Award for researching seabirds and soil

Grinning student Harriet Sleight sits on Skomer Island in the sunshine among a landscape of short grass and seabird burrows holding a very fluffy grey Manx Shearwater chick
Harriet Sleight and a Manx Shearwater chick on Skomer Island

When Lancaster University Environmental Science student Harriet Sleight had to choose a dissertation topic, she wanted to do it on Skomar Island in Pembrokeshire, a seabird sanctuary where she had been volunteering since 2015.

Skomar is run by the Wildlife Trust of South & West Wales and “is like nowhere else on the planet,” according to Harriet. “When the staff asked me what I wanted to study I said soil, because I was just finishing the coursework for my soils module and because soil is really important but often overlooked. They said they’d never had anyone researching soil before and so were very keen.

“I then had to decide exactly what to look at, so I went to talk it over with (Professor) John Quinton, who agreed to supervise me,” said Harriet, who is now in the final year of a four-year masters’ degree in Environmental Science.

Skomar is a haven for seabirds, having the largest colony of Manx Shearwater’s in the world as well as plentiful puffins. Both species live in burrows in the ground, so they decided she should research how the presence of all these burrowing birds changed the soil composition.

“I wanted to see if the birds add nutrients and salt to the soil through their guano (droppings) and how that in turn changes the vegetation on the island.”

She sampled and analysed the soil with portable lab equipment while on the island and with a mass spectrometer in the laboratories when she got back to Lancaster.

“John Quinton and (Dr) John Crosse, the teaching technician (at the Lancaster Environment Centre), had a big input into my dissertation: I would ring them up from Skomar when I didn’t know what to do and they were very helpful.

“I found phosphorus and nitrate concentrations in the mainland soils were significantly less than in the island soils, though they were geologically similar and less than a kilometre apart.”

Harriet also surveyed the vegetation on the island, comparing it to samples from the nearest mainland where there are no burrowing seabirds. She found significant differences.

 “There are a lot of rare species on the island, tied to areas where there are burrows and phosphorus or nitrate enriched soils.”

John Quinton was impressed by Harriet’s findings: “Harriet’s work showed how important seabirds are in understanding the nutrient cycling between the oceans and terrestrial island ecosystems, shining a light on this little understood interaction ”

Encouraged by John, Harriet entered her dissertation for the Earth and Environmental Sciences category of the Global Undergraduate Awards. She was highly commended at the Awards Summit in Dublin this week,  ranked in the top 10% of the 3437 submissions, which came from 338 institutions in 50 countries. As well as receiving a certificate, Harriet is now part of the Undergraduate Awards alumni network and her dissertation will be published in the UA Library.

During her three-months on Skomar, Harriet also had opportunities to help with other research projects: investigating how Manx Shearwater navigate, and measuring the plastic in gull diets and how many seal pups were born across the season

She found living on an island, with only six staff permanently resident, an interesting experience. In the daytime there we usually lots of visitors, but at night they were alone with the Manx Shearwaters, and they were occasionally completely cut off. “We had water shortages at times and problems getting fresh food onto the island if the weather was rough, even though we were so near the mainland.”

Having spent three months on an island, Harriet decided she was ready for another adventure. So earlier this year she applied for a bursary to spend the summer in Nagasaki, as a water science intern as part of Lancaster University’s new partnership with the Nagasaki University.

“Japan was one of the more extreme options I could have chosen, especially as Nagasaki is in a rural area and they don’t speak much English,” said Harriet, who had never been on an aeroplane  before she got on the flight from Heathrow to Tokyo.

Harriet found it tough at times, but she joined an orchestra where the language barrier didn’t matter, and gradually picked up some Japanese. She joined forces with three other Lancaster University interns, travelling together to Tokyo, and in August she took part in an international summer school of the environment, which attracted students from all over the world.

As well as studying, she developed her research skills working in a lab measuring nitrate pollution in Japan’s ground and surface water, and she learnt how to age date water.

She is now using that experience in her final masters’ dissertation project, where she is working with Lancaster’s Professor Andy Binley and one of his collaborators at the British Geological Survey, helping to establish the age of groundwater in different areas of the UK.

“I’m getting water from boreholes in Kirkby Stephen (in the Yorkshire Dales) and analysing when it was last in contact with the atmosphere. I’m doing the analysis at the British Geological Survey labs, so I will get to know another organisation,” said Harriet, who is still deciding if she wants to follow a research career when she graduates.

Find out more about studying Earth & Environmental Sciences at Lancaster University. 

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