Born to be Wild – The skills you need to work in conservation and biodiversity
By Sue Searle
With a huge growing interest in our precious planet and biodiversity there are many more openings for people wanting to work in conservation or ecological consultancy. Many people also want to move into a different area, maybe from conservation into consultancy. But what specific skills do you need? And how do you get them?
Conservation is a professional industry with a vast array of roles and job opportunities. There are openings for all sorts of people including non-qualified people, graduates, professionals from other industries and scientists. Roles might include being a warden or ranger doing conservation management on nature reserves; science and research; mapping and GIS; environmental education; ecosystem assessment; and ecological consultancy.
Whichever role you are interested in it is important that you have a passion for nature and looking after our planet. These ‘dream jobs’ can still be challenging and so a real enthusiasm for the role would make going to work a pleasure not a chore. Decide on your goal, write it down and put it on your wall so you can see it every day. This will keep your dream alive and motivate you.
Experience is a key thing employers are looking for and it is not just relevant experience but also your other soft skills like dealing with people, working in a team, managing staff, being reliable and committed, having a positive attitude, being a good communicator (written and spoken), and a hard worker. If you already have a passion like birding or photography then include that. Having a second language like Spanish or French is also useful.
Many applicants are graduates so bear in mind that if you don’t have a degree you will be in competition with those that do. I did a degree in my forties to change career from nursing to ecology and I didn’t regret it. If you are in a position to go to university then I would recommend any ecology, zoology, animal science, biological sciences or similar courses. I find that Environmental Science does not give you much on ecology or biodiversity training so if you specifically want to work in this area I would avoid that subject.
You can do online degrees with the Open University and I have students doing just that who have been getting experience during their degree and managed to get into ecological consultancy even before completing their degree. Undergraduates at University have huge chunks of time where they could gain relevant experience and even choose dissertations that will help in their future career goals. Why not commit to working holidays or getting experience at least in your summer break – if you have experience AND a degree that puts you ahead so don’t waste those precious long breaks! Once you are working you may not get them again!
If you don’t have a degree you may have skills that a new graduate doesn’t have so don’t let that put you off applying. Many people have passions like reptiles or birding or skills like plant and animal identification and those can be brought into your skills offering.
Getting relevant conservation experience will depend on the role you want to go for. Find out from the job descriptions what the employers are looking for and endeavour to gain those skills through volunteering, training, working holidays, internships and jobs that are similar. Make sure they are relevant to the roles you are aiming for though as your time is precious! I once had a student who said she was volunteering at the Wildlife Trust but when I heard it was stuffing envelopes I advised her to stop immediately! There will be other people who would be happy to do that but it was not relevant to her goal.
Volunteering is a great way to gain skills, knowledge and experience, particularly in reserves management. This might be with your local Wildlife Trust, The Conservation Volunteers (TCV), National Trust, Wildfowl and Wetland Trust (WWT), Forestry Commission, RSPB or local nature reserves conservation teams – there are lots of opportunities out there! If you are interested in doing research then there are organisations geared up for giving people experience – Earthwatch, Operation Wallacea are examples.
There are also an array of surveying opportunities doing national surveys such as reptiles and amphibians with National Amphibian & Reptile Recording Scheme (NARRS), dormice with People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES), bats with Bat Conservation Trust (BCT). You might even hear about other local citizen science or bioblitzes that you can take part in. Volunteering is a key way of starting your career journey towards getting a job and getting paid to do what you love.
Working holidays can be expensive but there are cheaper options that include free accommodation. These are a great way to get some interesting projects under your belt and gain relevant experience for your CV especially if you see yourself working abroad saving turtles or rhinos. I had a wonderful trip some years ago to Sri Lanka to study monkey behaviour with Earthwatch. There are also opportunities to work abroad on organic farms, conservation projects, and nature reserves. The RSPB, TCV and National Trust (and others) also do working holidays in the UK.
Look out for internships and training schemes often run by RSPB, The Wildlife Trusts and the National Trust – CJS is a good place to look for these! There are opportunities to work in reserves management and gain qualifications like use of chainsaws and brush cutters. Again make sure the role is relevant to your goal.
You may need to do some additional training as well. I run a training company that exclusively provides ecology and conservation courses (Ecology Training UK) and if you get in touch I can direct you to the best options for you (contact details at the end). Job descriptions may be asking or survey experience, habitat mapping training, protected species licences, species ID, GIS mapping, or knowledge of habitat management. All these skills can be gained from doing training courses. A financial investment in your career is often necessary to move you forward especially if you don’t have a degree.
Courses are a great way to gain skills and knowledge very quickly. We provide a large range of relevant online courses now on a range of topics from species ID to surveying and protected species courses as well as habitat mapping and habitat management - so you don’t even need to leave home or take time off work!
If you are particularly interested in Ecological Consultancy then it is good to focus more on protected species such as bats, dormice, badgers, otters, great crested newts, water voles, birds and reptiles as those are the main species that we focus on in consultancy. We have courses on all these species. I always encourage people to get into bats as soon as possible as all consultancies deal with bats. Most of my students, after doing our Bat Ecology and Surveying course, are able to do paid work as subcontractors with local consultancies. You can combine your training and surveying experience to gain your protected species licences which will put you ahead of others when job hunting. Phase 1 habitat mapping is a useful skill and botany is also a key skill and we have a Beginners Botany and a Phase 1 course if you need help with this.
We also run a full training course called the Certificate in Ecological Consultancy that gives you all the skills and knowledge to get into this career. It can be done around a full time job and has a very high success rate for employment. It runs from March/April to November each year and is in its 13th year. To find out more go to https://ecologytraining.co.uk/certificate.
Be prepared to promote yourself – send your CV out, write blogs, start an Instagram or Facebook page that show your skills and passions, show your photographs (a number of my students are photographers), share pictures of you doing relevant activities. Social media is an extremely powerful way to help you promote yourself, make new contacts and find out about opportunities. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and advice, get involved with as much as you can, and learn to say YES to opportunities! There are a number of Facebook Groups such as British Ecologists, UK Ecology Jobs and Courses.
Networking is also a key activity and prior to doing my degree I joined my local World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), RSPB, British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), mammal and bat groups and got to know many people interested in conservation or already working in the roles. They proved to be very good contacts and experience when I was looking for jobs. There will be many groups you could join in with locally so get involved! It is so nice to meet up with like-minded people!
When applying for jobs make sure that your CV and covering letter are specific to that job, you might need to keep tweaking it to make it relevant. Don’t forget to mention your additional ‘soft skills’. Take on board any feedback – for example not enough relevant experience - and keep moving forward. I always tell students to collect ‘No’s’ – the more ‘No’s’ you collect the nearer you will get to your dream job! Make sure you check and double check your CV/letter (or get someone else to look at it) to ensure you don’t have loads of typos which can put employers off – especially if your role is to include writing!
When you get as far as the interview then you know your CV and covering letter, experience and overall skills are acceptable – all you need to do is be yourself, be relaxed and friendly. They are seeing if you would fit with their organisation or team. Don’t be offended if they say ‘No’ as this is often a very difficult decision for them to make! Take the interview as good experience and take away any feedback they may give – and ask for it if they don’t.
Getting your first job is the hardest, once you have secured that and have that experience on your CV you will find it a lot easier to find other jobs. For consultancy there may only be seasonal jobs at first so be prepared to do something else in the winter. Try to keep to your goal of your dream job as far as possible. It is easy to go down a rabbit hole towards something you didn’t really want to do!
If you are passionate and committed to a role in conservation or ecological consultancy then use these tips to help you get there. You won’t always get quick results, this may need to be a 2-5 year plan to get your skills, knowledge and experience up to the level needed to apply for jobs. You can usually do this around another job so start your journey and keep going until you achieve your dream job!
Good luck and do get in touch if you think I can help!
Sue has 20 years’ experience of working in conservation and ecological consultancy and was previously a nurse and midwife.
She has written a book called ‘How to become an Ecological Consultant’ (3rd Edition) available via Amazon.
We have a number of recorded webinars on getting experience and working towards protected species licences go to: https://ecologytraining.co.uk/webinars to find the links.
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