Volunteering as a route into conservation work Case Study - Lesley Silvera, Groundwork NE & Cumbria

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Lesley Silvera has had an interesting, 30+-year career in conservation gained from working in many roles and organisations across the UK before joining Groundwork NE & Cumbria in 2015. Lesley has worked on some of Groundwork’s most high-profile conservation projects including the current Wansbeck project, one of only six in the UK to receive funding from Natural England to trial ways to capture carbon and mitigate the impacts of climate change.

Lesley gives her advice and insight to those considering a career in conservation.

Picture of Lesley Silvera
Lesley Silvera (Groundwork NE & Cumbria)

After studying Geography at University, I knew that I wanted to work in conservation.

After graduating, the only job I could get in the Yorkshire Dales area was as an auxiliary nurse in a local hospital for patients with Dementia and Alzheimer’s. The job was gruelling, but it was a means to an end because it allowed me to volunteer at the National Park in my spare time.

I then applied to join a British Trust for Conservation Volunteers, BTCV (now the Trust for Conservation Volunteers, TCV) conservation initiative in Northumberland and worked on a woodland project for a week. In those days you had to pay to volunteer on conservation projects to cover the cost of your board and lodgings while out in the field. The hospital job in Yorkshire gave me the funds to pay my way and do what I loved whilst gaining much-needed practical experience. It paid off, as I eventually got a job working for the Yorkshire Dales National Park.

Early in my career, I was given a piece of advice that is still relevant and resonates today, that although qualifications are important, it is by volunteering that you demonstrate your commitment and interest in a career. For many organisations, choosing the ‘successful candidate’ at an interview is as much about the person with the right attitude as the one with an impressive academic CV.

When I got my first ‘career’ job, I continued to learn and expand my knowledge by investing in my personal development. To strengthen my practical biological knowledge, I signed up for a Diploma in Field Biology from London University. As part of the course, I attended two, two-week placements at a field study centre where I learnt practical skills in biological monitoring. It was a heavy-weight course with handwritten, in-person exams but it was brilliant in enhancing my skill set and setting me up for other jobs and projects throughout my career.

I believe in lifelong learning and would encourage everyone to do the same. There are a myriad of courses available, many are free and available online, and some have field trips that provide hands-on experience.

I recognise that I have been extremely lucky in my career. For example, I won a Winston Churchill Travel award which took me across Canada for six weeks studying working practice in eight different National Parks.

A stoned up river crossing leading into a farm
Stoned up river crossing and drinking bays at Fairnley Farm to protect water quality (Groundwork NE & Cumbria)

It is questionable whether it is easier, or harder to get into conservation today but I think it’s important to invest in yourself. Critically examine your CV, identify gaps in your knowledge and experience and work out how to plug them. If you are attracted to a particular area of conservation work find out the best route into particular roles – research the employment options and the values and ethos of the organisations offering jobs. Sign up for job and volunteer alerts such as CJS and expand your horizons.

I appreciate that rural living is expensive, and transport can be difficult and costly. There are no easy solutions to this, but some organisations do offer a pool vehicle for work use with others offering accommodation for long-term volunteers. The key is to explore job and volunteering opportunities and then work out the logistics. Be prepared to travel around the UK and further afield, and at the start of your career be prepared to work on temporary contracts. It can be lonely at times to keep making new starts in new places, but it is a great way to meet people, learn new skills and explore new landscapes.

A colleague at work once advised me to work at building and maintaining relationships with people I met along the way. Conservation is a very inter-connected industry and it is important to foster good relationships with colleagues on projects as your paths may cross again during your career. Treat colleagues as friends and nurture these relationships in the same way.

Since joining Groundwork my work has not been one continuous project. Groundwork, like many charitable organisations, has to find funding for each of its projects separately and the funding cycle can be intense. As well as developing new projects, the team needs to find funding, deliver existing projects, get community buy-in, as well as doing the evaluation. Halfway through the delivery of one project, you have to start looking for funding and backing to do the next one. Funding systems can also be very competitive and stressful and the work itself very challenging -but it is worthwhile when we make improvements to rivers, waterways and the countryside.

Another challenge is sharing project news and updates with stakeholder groups especially when it involves unwelcome news about landscape changes. I have had to develop diplomacy skills to deal with the criticism we sometimes encounter while at meetings. Not everyone is receptive to conservation measures and the changes that they bring to landscapes.

The best advice I would give to someone interested in project work is to keep interested, active and informed and have some fun along the way.

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First published in CJS Focus on Conservation Support Services on 16 October 2023. Read the full issue here


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Posted On: 12/10/2023

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