Fieldwork 2016 #1: It’s a lovely day tomorrow


Village Bay on the island of Hirta, St Kilda, or my home for the next month. Yes, it IS always this sunny.

Through the miracle of SCIENCE (and the kindness of the National Trust for Scotland) I’m able to blog (sort of) LIVE from St Kilda where I’m staying for a month to do some fieldwork on the population of Soay sheep. My aim is a reasonably simple one: to collect as many poo samples as possible from as many adult females as possible, during the period in which they are (or are not) in the final stages of pregnancy and the onset of lactation. While I’m on the island I’ll be collecting data on intestinal worm infections by counting worm eggs in faecal samples, but I’ll also be dividing the samples up and freezing them for later analysis of immune markers (antibodies), gut microbiota, and (funds willing) hormones.

The main aims are to see whether (1) I can collect enough samples to make a larger-scale project worthwhile; (2) these samples can be analysed to provide meaningful data; (3) these data have the potential to tell us something new about what happens to defence against infection during reproduction. This is all quite exciting for me, because as I noted in my last post, I haven’t collected my own data since my undergrad degree, so this is the first time I’ve been in a lab for a while. And what a lab it is. 


The Featherstore, where the St Kildans used to store their grain (or something, anyway). It’s a lovely place to live and work, with the sound of waves lapping as I drift off to sleep (along with the hum of the -80 freezer). During the summer it’s used for blood processing work and has earned the sobriquet ‘The Bloodshed’. Obviously that won’t do at all, so I’ve decided to call it ‘The Pootique’.

It’s very exciting because I have access to lots of fancy toys, like two freezers, a microscope, cuvettes and a centrifuge, but my other lab essentials are mainly things you could buy in a supermarket: washing-up liquid, measuring jugs, sandwich bags, paper towels. There’s A LOT of washing up.


The interior of the Featherstore lab, complete with all mod cons (but no running water) and a fabulous sea view.

My day starts after breakfast when I head out just before 8 and start trying to collect samples. After a week here I’ve got samples from over 50 females and I’m now trying to re-sample them to get longitudinal data. This involves wandering around looking like a unthreatening tourist and spying on the sheep while they shit. If it’s an individual I need a sample from, I move in and collect it. Every half hour or so I go back to the featherstore to partition the samples and stick them in the fridge or freezer.


A selection of my field essentials. Clockwise from top left: Binoculars; cool bag; notebook and pen; sample bags and marker; radio. Not shown: waterproof jacket; winter hat; air of sheer bloody-mindedness.

So what have I learned so far? Essentially, my issues have fallen into two main groups, which fit neatly under two headings.

(1) Stuff I brought too much of: cool bags in the wrong size; sample bags; freezer blocks

(2) Stuff I brought too little of: cool bags in the right size; skill, good weather

Despite my inadequacies, and the tendency of the females I DON’T want samples from to be pooing while the ones I’m targeting to just munch grass and give me stern looks, I’ve managed to collect enough samples that I’m no longer feeling terrified that I won’t get any data. I’ve even done my first batch of worm egg counts. Maybe that fun should wait for next time.

I should also say that working on St Kilda does have its rewards, foremost among which are that it’s a STUNNING place. Having been here quite a few times before (but not for six years) and being keen to get going and actually collect some data, I haven’t really done much exploring until today. But since it’s Sunday (as I’m writing) I took half the afternoon off for a run around the bay. I didn’t want this to turn into holiday snaps, but they’re too pretty not to share. Be thankful, because if I blog again while I’m out, it’ll be about mashing, straining and pipetting liquid poo. Something for us all to look forward to.


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