have to train a new group every week.

Volunteers all assembled, we "ice-break" by introducing ourselves and our aspirations for the week. In earlier teams we have had teachers, engineers, financial directors, students and even a sculptor. This week is equally mixed with a microbial geneticist and a market researcher. Important information is dispensed.

While my colleague, Paul, teaches the volunteers botanical identification, I start mapping the study site with our DGPS. The bright fluorescent jacket, large cone-shaped antenna above my left shoulder and handheld PC lead to the inevitable inquiries as to whether I am one of the ghostbusters.

Nicely dark after dinner, we don fluorescent jackets and walk to the coastal fields to carry out a sound transect of great green bush crickets. The volunteers get their first glimpse of this secretive, but very loud, creature in the beams of torches. One enthusiast climbs to the top of the stone-banked hedge to get a closer look, but the cricket decides the competition for his singing spot is too hot and jumps off.

An early morning bolt into Kingsbridge for essential supplies: more torches, batteries, soya milk and, at the earnest request of our Spanish volunteer, Branston pickle. After a scorching hot day, we are out in the fields again by 8.30pm. A beautiful clear night with bright stars, satellites and high planes bustling about. Later the moon comes up and starts to dim the stars, but lights us home; the crickets are very raucous.

Paul's birthday today. Everyone signed a card last night, so at least he has one birthday greeting, and one of the farmers' wives is baking a chocolate cake.

A snag. The farmers have been moving straw bales and the narrow lanes are festooned with golden wisps of straw - like a Christmas tree overdressed with tinsel. Very pretty, but makes it difficult to see the bits of sisal string we tied onto the hedges to record the location of the crickets. Only two days of the project left and the pressure is on.

Paul and the volunteers finish recording the last bits of botany while I go round removing the plot markers. The day is heavy with a dank "Prawle mist" followed by drizzle. The fields are sodden and the dubbin on my boots has vanished - my feet are swimming in water and the going is uncomfortable. The others go back to the hall while I change boots for wellies, don the DGPS kit, and go out for a bit of last-minute mapping. At 8pm I give up, exhausted. The volunteers are in the pub and on the look-out for me.

Up early packing. By 8.30am my car is packed, lots of good-byes to the team and the landlord of the pub. But it's not over yet: another hour of mapping the fields before I can drive home. After seven weeks away, it's back to the office on Monday; lots of memories and thousands of data items to analyse. And next year eight weeks camping in Spain.

John Dover is senior lecturer in applied ecology, Staffordshire University Got a Don's Diary proposal?

Contact Anna Thomson on 020 7782 3168, or email her at

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