“Are you having a laugh?”

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Matt Harris
(Matt Harris)

An opinion piece by Matt Harris

It’s a question I find myself asking more and more frequently when searching through conservation and countryside management jobs.

Since when were PA1/6 and Tractor tickets entry level requirements to get a ranger job? When did this change happen? I’ve only been in this sector for six years and even I remember posts asking for enthusiasm, some volunteer experience and maybe a strimmer and brushcutter ticket - when did a full suite of machinery tickets, 5+ years in the sector, volunteer management experience and a BSc become the benchmark for a barely above minimum wage, entry level role?

Derbyshire County Council published an opinion piece in March stating they’ve seen a reduction in applicants for ranger/warden positions from 80 to 9-10, and even then only 1 or 2 will be of the standard to be offered an interview… May I suggest your expectations are too high? I know tons of people looking for these roles - myself included - but speaking from personal experience, I will not apply for jobs that I *know* I won’t have a shot at because the *essential* requirements are either too high for me or unrealistic for the job, salary and location.

I get it. You want the most bang for your buck. The more qualifications the applicant already has, the less you have to spend getting them up to speed. But these qualifications typically come with pay rises…

I’ve argued about the exclusionary hiring requirements of the sector for a quite a while now – as have many others - but somehow it just keeps getting worse.

Hey hiring managers - if the Essential column has more ticks than the Desired column in your job spec, you need to assess what is really essential and what is actually ideal.

Recently advertised National Nature Reserve Warden post in the West Midlands covered two NNRs, totalling over 4,000 acres of land and who even knows how many SSSIs and SACs – an amazing opportunity for any budding practical conservationist! The pay wasn’t great but you expect that at entry level - a lower salary with lower requirements, with the money going towards training and developing you, right? Right…?

For this £19,000 salaried job, the “technical/specialist knowledge/qualifications” are as follows -

  • Habitat management works including woodland, heath, grassland, wetland and parkland management.
  • Maintenance of the fabric of the reserves and buildings including stock and deer fencing, gates, stiles, signs etc. and minor building repairs.
  • Day to day responsibility for health and safety, developing and applying risk assessments and undertaking of safety inspections and record keeping.
  • Repair and maintenance of tools and equipment, and safe and efficient running of the workshops.
  • The operation of chainsaw for large trees and windblown, brush-cutter qualification, 4x4 vehicles professional qualification, tractor NPTC with various attachments including front-end loader, mower, flail and forestry winch and herbicide applicators PA1, PA2, PA6.

I’m sorry, are you having a laugh?

Pretty broad range of habitats but do-able, depending where you’re from.

Knocking up fences, gates and signs, seems alright. Stiles? Just bin ‘em. Hang a gate instead.

Stiles massively reduce access for those using mobility aids or using prams.

Risk assessments, H&S stuff, inspections and safety records - pretty straight forward.

But what’s that…?

On top of being an experienced fence, infrastructure installer and handyperson, they expect you to have your -

  • CS30 Crosscut + Maintenance
  • CS31 Felling + Processing Trees upto 380mm
  • CS32 Felling + Processing Trees from 380mm up to 760mm
  • CS33 Felling + Processing Trees above 760mm
  • CS34+35 Individual Windblown Trees and Multiple Windblown Trees
    - that’s just the chainsaw and tree part
  • Strimmer + Brushcutter - acceptable entry level ticket
  • Level 2 Award in Off Road Driving - what?!
  • Tractor Driving + Operation including front-loader - getting expensive now…
  • Individual tractor mounted mower, flail and forestry winch tickets - NPTC do mower and flail tickets. I’ve never seen a forestry winch qualification? Maybe LANTRA General Winch Theory + Practice ticket.
  • PA1 Safe Use of Pesticides
  • PA2 Tractor Mounted Pesticide Application and
  • PA6 Handheld Application of Pesticides on Land tickets.

This is a £19,000 per year job. NINETEEN THOUSAND POUNDS. Entry level pay. How is that realistic in any way whatsoever?
The opportunity to work and the privilege of working on a National Nature Reserve does not excuse this mockery. This is taking Michael to the most supreme, highest degree.

I agree that the policy makers, the project managers, the brains behind the scenes deserve to be paid well. But surely the people on the ground actually implementing the work deserve the same treatment? We’re not just monkeys with stone hammers and saws - some of us are - there’s a reason we have to do all this training.
Wildlife Trust CEOs pocket £60,000+ per year. Private sector CEOs are even higher. The Chairman of Natural England gets ~£57k p/a for 104 days per year…
Yes, the pay needs to be high to attract the best people for these roles - but what about us on the ground, 40 hours per week, in the snow and rain or blazing sun, doing the backbreaking, dangerous, highly skilled practical work? Surely you want to attract the best of us? Surely we’re worth more than sub-£24 grand per year?

A Wildlife Trust could hire 3 entry level warden positions for the price of one CEO. Just food for thought… Sorry WT CEO friends, I love you dearly really.

We shouldn’t have to work our bodies to destruction 5 days a week and then sub-contract or work in a cafe on the weekends just so we can make our rent.

We deserve better than this.

And not only is it awful for those of us currently living this nightmare, it also normalises these impractical entry requirements and the longer this practice continues, the more cemented these requirements will become.
These over-exaggerated requirements create a massive bottleneck at the entry level end of the sector - with more experienced, qualified workers sacrificing yearly pay for the security of a permanent role - It’s going to become harder and harder to encourage and introduce new blood - especially those from diverse socio-economic backgrounds - into the sector.
More and more people, myself included, are having to self-fund training just to get our applications noticed. I was lucky enough to get a grant for this, but not everyone will be that lucky. This further excludes the working classes from entering the sector.

So when we’re all too old and knackered to do the tasks anymore and resign ourselves to desks and gazing out the window daydreaming of when we were young and could feel our fingers, it’s going to leave a massive void that was never filled because no one was apparently good enough to get in in the first place.

None of us got into conservation and countryside management for the megabucks. We got into it because we’re passionate about it and because it matters. But as more and more authorities declare climate emergencies and recognise the biodiversity crisis, the importance of proper countryside management comes to the forefront - and that needs to include the hiring of more ground based entry and mid-level “do-ers” with the proviso that development and training will be provided - so the entry level roles are truly entry level with a healthy level of enthusiasm and minimal experience required and mid-level roles allow us to build on our experience and qualifications to specialize in certain aspects of conservation - and those people need to be rewarded appropriately.

I’m not asking for £40k, dental cover and a company car. I just want to be able to rent an apartment bigger than a shipping container and by myself, no housemates - I’m 34, I’m too old for house shares - the last thing I want when I get home from 8 hours hauling lengths of felled Ash in rain and mud is an argument over who didn’t set the dishwasher going.

Matt is also on Twitter at @_mattswildlife

If you want to write an article for CJS about your experiences in the conservation sector then click here to find out more about how to do it.


The Natural England Chair salary is available from the Gov website here.
£546 per day (£141,960 pro rata for a time commitment of 104 days per annum or 2 days per week) - £56,784 gross p/a.

The Wildlife Trust CEO position salaries obtained from archived job posts on both CJS and EnvironmentJob


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Posted On: 29/06/2022

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