A day in the life of a SISI Project Officer

James Symonds, Project Officer, Scottish Invasive Species Initiative
November 2020


We asked our very own James Symonds, what a typical day of a Scottish Invasive Species Initiative (SISI) Project Officer looks like.

As a Project Officer, I am responsible for the management and co-ordination of invasive species control across four rivers in Moray and Speyside; the Rivers Spey, Findhorn, Nairn and Lossie.  Our main species of concern are; American mink, Giant hogweed, Japanese knotweed and Himalayan balsam – although we also have an interest in White butterbur and American skunk cabbage.

But what does a day in the ‘office’ look like for a SISI Project Officer?

Well that changed significantly this year with the coronavirus pandemic, but following lockdown we managed to get back out in the field to continue our work – albeit with changes to our work practices to keep everyone safe and whilst balancing home working and home schooling challenges.

My typical workday starts the same as any other for a father of 2 small humans – unsocially early! After making my way to the coffee pot and feeding the rabble I can check my work phone. I am checking my “Mink Police” app for any mink traps activated overnight and to see if any volunteers have been in touch about their mink monitoring rafts or traps.  All clear!

The Mink Police units are great innovations. Live capture traps, by law, have to be checked at least once in a 24hr period to meet animal welfare protection requirements.  The Mink Police units, using a combination of technology and magic, send multiple daily updates for specific trap locations which negates the need to physically check each trap in person each day. They allow me to remotely check the traps wherever I have access to Wi-Fi or mobile signal and, most importantly, notify me instantly if an animal has been caught.  This means that traps can be deployed to areas where, for example, mink have been sighted in physically difficult access locations or where we don’t have an elusive local ‘trapping volunteer’ to do these daily checks.  Using Mink Police units I can monitor multiple traps across a wide geographical area myself.

Mink Police unit mounted on top of a live capture trap

After finally managing to get a shower and get breakfast, I double check the weather for todays planned activity – Giant hogweed spraying. The weather looks good so I drop a text to all of the volunteers who have offered their help to reconfirm the meeting time and place.

I visit the stores and pick up all equipment required for the day and make sure I stock up on the ever-essential tea and biscuits on the way to site.

After a quick meet and greet with today’s volunteers, I go through the essential risk assessment and tools talk.  Much of the time we work on uneven terrain alongside rivers and today we are working with Giant hogweed – a dangerous plant with photo-toxic sap.  We also have in place additional COVID-19 working adaptations which need to be explained.  Safety and volunteer welfare is our number one priority.

Volunteer spraying Giant hogweed

We kit ourselves out with protective clothing, fill our knapsacks and set to work.  Today we are spraying in about six acres of riparian woodland with frequent sizeable Giant hogweed stands.  One of my volunteers is new, so I work alongside them offering support and supervision.  Pre-coronavirus there would be a team of volunteers working with me – battle hardened and dedicated hogweed assassins who gained their pesticide application qualifications with us – but today it’s just three people to keep numbers low and allow for social distancing.  We work in a rough line moving in a zig-zag upstream hoping to catch all of the hogweed we see on the way.

We started at 10.00 am it’s now 12.30 pm – definitely time for a proper break.  We put our knapsacks down and set up camp on the riverbank.  On a normal volunteering day I would  pull out the Kelly kettle, tea and biscuits – chocolate hobnobs if they are lucky – offer a demonstration on how to light the kettle using a fire steel and natural tinder and the volunteers would have a go at fire lighting themselves.  This year we’ve had to ask volunteers to bring their own flasks which is a shame as we like to offer additional activities alongside the hard work of plant spraying.  We appreciate the time our volunteers give to us and want to keep each day varied and fun for them – that way they might come back again!  

Putting the kettle on!

I check my phone and whilst we were working a trapping volunteer has called – she has a mink in a trap on another river. I phone back and she confirms the trap was empty last night but a mink has been caught this morning.  I’ll visit as soon as I am finished on site.

We spray for another 70 minutes and manage to cover the whole woodland.  My volunteers (and myself) have worked hard today but it’s been good fun.  As a reward I let them all go home early, 2.45pm instead of 3pm!  I’m nothing if not generous….

After the plant control equipment is cleaned down and packed in the car I can make my way to the mink in the trap. It’s a large mink and I have the unhappy task of humanely dispatching the animal.  This is done quickly, quietly and discretely with a high-powered air pistol. I take some basic measurements and sex the animal – a male.  You can tell this by feeling for a small bone between the hind legs – the baculum – present only in males. You can work out what this identifying feature is I’m sure!

Non-native American mink caught in trap

Dispatching mink is not something I or the project enjoy – but it is essential.  The mink is a voracious predator and their presence has a devastating impact on native wildlife.  For example, since the introduction of mink, Water vole numbers have declined by over 94% across the UK – largely due to predation.  They also have a negative impact on populations of native ground nesting birds, amphibians and fish species as well as taking domestic fowl.

I get home, change a nappy, check my emails and follow up with volunteers planning on coming out tomorrow.  The weather is looking wet so instead of spraying Giant hogweed we will decapitate the flower heads using pole saws – always fun!  I am just about to email a few volunteers about later in the week when my 4-year old runs in and rugby tackles me – it’s time to finish work for today.

Using a pole say to remove flower heads from Giant hogweed

Invasive species control work is seasonal so once we are done with Giant hogweed, we move on to pulling or slashing Himalayan balsam – great for all the family to get involved in and then, as autumn looms on the horizon, we move on to spraying or stem injecting Japanese knotweed.

The specific threats these plants pose vary in one way or another but what they all share is the fact that they are so successful in our climate and our native flora cannot compete. If left unchecked we face a massive loss to biodiversity, destabilisation of our riverbanks and very different ecosystems to the native ones that should be present. 

Injecting herbicide directly into Japanese knotweed stems (L) and slashing Himalayan balsam (R)

It’s been a productive day and there is a tremendous sense of achievement seeing what a huge difference can be made in such a short space of time with so few people.  I have missed the larger volunteering groups this year, it’s always good to get a big crowd out, but we soldier on for now and hope to get everyone back together next season.  The volunteering opportunities we have been able to offer this year have never felt so important – as well as helping nature they provide valuable time outdoors and social opportunities just when we’ve all needed these the most.

Volunteer groups 2019

If you’d like to find out more about getting involved and volunteering with James and the Scottish Invasive Species Initiative read more on our website.

The Good, the Bad and the Balsam

Karen Müller, Project Officer, Scottish Invasive Species Initiative
September 2019

Himalayan balsam season has drawn to a close. On our river banks, our staff and volunteers have downed tools for another season. The time has come for the last of the pink-petaled invaders still left standing to be pinging their seeds from ripe pods in an endless effort to increase their range. But with thousands of plants degrading in piles on the banks and tens of thousands of seeds prevented from ever reaching nurturing soil we are happy to call this a job well done, for now.

It’s time to reflect on the last few months – our highs and lows, ayes and nays, lessons learned and casting our eyes to the future.

Getting to grips with balsam

This year’s waves of heat and rain appear to have been particularly favourable for balsam, with many areas dazzling with shades of pink. To counter this, a continuous thwacking of weed whackers, scythes and strimmers against balsam stems, the sound of soil releasing roots and the popping of hollow stems under the weight of more balsam being added to piles has filled the air over the last few months. There has been a flurry of volunteer activity across the project area, making it possible that river banks from Tayside to Sutherland have decidedly less of a pink hue to them.

Volunteers come in all shapes and sizes and the one lovely thing about balsam is that its control is suitable for a wide range of ages – from primary school children to people living out their best life in retirement – and can be done in larger groups. It’s the perfect way to meet new people, partake in a hands-on activity with your kids or spend some relaxing time in nature while trying something new and helping the environment. Whether it is anglers, dog walkers, bird watchers pulling a few plants when they are out and about or individual people, schools or organisations that specifically join us project officers for a balsam bash – many a mickle makes a muckle in the battle against balsam.

Compared to other invasive plant control, balsam provides instant gratification when you look back on the area you are working on – nothing makes your chest swell with pride like knowing you have just built the highest balsam pile yet of the season. And let’s not stop there, optical illusions, balsam snowmen, a spot of friendly competition who can build the biggest pile or who can scale the finished pile the fastest and stand victoriously at its summit – the pile is your oyster.

Unquestionably, balsam control is not always all sweetness and light –the plant is willing to make use of many kinds of growing spaces and so we found ourselves thigh deep in ‘bogs of eternal stench’ or crawling around in gorse on more than one occasion. Did it stop us having fun? Of gorse not!

Through the good times and the tough, plenty of opportunities to whip out the Kelly kettle, freshly brewed tea and coffee (not the instant kind, mind!) and, most vital, chocolate biscuits, support us in keeping our volunteers in top motivation.

Time to reflect and perfect

So, what have we learned over the past two seasons through trial and error? For one, we have stocked our armoury well with strimmers, scythes, weed whackers and gloves since last year – something to counter anything the balsam might throw at us.

Selectively pulling balsam from amongst other vegetation seems to have the least impact on non-target species, if compared to mowing down stretches of bankside vegetation at more badly infested sites. But, if you’re working on borrowed time, you sometimes have to face the hard hitting questions. Mowing is effective in terms of time and effort and, thus, usually prevents a much larger proportion of seeds from dropping. So, do we mow in the hope that after a couple of seasons we have adequately reduced the density and can move on to pulling the balsam up? Or shall we pull regardless of the fact that much less can be achieved in the same amount of time? It is important to ponder these quandaries and often we have to make decisions on a case by case basis, depending on the existing vegetation, how dense the balsam has become and its potential to spread from there.

As it gets later in the season the balsam is really out to impress, growing up to two meters in height. At times the stems are growing horizontally along the ground before reaching its flowers towards the sky and roots start to form on higher leaf nodes, digging into the soil where the stem touches the ground. The trouble with this is the increasing likelihood of snapping the stalk during pulling, followed by the balsam stubbornly re-growing from the left over stem. A weed whacker can be really handy here to slash the stalk below the first node closest to the ground and curbing the balsam’s ambitions once and for all.

Casting our eyes on the future, there are always things to improve. For one, we still need to understand the distribution of balsam throughout our catchments better, so that we can control it strategically from the most upper extent moving down the river. We really appreciate reports of sightings to help us with that. The species is widespread and we know that long-term, sustainable solutions require landowners who actively take responsibility and more volunteers to support the effective removal of the plants annually. While many landowners, local communities, environmental groups and countless more are already getting involved we need to increase these efforts catchment wide moving forward.

Last but certainly not least, both this year and last year it is a must to acknowledge that every single one of our enthusiastic volunteers is absolutely wonderful and invaluable! You make it a joy to get to grips with balsam and you make the improbable possible. Not all heroes wear capes – some wear waders and gloves!

If this has inspired you to get involved with the Scottish Invasive Species Initiative or you’d like to find out more, visit our website www.invasivespecies.scot or email sisi@nature.scot

A word from a visiting volunteer

Viola Kleinicke, 3 week placement volunteer

After I had finished school I was looking for a job, project or organization where I could gain new experiences. I worked a lot in hotels, restaurants and coffee shops but I wanted to find something totally different before starting my apprenticeship in occupational therapy.

Accidentally, I found out about the Scottish Invasive Species Initiative (SISI) project on the internet and fortunately they agreed to host me for a three-week internship. In advance, Karen and Al (the local SISI Project Officers) helped find accommodation for me in a shared student apartment and for the second part of the internship I was camping at the Findhorn Foundation.

Finally, my internship started and I was welcomed by friendly, warm and funny people. Most of the time it was hard work, crawling through bushes to find and cut Giant hogweed, but it felt easy because of the fun and laughs we had together.  I also had the opportunity to take part in an animal tracking course, learned about invasive species, and I learned a lot about the anatomy of birds and fish.

I was amazed how diverse the tasks in this kind of job are: On top of the work against invasive species, the work demands a lot of creativity – at events I coloured in fish masks with children and I helped to craft a giant hogweed with paper, felt, glue and wire.

I would recommend to everyone who likes adventures, being in nature, new tasks and wants to get an insight to a varied job, to take the chance to volunteer with the SISI project. Thanks to the three project officers (Karen, Al and James) I had an unforgettable time, a lot of fun and on top of that I got to see beautiful, unpopulated places in Scotland.

 Thank you Al, Karen and James

Filling my wellies with water

Cally Day, SISI Volunteer, June 2019

Cally has been volunteering with the Scottish Invasive Species Initiative (SISI) for a year and shares her experiences with us of her time volunteering so far.

I was studying applied science when Karen from Scottish Invasive Species Initiative (SISI) came along to the college to give us a presentation explaining her role as project officer, which included, conservation work and reaching out to the community to help identify and tackle the problems we are facing with invasive species along our water courses. As Karen went on to explain in more detail about the activities her role involves the entire room turned to focus on me. Everyone who knows me understands how I love to be outside investigating and seeking out anything out of the ordinary. Hearing about her talk about her work and the benefits to the native wildlife and biodiversity, really had me interested. That was what I wanted to do. I got in touch via email immediately with Karen who works within the Deveron, Bogie and Isla rivers catchment area, and with James who works within the Lossie, Nairn and Findhorn rivers catchment. They both put me to work straight away…

Cally (right) with SISI project officer Karen (left)

My first volunteering expedition, and I call it an expedition because it was exactly that. Karen took me to a stretch of the river Ugie in Aberdeenshire which to say the least was varied terrain. We were surveying the presence and amount of the invasive non-native Himalayan Balsam plant. Along our route we encountered some overgrown bramble, nettles and some boggy areas which I almost lost a wellie in. I fell to the ground many times, which was mostly due to my lack of balance and finesse. However, it was a superb experience and we had some serious fun along the way. There was an area of intense overgrowth so we decided to it would be easier to cross the river onto the other side. No-one fell in, which was a real achievement, although we made sure that we were perfectly safe by choosing a relatively low and slow running area to cross, but the wellies did fill up. Fortunately, it was a scorcher of a day and during our lunch break I was able to dry my socks out. I think we must’ve walked about two and a half miles that day, and did what we set out to do, survey complete. I wasn’t sure if Karen would take me back out with her again or if she went away thinking I was a bit of a liability, but thankfully we have tackled the rivers many times since, mostly controlling Giant hogweed.

Finding Giant hogweed

James also got in touch and offered me my very own Mink Monitoring Raft, which I was delighted about. He came and explained how it all works and gave me information about what I could look out for and left me to it. It’s always very exciting to go and check a raft for any signs of wildlife. I have had several prints but none of them mink, which can be a positive sign. I have seen otters down by the river while I have been down checking my raft, which is always nice to see. Since James gave me my first raft, he offered me a second raft along a different stretch of river which again I was happy to agree to. When I go to the river to check on my rafts, I usually spend a few hours there just taking in the surroundings and taking that time to relax. I noticed other signs of wildlife presence, including footprints and padded down plants, holes in the embankments and feathers, so I bought myself a trail camera. Since I have set it up, I have had footage of roe deer, badgers, mice, pheasants and lots of various native birds.

Mink monitoring raft

I have been learning as I have been going along from the project staff, I have attended events including Wild about Aden, which is a family event within a country setting for all ages. We set up an information stall for SISI which was a public engagement role. Spending a couple of days engaging with the public, educating them about the invasive non-native species and their effects improved my confidence and I was surprised at how much I had learned in the short time I had been working with them. SISI has also given me the opportunity to attend courses, including the pesticide spraying course where I gained my certification which now enables me to use pesticides to treat invasive plants.

Treating Giant hogweed with pesticide

There have been so many opportunities in my first year working as a volunteer with SISI that I would never have expected, which I am very grateful for. It has been very rewarding seeing the impact we are making on embankments of the rivers and streams, and successfully handing over the opportunity and support to landowners to take the reins and continue.

I have been out many times now with Karen, James and Al on long days of Giant Hogweed control and my fitness levels have improved remarkably. I have noticed that my breathing has improved and my balance too. I can carry weights of 15 litres on my back and walk for many miles. But most of all, my mood is always on top form when I am out and about with them. They are a super team to work with.

Helping SISI project officer James light the Kelly kettle to make a brew

I have a lot of exciting times ahead with SISI and a lot more conservation work to do which I am looking forward to. Thanks SISI.

And thanks to you Cally 🙂

Invasive Species Week

Vicky Hilton, SISI Volunteer & Comms officer, May 2019

This year Invasive Species Week is being held from 13-17 May, the purpose of the week is to raise awareness across Great Britain about invasive species and their impacts.

Being a project all about invasive species, here at the Scottish Invasive Species Initiative, we’re quite excited about having a whole week of all things invasive and we’d love everyone to share in our enthusiasm and get involved!

There are lots of ways to get involved in Invasive Species Week, you can join in with a practical hands-on volunteering session to remove invasive plants, adopt a mink raft, go on a guided walk, drop in on one of the pop-up stalls or follow our social media posts throughout the week to learn more about invasive species and what you can do to make a difference.

Here’s a list of events we and our partners are running during the week – click on each event to follow the link to our website where there are more details.

If you can’t make any of the events, don’t worry you can still stay involved in Invasive Species Week! Follow us on social media on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, we’ll be posting lots of information all week about invasive species, what to look out for, what to do about them, alien facts, what things everyone can do to help, gardening tips etc.

Or why not take the initiative and do your bit in your local area? Learn how to identify Himalayan balsam, (download an ID guide here), an invasive plant found growing widely along river banks and head out with a friend (always advisable not to work alone near a river) and go and pull some up! It has a really shallow root system so its easy to pull by hand, put it in a pile away from a path to compost or hang it roots up from a fence/tree (so it doesn’t re-root). It might still be quite small at this time of year but it’s great to pull it and remove it before it flowers and spreads more seeds.

Removing Himalayan balsam

Don’t forget to share how you’ve got involved in Invasive Species Week with us on social media – tag us into your posts and let us see what you’ve been up to!

Invasive Species Week is coordinated by the GB Non Native Species Secretariat. Read more about the week here.