Flying Solo – A Year in the Making

Logo: Eco-Habitat Ltd
Badger waiting in a cage for vaccination in Cheshire (Emily Macfarlan)
Badger vaccination in Cheshire (Emily Macfarlan)

Just over a year ago, I set up as a freelance ecologist. After working in the industry for 8 years, the time was right for me. This year has certainly exceeded my expectations but has also come with both anticipated and unforeseen challenges. By no means extensive, here is an honest summary to the beginning of a freelance career as an ecologist.

Flexibility was my primary driving force to becoming self employed. The industry is so fast paced that I had become completely absorbed in work and did not have the time nor thought capacity to explore my ambitions. I wanted to be able to pursue new opportunities, to donate more time to existing volunteering commitments and have a coveted work-life balance. I was delighted how quickly this materialised - a PhD on the horizon, becoming a local coordinator for the Cheshire Badger Vaccination Programme and training to be a carer with Staffordshire Bat Group. Despite the pandemic, the construction industry has boomed and there has been a plethora of work opportunities, another aspect I was pleasantly surprised by. However, with ecology work being so heavily seasonal, flexibility throughout the spring and summer can realistically be limited as you need to carry your business through the winter months. Following another wet and cold spring, I found that the uncertainty of future work opportunities and cancelled shifts put additional pressure on working as and when the shifts were available.

Bat survey in Cheshire of Grade II listed building (Emily Macfarlan)
Bat survey in Cheshire of Grade II listed building (Emily Macfarlan)

Accepting work can be tricky - do you hold out for preferable projects/survey work or accept available work on a first come first serve basis? Personally, I have generally taken work as and when it has come up, juggling subbie work for a small number of larger firms and also managing a couple of my own projects. Realistically, “choice”, whether related to a project, the type of work or the location, was not as flexible as I thought it would have been. I am hoping that over time I can begin to prioritise favoured work and local shifts as I become more established. A colleague wisely advised me that saying no to some work is in fact saying yes to other opportunities.

Artificial badger sett creation in Staffordshire (Emily Macfarlan)
Artificial badger sett creation in Staffordshire (Emily Macfarlan)

I think the biggest downside to being freelance is not being part of a team. Working by yourself can be both lonely and daunting. However, I am lucky enough to be part of a close group of freelance associates. We share work, experiences, expertise and provide support to one another. This is invaluable. However, despite having a strong network, my Imposter Syndrome and self doubt became unwelcomely influential. In addition, my environmental anxiety peaked and I was burning myself out, for yet another season. I realised that it needed addressing and for the first time in my career, I took some time out to have counselling, to take stock and reset. This is possibly my most pivotal and significant moment of being self employed, I was my own boss and I became increasingly aware of the responsibility I had to myself. The era of glamourising long shifts and unsociable hours is coming to an end and being self employed can certainly allow for better self care.

Of course, freelance work can be lucrative. There are companies willing to pay a generous hourly rate and others that require a competitive fixed rate. It is important to consider all your overheads when calculating your hourly/daily rate – insurances, equipment, training and qualifications, PPE, accountants, website and domain, electronic software and storage to just name the obvious. And most importantly, to remember your worth and the worth of other freelance ecologists. In the first year it can feel like your outgoings exceed your incomings – especially as cash flow can take a while to even out. I would certainly recommend having a generous float in place for anyone considering going freelance. I have also found there is a disparity when it comes to graduate ecologists fulfilling seasonal and casual roles against experienced freelance ecologists and the resultant expectations from the larger firms. A topic that needs addressing on both fronts!

If you are considering starting up, then my top advice would be to make sure you have robust technical and practical knowledge and have a good support system in place, because the going will get tough. Ultimately, if your reasons for becoming freelance are aligned with an awareness and reality of working for yourself, then it really is a great route to pursue and I have definitely not looked back.

Emily Macfarlan, Director of Eco-Habitat Limited

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