Working in conservation and environment: Employee case study

Becky May describes her job as an ecologist for Warwickshire County Council.

What is your role?

I deal with planning applications to look at the ecological impacts. This is legislation-driven as there are protected species of animals and plants.

I also carry out project work in the field, assessing ecological impact and carrying out surveys on habitat and wildlife. This could involve handling animals such as bats or great crested newts, and you need a handling licence to disturb or handle these protected creatures.

The final part of my job is working with the county biological records, which date back to the 19th century. This archive has records of animals, birds and plant sightings, which may be used in planning applications or used by the public for research.

What do you like about your job?

I like the project side, which means getting out and putting my wellies on. If it is botany, that is great as it’s my specialism.

I love the variety of the job and also the knowledge that I am helping to protect wildlife and the environment. It is also good to work with a team of dedicated and like-minded colleagues.

What’s not so great about it?

The planning side of the work can be stressful, as I may have to justify a planning decision to developers or members of the public. In future, there may be the need for me to attend a public enquiry or appeal about a planning project which could be difficult.

I prefer the summers, as there is more fieldwork. In the winter you can be deskbound for 90 per cent of the time.

How did you get to where you are?

I started off with a general geography degree from Cambridge University. I knew that I wanted some sort of work in the environment and the outdoors but also enjoyed the writing side. I did have some relevant experience, including working for the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (now known as The Conservation Volunteers) and the National Trust, and I applied for some jobs but was unsuccessful.

I ended up going into educational publishing, first as an assistant editor and working my way up to commissioning editor. Although I enjoyed the work and it gave me useful skills, I still wanted to do something with conservation, so I started volunteering with the RSPB in the Lake District where I was living.

I then found out about LEMUR (Learning Environments in Marine, Urban & Rural areas). LEMUR offers funded placements to teach skills shortages in conservation such as in a species identification, wildlife habitat survey and habitat management. I had to give up my well-paid publishing job but it was worth it to learn the technical skills in surveying and species identification which would help me to get a job in conservation.

My placement was as a trainee ecological assistant with Warwickshire County Council and they kept me on after my placement. I then worked my way up to the job of ecologist. I have since worked for an ecological consultancy in the Southampton area and then for the Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management, running their training courses.

I enjoyed both jobs, but for personal reasons returned to Warwickshire County Council as an ecologist, although on a short-term contract. I have gained useful knowledge and skills from every job that I have had.

What do you want to do next?

I would love to do writing about conservation and the environment or work for a wildlife trust in a conservation role.

It would be great to combine this with freelance ecology work. My job is currently reactive rather than proactive and as a freelancer I would have more control over my work.

What advice would you give young people thinking of doing your job in the future?

Don’t underestimate the importance of practical conservation skills such as surveying and identification. You may not gain these on a degree course. My LEMUR course gave me these skills and useful contacts.

People in conservation are approachable, so you can always ask for advice, and networking is very important as many jobs are not advertised. It is worth approaching employers with a CV and tailored covering letter. Make sure you time your application before the summer survey season starts. It can be a good way to get useful experience as consultancies always need extra pairs of hands in the summer.

Conservation jobs are not generally well-paid but offer job satisfaction.

Becky May

Becky May, ecologist, Warwickshire County Council

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