Early Career Ecologists and Exploitation

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Logo: The Ecology Co-op

An opinion piece by Paul Whitby, Managing Director/Principal Ecologist

(Paul Whitby)
(Paul Whitby)

I consider myself incredibly fortunate to work as an ecologist. I get a balance between working in an office with a wonderful team and working in the great outdoors observing nature in a role that so many people would dream of. My passion for wildlife is constantly nourished in a job that is dynamic, including working on projects that are wide ranging and varied, from development impact assessments to biodiversity change monitoring, surveying old National Trust properties and squeezing the best out of a small plot of London greenspace. Given the potential rewards from a career in ecology, it is not surprising that every year hundreds of people up and down the country try to enter the industry, with a real mix of graduates and those seeking a career change, eager to escape an entirely desk-bound career.

Pyramidal orchids (Paul Whitby)
Pyramidal orchids (Paul Whitby)

Whilst the industry has undoubtedly been growing year on year, with the Chartered Institute for Ecology and Environmental Management (CIEEM) now enjoying a membership of more than 5000 ecologists, every year there is disappointment. For many years the number of job seekers has far outnumbered positions available and, unfortunately, over the past 20 years this desperation by some to get their foot in the door and start a career in ecology has led to exploitation by some employers.

Perhaps it happened slowly, with an industry that is relatively young and developed in the 90’s in a time before working conditions improved and before legislation such as the Working Time Regulations 1998 was introduced. Perhaps senior ecologists who recall undertaking back-to-back dusk and dawn bat surveys each week in the summer when they were assistants now view long working hours and low pay as a ‘right of passage’ that all ecologists just have to deal with. I don’t personally think there is a simple single root of the problem, rather there are several ingredients that have contributed to the current situation.

There are some pressures that are not the fault of individual consultancies acting out of greed. Whilst the industry has been growing to keep up with demand, there has been problems of negative competition, created in part by a sharp rise in independent ecologists who have much lower overheads than consultancies and some who have been willing to cut corners, producing sub-standard work to gain a competitive advantage.

Team acid grassland botanical training through the Species Recovery Trust at Stedham Common (Paul Whitby)
Team acid grassland botanical training through the Species Recovery Trust at Stedham Common (Paul Whitby)

Pressures on costs are further exacerbated by the attitude of a range of clients. The chargeable rate by ecologists on smaller development projects has never been as high as our contemporaries in traffic assessment, arboriculture and landscape architecture. This is in part due to a low value attributed to the work ecologists produce (ever heard “you’re just counting newts aren’t you?”), but perhaps also it is because whilst charge-out rates by ecologists are lower, the labour-intensive nature of repeated site visits to survey bats, dormice and reptiles (etc.) means that the ‘final bill’ is frequently much higher than for other disciplines and sometimes that is all a client is looking at.

So where does this leave us? In the last six months I have taken part in two employers group meetings with CIEEM to discuss the identified issues of exploitation within the industry. Some have voiced anger at CIEEM for not ‘stepping in’ in a greater capacity, but this misses the obvious issue of how a body set up to improve training and professional standards is supposed to enforce or monitor the treatment of ecologists – it is not a union. Perhaps there is the will out there to create a union for ecologists and considering the size of the profession (several thousand strong), there is a clear scope to do this. A quick Google search tells me that there are 90 unions in the UK with memberships below 5000 and as an employer I would be very happy to see the formation of a body that better protects workers’ rights and improves salaries. Better salaries perhaps will require more companies to increase their charge-out rates and of course ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’.

Perhaps collectively we need to do more to improve the perceived value of protecting protected species and enhancing biodiversity. The relationship we have with clients needs to be a positive one. Whenever I find a bat behind a hanging tile or in someone’s loft, I encourage the homeowner to take a look for themselves and I will tell them some interesting facts about bats (the stat on how many midges a pipistrelle bat can eat in a single night always goes down really well!). Sometimes it feels futile and all too often the disregard for wildlife by some can really weigh heavy, but every positive impression will make a difference. Certainly in a wider public sphere, this is where CIEEM will need to help and perhaps up their game.

Sedge warbler (Paul Whitby)
Sedge warbler (Paul Whitby)

These are wider issues however that cannot fix the problem for anyone starting employment this year. For now I’ll have to settle for setting out some guidance to those looking for their first job in ecology. Hopefully in helping you to identify a good or bad employer, your first step will be the right one:

  • How long is the contract offer for? If it is less than 6 months, your employment may be project-specific and lack diversity. Ask lots of questions about the role and what you will learn. If they want to send you to the Isle of Sheppy for nine weeks to work on a reptile translocation, it might initially sound like fun, but it is not likely to help very much with your development as an ecologist.
  • Check what training is offered in the role. Any employer looking to develop their team will focus on providing lots of training to help your development and increase the range of work you can undertake. An employer who is only after another person to make up the numbers during the ‘busy season’ is less likely to invest in your development. Ask what training budget they provide and how much ‘work shadowing’ and in-house training is offered.
  • If you are being asked to use your own car for site visits, accept nothing less than £0.45 per mile. This is the charge your employer is making to the client for fuel and vehicle maintenance costs, so there is no justifiable reason for them to pay less.
  • Check carefully what the contracted hours are and what your rights are to holiday and sick pay. Are the contracted hours excessive and is the notice period for holiday unreasonable. Are there any measures taken by the employer to monitor fatigue or mental health?
  • Size does not matter! Each year graduates flood to larger consultancies looking for a foot in the door working for a large consultancy, but all too often this can be a disappointing experience. Within a large crowd of assistant ecologists, sometimes with few senior ecologists providing regular support, the environment can become competitive and opportunities for a diversity of experiences can be limited. Do not rule out working for a small consultancy (or even just one other person), where you will be able to learn a lot from the greater time spent working closely with someone experienced.
  • Don’t compromise on pay or your overtime. Every hour you work MUST be paid for, including you time travelling to and from a site. A major gripe I have heard time and again is the expectation that has persisted in some dark corners of the industry for people to work for free. Your time is valuable, even if you are just thrilled to be looking at a serotine bat in the hand or mapping a dune system for the first time. Sadly wages at an entry level remain very poor (for reasons I have set out above), but shop around and don’t accept the minimum wage.


I hope that in the near future all early career ecologists will consider themselves incredibly fortunate. What a wonderful career this is under the right conditions!

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Posted On: 18/02/2022

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