Some things change, some stay the same – reflections on the countryside profession in 2019
Ted Talbot – Countryside Manager for the National Trust in the Peak
There is a scene in the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail where King Arthur is challenged by the Black Knight. It does not go well for the Black Knight and, in a darkly humorous exchange, he is finally left on the ground limbless, but still trying to fight on.
And perhaps that’s the problem and the joy of being a ranger at the moment that, despite having chunks lopped off our collective profession in the UK over the last 10 years, we can’t help but fight on. Our cause remains a most noble one: one that some rangers in more challenging parts of the world lay down their lives for and that we remember each year on World Ranger Day at the end of July.
So, when asked to think about what has changed in the 30 years that I have spent in this vocation I am mindful to look both backwards and forwards over a timescale that is more significant than the current UK age of austerity.
To begin at the beginning is to recognise that this is still a young profession, perhaps only 70 years old in the UK – when the first National Park, the Peak District, appointed Tommy Tomlinson as a Warden. So it is no surprise that we are still not well understood as a sector. Rangering in the UK may well have been influenced by the creation of the US National Parks which celebrated their 100th year anniversary in 2017 and had the famous John Muir as one of the first Park Rangers at Yellowstone – although a nice chap called Galen Clarke was actually in post before him. What they shared with Tommy was a clear focus on people, encouraging and promoting a love of the outdoors and care for special places, landscapes and nature.
It is an achievement that this is now a global profession, celebrated by the cartoon hero of ‘Ranger Smith’ with Lego and Playmobile Ranger models now available. It is recognized by the IUCN and supported by a clear set of internationally agreed competences for front line
‘protected area staff’ working in parks all around the world. These core skills broadly focus on the two themes of people management and the management of special places – usually of natural or cultural significance, protected by a legal designation.
In the UK, with our 15 national parks, almost 400 local authorities, conservation charities, some water companies and private estates employing rangers and countryside officers, it has been hard to get accurate workforce figures. An estimate of 4000 – 5000 may be
reasonable with, historically, the public sector being the biggest employer of rangers and countryside staff.
However, public sector cuts of 35 – 40% in real terms since 2010 have impacted on many public Parks and Countryside Services with volunteers being asked to step in and rangers joining the list of endangered public professions. At the same time the employment of people on the land in general has changed dramatically and we could add small-scale rural farmers to this list of disappearing jobs as the supermarket stranglehold on cheap food from across the world has bitten.
But, perhaps the biggest recent blow to our profession came quietly when the statutory body that nationally represented what we do, the Countryside Agency, was dissolved in 2006. With it we lost our national champion and political advocate. Along with an understanding of the value paid professional rangers can add to local community-based nature conservation work and how countryside projects can act as a catalyst for positive environmental and social development in both rural and urban settings. Dr Ian Rotherham from Sheffield Hallam University charts this era in his paper – the rise and fall of countryside management, presented at the Countryside Management Association conference in 2016. (read Dr Rotherham’s thoughts on the piece in CMA Ranger magazine)
Personally, I just miss the Country Code and that helpful plasticine sheepdog on the telly that the Countryside Agency championed. With their McDonalds in one hand and mobile phone in the other, on some days it feels like a small percentage of British people really have lost the plot when they visit the great outdoors on a Bank Holiday Monday and Mountain Rescue incident stats for the Peak District often conclude “unprepared for the uplands/bad weather”. There is division and change afoot in the nation and the countryside is part of this. But perhaps our biggest challenge is the same as it ever was, connecting people to outdoor places and helping them to understand why our natural heritage really matters and how best to prepare for and enjoy their visit.
And yet everywhere I look there is still cause for great optimism. Countryfile is a national favourite and the Princes Trust has launched a Survival Guide for Rural Communities. No one expected the new leaders of the Green Revolution to be the nation’s favourite TV wildlife granddad and a schoolgirl from Sweden, but these are desperate times. In the vacuum of the current national politics, David and Greta are giants to be celebrated and supported. Extinction Rebellion and a summer heat wave with added floods once again reminding us that Brexit is barely relevant in our list of priorities.
People are still employed in the urban fringes and countryside – from Forest School workers to professional dog walkers, many of us still want our loved ones to experience the benefits of nature and fresh air. It’s the age of the ‘experience economy’! Local tourism is stronger than ever, and lycra-clad visitors run, swim, walk and cycle for charity, whilst taking a selfie in a tabard and eating local plant based burgers. Suddenly, we are also interested in releasing beavers, lynx, storks, black grouse and wildcats across the land, replacing what we have lost and rewilding our parks and farmland – with exceptional results at places like the Knepp Estate in Sussex. Recognising everything this does to help wildlife, store carbon, cleanse our water, our air and our soil as well as our own increasingly urbanised souls.
Surprisingly many of these ideas have been referenced in the Government’s new 25 year Environment Plan as well as the draft Agriculture Bill published last year and on hold – like everything else. As a nation we are way behind (70%, in fact) our target for planting 11 million trees, but everyone is talking about tree planting again - all of which would suggest there is plenty of work for new rangers and countryside workers to do again very soon if we can only just get on with it.
So, what skills do modern rangers need to adapt to these trying times? The commodification of education has not helped us and there is no clear workforce planning for our sector so “oversupply” of trained people for fewer jobs is a reality. Much has changed in our workplaces and it is not all for the better. There is no doubt that the technology available to us can be both a curse and a boon. Using drones and trail-cams for ecological surveys can be quick and less disturbing for both rangers and wildlife alike, especially in treetops, marshes or cliff ledges. Perhaps practical tasks are being contracted out, or maybe they are coming back in as heritage crafts with a group of community volunteers to help improve physical and mental wellbeing: you can fix the fence properly later – just go with it! The services that are currently surviving by selling guided walks and doing children’s wildlife parties may well just have to recognise that this is a commercial means to an end at present and hope for better times, whilst keeping hold of as much good conservation and nature engagement work as they can. We have yet to find a way to replace the tax revenue we have taken from this sector with other types of hard cash but studies and news feeds show how important and valued our countryside remains to the nation. We don’t want to charge people to enter our parks and countryside sites either so we fall back on public support, volunteers and community engagement again – whilst lobbying for better policy and funds. Managing people, communities and volunteers is and always has been a key skill for rangers and people are always the key to maintaining support for your countryside services.
Without a national advocate in the government funding arena (it was supposed to be Natural England), we need to get smarter. It is high time to make the case to Sport England and the NHS that good access to the countryside and great path infrastructure is as important and costly as a flat football pitch, netball court or swimming pool. Rangers were at the front of Health Walks delivery 20 years ago, and many are still going on without funding support, alongside other health related initiatives. Locally, many countryside activity groups are realising this gap in resource, and helping out to raise funds or volunteer for countryside teams - but we need to make a stronger national case for funding access infrastructure and our staff at a basic sustainable level.
In 1986, I started as a volunteer ranger in Sheffield, alongside other unemployed students and a couple of ex-miners. There were not many jobs then either, but we all enjoyed what we did, learned new skills and hoped for better times. The Pretenders’ song with the line ‘some things change and some stay the same’ was a hit at the time and was our anthem for a short while. I got my first job in 1989 – after the ranger I had volunteered for left having got good experience on a Manpower Services Commission scheme. There was no gig economy then and things are different today, more competitive at entry level for sure and there are less permanent posts and not many solid apprenticeships yet - but I think an element of luck, being in the right place at the right time with the right skills, and having a good network are still key to getting a job in this sector. Interview skills can be learnt and being resilient if you want a job as a ranger is just how it is at present. I also think that ‘sideways entry’ from an allied profession, especially gardening, farming, horticulture or forestry is equally possible these days and there is increasing overlap within many land based skills that we should all be aware of, so allied experience can be very relevant. We should also keep learning to adapt.
Finally, I think that optimism and rangering go hand in hand, and as we enter a climate emergency our skills are needed now more than ever, the public seem to think so - imagining we have “the best job in the world” – so let’s be ready for the next Green Revolution, try and lead it even; and if - after we have tried our very best - it does not happen, then I guarantee that ranger skills are really quite close to survival skills and will be needed in whatever brave new world we all end up in!