Many young people who are looking for a nature-focussed career are more than aware of the potential career paths out there: ranger/reserve manager, tour guide, research, working within a charity, photography… I could go on. However, there’s one potential career path that I don’t see many young people pursuing, and that is ecological consultancy.
I was fortunate enough to be recognised as being capable of carrying out basic bird surveys by an ecological consultant a couple of years ago and have been continuing to carry out surveys across Scotland ever since. My first experience of surveying was probably what helped me get into it, as I was surveying birds and mammals on a large estate in north-west Scotland, frequented by golden eagles, dotterel, azure hawkers, water voles and many other exciting and enigmatic species.
Since then I’ve travelled just about the length and breadth of Scotland carrying out surveys for birds, mammals, butterflies and plants, and also more specialised surveys such as herbivore impact assessments and peatland surveys. Through these surveys I’ve been able to see some spectacular wildlife, whether during surveys or on wee excursions while on the way to or from a site.
So how can you get into ecological consultancy work?
One of the main factors that led to me being employed for this work was my field skills. I’ve worked hard to develop my field identification skills across a range of taxon: birds, bees, butterflies, botany… I’ve gone for the more generalist route, but being a specialist is equally valuable. Once you’ve developed your field skills, you need to be able to demonstrate your ability to any future employers. Twitter has been good to me in this respect as it’s been a platform for me to share what I see whilst out and about, but getting certificates or taking courses (and then building on what you learn on those courses) are a couple of ways to clarify to a potential employer exactly what you’re capable of. My time working on a national nature reserve no doubt helped as well; any experience of working in the outdoors is useful!
Field skills don’t only mean identification though. The majority of places I’ve ended up working have been remote, rough and really cool, but don’t let “really cool” distract from the fact that these places require an individual to be able to work safely and deal with situations as they arise. Navigation, first aid and being fit enough to get up and down a few hills (along with the ability to judge the ever-changeable weather) are all important for a surveyor whether near cliff edges, dodging bog pools, or traversing rocky terrain.
Ecological surveying isn’t for everyone but, even if it isn’t where you see yourself in however many years, it can be a good line of work to get into whilst you find your feet. I’ve managed to fit jobs here and there around my studies quite easily, besides, most work is during the summer when the birds are breeding, flowers are blooming and the weather is a tad better.
So, develop your field skills, get recognised and find an employer who needs someone to get out there and carry out some surveys. As with any job it’s not easy but with enough determination and commitment you could be watching wildlife in places many people never get to visit.
Gus is studying for a Countryside Management BSc at Scotland's Rural College outside Aberdeen, but spends much of his time all over Scotland as an ecological consultant. He spends his spare time seeking out birds, plants, insects, mammals - whatever takes his fancy. You can find him on Twitter at @PinkfootedGus.