Value and vocation: the current state of pay and prospects in conservation

Logo: Initiative for Nature Conservation Cymru

Lizzie Wilberforce, Initiative for Nature Conservation Cymru

Three people sitting on a doorstep looking up at the camera smiling
Not everyone can afford to do the volunteering necessary to break into a career. The author (left, on Skomer in the 1990s) was fortunate to have a family able to support her in volunteering work as a teenager (Lizzie Wilberforce)

If I had a penny for every time I heard someone say, “I didn’t go into conservation for the money” - well, I might not be rich, but I’d be curating a nest egg.

I’ve had the good fortune to work in our professional conservation sector for a little over twenty years now. It really is a privilege: we can act for principles we believe in, work with passionate colleagues, and go home at the end of the day (normally) feeling that we have made a difference.

However, both within our sector and without, there is a perception - perhaps an assumption - that this privilege is synonymous with low pay. More people want to work in conservation than there are jobs. Employers are often cash-strapped, and employees love what they do. At its worst, this can be a recipe for creating and tolerating a culture of low pay.

What do conservation salaries look like in 2024?

Three years ago, I found myself gathering data for the Welsh magazine Natur Cymru, to write an article documenting this very issue. Today, with a cost-of-living crisis upon us, and a general sense that our sector is getting a raw deal under this latest round of financial pressures, the time felt right to re-visit the question. Replicating my 2021 methods, I looked at 300 job postings on three of the most prominent conservation vacancy websites (the most substantial of which was CJS itself), cataloguing all the jobs advertised over a two-week period in early 2024.

Group of people in a field with a man pushing a wheelbarrow
Site ranger and warden posts remain relatively poorly paid, compared to other officer level roles (Lizzie Wilberforce)

The majority of jobs advertised were in the voluntary sector (185, 65%), followed by public (70, 24%) and then private (33, 11%). Interestingly, 12 of the 300 didn’t advertise their salary offer at all – an approach most common in the private sector.

I then looked at available salary data, concentrating only on officer-level posts. These could be considered career entry positions, but they also represent the bulk of the conservation work force, with many people holding such positions for the majority of their careers.


2021 salary (£)

2024 salary (£)

Increase (%)



26,528 (n=137)




29,014 (n=29)




32,025 (n=46)


A man clipping a ring onto a small bird's leg
Specialist skills aren't a guarantee of good pay. Even short-term seasonal contracts on low pay can have very high skills and experience expectations, such as bird ringing licences (Lizzie Wilberforce)

The average officer salary across all posts was £28,171. Unsurprisingly, one can expect to earn less in the voluntary sector than the private and public sectors. That hasn’t changed; the voluntary sector is generally the least well resourced. Interestingly though, voluntary and private sector jobs are currently gaining on the public sector, where pay has stagnated over the recent years of austerity.

How do salaries vary with the type of job advertised? It is hard to group conservation jobs, as there is so much overlap in roles and responsibilities, but based on a crude categorisation, the most commonly advertised roles were in technical functions (field ecologists and data managers), land management, public engagement, and the very diverse roles described as ‘site ranger’ / ‘warden’.

Average salaries for these four categories were between £24,224 and £28,652. Site rangers and wardens scored worst, with an average salary of only £24,244. This doesn’t compare that favourably with the National Living Wage for 2024-25, which for over 21s equates to £22,011 (assuming a 37 hour contract). Considering that such posts often ask for a degree or equivalent, as well as voluntary experience and vocational certificates such as chainsaw and brushcutter use, or ringing licences and other technical skills, this surely under-values the recruits.

Role type (officer level)

No. advertised

Mean officer level salary (£)

Technical (ecologist, data)



Land management



Engagement / education



Ranger / warden



Terms and conditions

The roles were also examined for their contract conditions. Notably, almost half of the officer posts advertised were fixed-term (50.5%). In 2021, this was only 37%. This may include a seasonal effect (my 2024 data were collected during the prime period for advertising summer contracts) but regardless, this is a huge proportion of the workforce facing precarity in their employment.

A more positive change has been that of the 300 jobs assessed, this year, 33 could be categorised as living wage (rather than voluntary) fixed-term traineeships or internships - a category that did not feature in 2021.

How does conservation compare to other sectors?

It’s hard to get reliable graduate salary data, but according to High Fliers Research limited(1), last year the median graduate starting salary at the UK’s leading graduate employers was expected to be £33,500. Taking a wider view across more employers, estimated 2023 graduate starting salaries to average £25,856(2).

A man standing in tall grass by a lake taking notes
Technical roles such as ecologists and data officers were amongst the higher paid of the officer level posts advertised (Lizzie Wilberforce)

This suggests that conservation may not be at such a disadvantage as it used to be. Ranger/warden and seasonal posts continue to be under-valued, but if you secure a full-time and permanent officer post in your early career, you may not be too far off your non-conservation peers. This is a positive change.

The problem, however, lies in the ‘if’. We know that these jobs are hard to secure, as early career applicants are normally in competition with others who already have many years of employment under their belt. This is driven partly by the abundance of fixed-term contracts in the market, throwing mid-career staff back into the same recruitment pool. They are not just entry level jobs.

This then fuels the need for early career applicants to gain voluntary experience and self-fund training, or to accept years on seasonal, short-term or part-time contracts before they get their first ‘break’ into full employment.

Why does it matter?

The consequence of these challenges is that entry-level applicants often face, in the words of one journalist, “serial unpaid internships, crippling student debt, short-term work for little or no pay, dismissive attitudes, and entry-level job requirements that include expectation of considerable field time and experience”(3).

This can have massive consequence for individuals who are young or seeking to change careers, and who can find themselves trapped in an annual rotation of seasonal contracts, unable to get a mortgage, and unwilling to risk other life choices they might wish to make, like starting a family.

However, it also ripples out to affect our whole sector, because it imposes a socio-economic filter on those who can afford to enter conservation. People with families who are able to help - supporting them to do voluntary work, with personal transport, and self-funded training, are much more likely to succeed. Whilst anecdotal evidence, it is a story I see and hear replicated over and over again. Indeed, my own career was helped by the ability and willingness of my family to support me whilst I gained voluntary experience as a young adult. It is probably a contributing factor to the depressing statistic that environmental professions are the second least diverse in the UK after farming(4). Our lack of diversity erodes our collective capacity to bring people with us in the way that we must, if we are to halt the loss of nature in the UK.

Where do we go from here?

Group of protestors with picket signs
In a field where people care passionately about their work and commit to those principles beyond their employment, there is always a risk that a culture of low pay will be tolerated (Lizzie Wilberforce)

I introduced this article by quoting that “we don’t go into conservation for the money”. Whilst salaries may be better than they were, money still isn’t most conservationists’ primary motive. Which brings me to another commonly heard piece of received wisdom, that “if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys”. However, in conservation - and probably other vocations - the opposite is true. You will necessarily exclude people if you pay “peanuts”, but you will still get brilliant people prepared to do a brilliant job, and outcome will be in spite of you, not because of you. We need to make sure the unscrupulous do not take advantage of this, and reward, promote, and encourage those who are investing in more inclusive recruitment.

Fortunately, there are great things happening. Conservation is a relatively young sector, and it is in the process of professionalising. We have some way still to go before we can hold our own against the other sectors we often work with closely, such as education, and civil engineering. However, we continue to attract some of the UK’s brightest, most passionate, and dedicated career entrants.

Salaries are gradually improving, and there are a more diverse job opportunities available. Perhaps most importantly, more people are offering paid internships and routes into a career that do not require self-funding. This starts to address our biggest challenge today – creating system change that allows conservation to recruit on merit, and to remove the embedded bias that favours those with personal means.

Fortunately, more and more people are talking about the risks to the profession that poor terms and conditions present, and how employers can address them. We just need to keep heading in the right direction: with the unprecedented twin climate and nature crises, we have never needed that secure, diverse and ambitious workforce more.


  1. High Fliers Research Limited (2023) The Graduates Market in 2023. Available online.
  2. accessed 30-01-24
  3. Hance, J. (17/08/21). All work, no pay: the plight of young conservationists. The Guardian.
  4. Norrie, R. (2017). The two sides of diversity - which are the most ethnically diverse occupations? Policy Exchange.

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Posted On: 26/02/2024

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