Working for Conservation.
by Martin Harper, Conservation Director for the RSPB
In my mid-twenties I saw a job advertised to head up a team at WWF. It was way out of my league, but I remember looking at the person specification and thinking that given time I might be able to acquire the essential experience to be able to apply for such a job in ten years time.
I still admire WWF but I don’t work for them. Instead, I am lucky enough to be the Conservation Director of the RSPB – the largest nature conservation organisation in Europe.
And the reason that I do the job I do today is that through 20 years working in the sector, I have acquired the experience and skills to allow me to perform the role in the way the organisation desires. And I just happened to be in the right place at the right time to be well placed to get the job when it came up in 2011.
I see my career as vocational. My interest in nature was ignited in my early teens when my mother, a biology teacher, encouraged me to see the world differently. As the son of a vicar, I also had a pretty good sense of what was right and wrong so the more I read about destruction of nature, the more the fire in my belly to do something about it was stoked. Today, it is contact with nature that keeps me going both in terms of reminding me of my ‘cause’ but also acts as therapy when that cause gets stressful.
During my time studying Biological Sciences at Oxford, I was fortunate enough to join a butterfly expedition to the Comores – an archipelago between Madagascar and Mozambique. This was my first opportunity to properly see and experience the tension between humans’ desire for development and the natural world. We returned after our finals and my interest in tropical biodiversity was encouraged through participation in the inaugural Tropical Biological Association course in Kibale Forest in Uganda.
The real turning point for me was taking the UCL Masters in Conservation. At last I could see a way beyond science and into practical conservation. The grounding that I received during my year in London with trips to Rum, the Lake District and Guernsey was incredibly helpful. I began to understand the policy and organisational framework of nature conservation both in the UK and internationally. It was also great fun and friendships made during that year have lasted as we all explored our separate career paths.
Getting a job after graduating was a challenge. For my Master’s thesis I’d studied snow leopard prey in the Hovsgol region of Mongolia and became hooked on riding, climbing mountains and counting scat. This interest would see me take part in four expeditions over the coming years. Yet, getting into paid employment and actually carving out a career seemed hard – very hard. So, I did what nearly all my contemporaries did and what I encourage graduates to do today – I volunteered. I was living in London at the time and I was still chasing the exotic, so I jumped at the chance of volunteering for a small charity called Tusk Force which raised money for big mammal projects around the world.
The six months I spent there were instructive and memorable especially when I appeared in Hello magazine dressed as a rhino cuddling Helena Christensen and Ali McGraw.
But, tipped off by one of the UCL alumni, I applied for and landed a job at Wildlife and Countryside Link – the network organisation for environmental NGOs based in England. It was a wide-ranging role and allowed me an insight into the different organisations that make up our diverse voluntary sector that proved really useful in the years to come.
Quite quickly, it was possible to categorise the types of organisation: big vs small, feisty vs stuffy, bold vs cautious, arrogant vs humble etc. And I found myself gravitating towards certain individuals many of whom I still work with today. I had a range of bosses on various issues from whom I learnt a great deal and to whom I owe huge debt of thanks for helping me find my way.
I ended up running Link for a year before becoming Conservation Director at Plantlife. In many ways it was perfect grounding for the job I do today with responsibility for all aspects of the conservation toolkit: science, reserves, advice and advocacy all contributing towards a coherent conservation strategy. Of course, there is a slight resource discrepancy between Plantlife then and RSPB now – we were 30 people working above a fish & chip shop in Belgravia, the RSPB is a £100m operation with over 2000 staff, benefiting from over a million members.
But the principles and approach that we adopted at Plantlife are exactly the same as we adopt at the RSPB today – strive to do whatever nature needs, be clear about your niche and then find innovative ways to inspire action either through your own organisation or with others.
My eleven years at the RSPB have been hugely rewarding as I have increasingly become involved in influencing people to exercise their power for nature both nationally and locally. I reflect on the daily struggles through a blog. I hope it’s informative and occasionally entertaining. For me, it can also be cathartic and an opportunity to share and test ideas.
The state of nature is not improving as fast as we would like, the pressures are growing but I sense a growing solidarity amongst the sector to work together and with business to do more. And, it is seeing the creativity, determination and chutzpah of current colleagues and those that are now joining the sector that gives me optimism that, you know what, we can pass on the natural world in a better state to the next generation.
For more work about the RSPB visit www.rspb.org.uk
You can follow Martin on his blog at www.rspb.org.uk/martinharper