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From delivering post to translocating lynx

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By Michael Willett

Michael Willet roasting some meat over a small campfire
Me roasting some meat over a small fire to eat my lunch in a forest clearing in the Carpathian Mountains (Michael Willett)

Around 15 years ago I was a postman; a very happy postman, because the job (specifically the hours) allowed me to pursue my hobby of being outdoors enjoying nature and wildlife. This all changed one day up on High Street, a Roman mountain pass, in the Lake District, where I was looking for the last golden eagle in England. The heavens opened. Pretty much all the towns and villages were flooded. All the footpaths and tracks down the hill became raging streams. I lost my footing and slipped. I didn’t fall to the ground. I merely jolted. It immediately felt like someone had hit me on the back of the neck with a baseball bat.

Fast-forward 12 months and I’d had major surgery on a slipped disc, and I was medically retired from my job. My doctor told me that I should never undertake physical work again. I wasn’t going to take this lying down (pardon the pun) and I slowly began to get myself back on my feet (pardon the pun x2). I began to volunteer with the RSPB as a Date with Nature Assistant under a peregrine falcon nest on the edge of the Peak District. Not long after a job was advertised with them that I enquired about. I was told that I had no chance without a relevant degree. I googled ‘wildlife degree’ and to my amazement the University of Salford offered a degree in Wildlife and Practical Conservation. I applied and was offered a place on an Environmental Sciences foundation degree, at the same university. It was quite daunting. I’d been out of education and working as a landscape gardener, and then a postman, for over 15 years, but I took to it like a duck to water. I loved it, and I gave it my all. I wasn’t going to waste this chance. Twelve months later I was enrolling into the first year of the wildlife degree. I also began volunteering with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust on the Chat Moss peatland restoration project, which was on my doorstep, compared to the long journey to the Peak District. Volunteering helped me immensely. It allowed me practical experience and examples of what I was learning in lectures. Things like pioneer species and succession. During the summer breaks I was lucky enough to be accepted for long term volunteer positions, again with the RPSB at Mersehead and with Trees for Life, in the Scottish Highlands, who I’d read about in George Monbiot’s book on rewilding ‘Feral’. As with my degree, I gave it 100%. I found I got just as much out of these roles as I put in. Over the three years of my degree, I volunteered to write for a natural sciences publication called Biosphere where I was lucky enough to interview my ‘heroes’ such as the aforementioned George Monbiot and Chris Packham.

Michael constructing a lynx box trap in Romania
Constructing a lynx box trap at an abandoned and derelict cabin in the Romanian Carpathians (Michael Willett)

During this time, I became interested in European carnivores, especially cats such as lynx and wildcat. With one eye on this I chose to research the biology, behaviour and ecology of feral cats for my dissertation. I studied a large colony not far from my house, and even undertook a trap, neuter, vaccinate and release programme on them, funded by Cat’s Protection. I graduated from my degree with 1st class honours.

Now it was time to find a job. I was sending out applications but invitations to interview were thin on the ground. I saw that the Iberian lynx breeding centre in Portugal were advertising for long term volunteers. The position came with free accommodation and a stipend for food. I was offered a 3-month position as an ethologist during the cubs reintroduction training. Again, I gave it my all.

Michael and his team with a captured lynx in Slovenia
Me and the team with the first lynx we captured “Goru” who has gone on to successfully sire at least two litters in the mountains of Slovenia (Michael Willett)

I should interject now that the wildlife conservation world, especially carnivore reintroductions and rewilding, is a small one, and I began to make contacts within the European wild cat world. The Iberian lynx job lead to me staying to work in Portugal for a further 6-months, project managing a cork oak forest restoration in the Alentejo region. Cork oak forests, or dehasas, are one of the most important habitats on the Iberian Peninsula. They support rabbits, which are a keystone species native to Iberia, which in turn support Iberian lynx and Imperial eagles, among a whole host of fauna and flora. Upon my return to England I became aware that the University of Salford were offering a new MSc wildlife conservation course which I enrolled on. My thesis was to be on the factors that influence a successful carnivore reintroduction project. This led to me meeting and speaking to the most amazing people involved in this field, such as Marianne Hartman, in Switzerland who has been breeding European wildcat for release for decades, and David Barclay, from the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, who is now head of the LIFE Scottish wildcat captive breeding for release project. David offered me a position as a (voluntary) research student with RZSS where I was tasked with analysing Snow Leopard camera trap data looking for images of Pallas’s Cats who had been photographed as a happy ‘accident’. While speaking to people, gathering data for my thesis, I began chatting with an Italian scientist working in Romania on an EU funded LIFE project called WolfLIFE. I told him he had the coolest job. In an incredible piece of luck, he told me that the project was coming to an end, but a new project was starting up called LIFE Lynx where the goal was to halt the extinction of Eurasian lynx in Slovenia and Croatia by translocating individuals was across the Carpathians, including Romania. He was leaving to undertake a PhD, so there was a position vacant. I soon found myself in a video call with Andrea (another Andrea) and TEO who were the lead field biologists in Romania. A couple of days later I was offered the job. I graduated from my masters in October, and in early January I was on a plane to Romania. I should add that in between those months I had another surgery on my neck due to another slipped disc. My scar had barely healed when I was walking through metre deep snow, in -20 temps, up and down mountainsides, snow tracking and camera trapping lynx. I had to pinch myself. This was literally my dream job. I had to pinch myself again when we caught our first lynx. A healthy male who was released in Slovenia and has gone on to sire at least two litters!

A captured lynx in a box seen through a peephole
The first lynx we captured. I was the first to peep through the hole to see if it was a lynx. We'd caught a wildcat the day before. We got a notification very early in the morning that the trap had been activated and had a steep climb in deep snow. This is the view through the peep hole (Lan Hoecvar)

Due to personal matters, after a couple of years, I returned to the UK and took up a position with Future Trees Trust as a research assistant based down in Oxford. This was an interesting job, but I didn’t feel like it was right for me, so I left and moved up to Scotland close to my parents. Then covid struck. For the two years of covid I worked on a (mostly closed and empty) holiday park near Loch Tay in Perthshire as a grounds and maintenance person. As covid restrictions began to ease I was offered (and accepted) a job as a project officer on the LIFE ‘Saving Wildcats’ project based near Aviemore in the Highlands. Sadly, this wasn’t the job I thought it would be, it didn’t feel right. I was also lonely living in the Cairngorms on my own, and the personal issues in my life were still bubbling away in the background. So, after a couple of months I left.

I set my sights on a career. The jobs I’d had previously, however exciting and cool, had paid pennies and offered little or no progression. Over a couple of weeks I applied for four ecologist positions, advertised on sites such as CJS and amazingly was offered all four! I had never been in this position in my life! All four offers were attractive in their own way. I accepted a job as an ecologist with RPS a UK wide ecological consultancy, who have offices in Edinburgh and Glasgow. I travel Scotland, north of the central belt, undertaking all manner of surveys on all manner of sites for all manner of projects. From windfarms in Caithness, to roads near Penicuick to peat restoration on Islay. I love it. I’m also being offered a whole host of training and I can see a career progression in front of me.

My route into my work has involved hard work and single mindedness. I’ve had elements of luck, but I believe I have made my own luck. I definitely don’t think I’d be where I was without volunteering. Volunteering not only cemented what I wanted to do, it helped me decide what I didn’t want to do. It helped me make contacts and open doors. There’s been huge sacrifices, especially in my personal life. It’s not been easy. It’s been tough at times but ultimately it has been worth it. I am still on my pathway into work. One day I would like to work in wildlife conservation again, or maybe do a PhD, but at the moment I am happy, very happy, as an ecologist.

Michael can be found on LinkedIn here

First published in CJS Focus on Working with Wildlife in association with The Wildlife Trusts on 17 October 2022. Read the full issue here

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Posted On: 30/09/2022

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