When I first started my career in ecology at the end of 1990, I could not have imagined the variety of work I would be involved with over the next 10 years or so. I finished my degree in geography at Kingston in 1989 and had decided some time before that I wanted to pursue a career in the environmental field. I had always had an interest in biological sciences but also in the wider landscape and countryside and the processes which form it. My degree covered many aspects of physical geography, glaciation, and ecology and therefore provided me with an ideal opportunity to pursue all my main interests.
It took about a year to get my break in ecology, but eventually I landed a job working for a Local Authority as a field ecologist in West Yorkshire. This was purely by chance, and good fortune. All the employers that had previously attracted my attention were looking for people with 3 years of experience or were so low paid as not to cover my rent for the year! I was living in London at the time and decided to look further afield. I subscribed to the Yorkshire Post and in the second week of subscription the job of Field Ecologist was advertised, which required a degree in an environmental subject but didn't ask for experience. Ideal! It was only a 1-year contract, but I was willing to move and give it a chance. Clearly it worked out as I stayed for 7 years.
Some of my current colleagues have had to work harder to get a foothold. One of our staff originally applied as an administrative assistant but stressed at the interview that she hoped to move into environmental work if the opportunity arose. It did, and she is now fully employed on ecological and environmental impact assessment work and has been for the last 3 years. Two others wrote about 50 letters to prospective employers in their final year and I was the only one who responded! In these cases the CV's attracted me as they covered the main areas of our work on their degree course and we were looking for staff at that time. This required a great deal of determination, a certain amount of luck and a willingness to learn on their part.
During the 7 years I worked at the Local Authority, I gained a valuable grounding in field ecology through a variety of projects. I undertook a large-scale habitat survey of Calderdale District, surveyed a large proportion of Yorkshire Water's landholding, including much of the South Pennine Uplands, and spent three very enjoyable summers surveying woodlands and mire habitats in the North York Moors National Park. Throughout this time I gained good botanical identification skills as well as a good knowledge of birds, mammals, butterflies, amphibians, and dragonflies. The teaching of field identification skills at universities is, to my mind, sadly lacking and there is no substitute for learning on the job.
An additional benefit of the time that I spent working for the Local Authority was that it allowed me to develop my project management skills, skills which helped me land my current job. Bullen Consultants is a multidisciplinary consultancy, established initially in Civil Engineering but now much more diverse. I was recruited in 1998 to help expand their environmental business, which is now as much a core aspect of the company as is engineering. I now manage a team of eight environmental scientists and one archaeologist at the Bradford office.
Our environmental staff range from ecologists, landscape architects, and archaeologists, to contaminated land specialists, landfill designers, and environmental auditors--and they have such diverse educational backgrounds as geography, geology, plant science, and general environmental science degrees. The one common factor between us all is a strong personal interest in the natural environment.
If you choose a career in the environmental field, and in particular ecology, you are unlikely to ever worry about the lack of variety in your work. Whilst you may be asked to carry out similar survey methodologies over and over again, the variety is supplied by the different sites you visit. Each site offers a unique range of habitats and species that present different challenges for management, protection, and often development. Further variety can be ensured by increasing your range of skills. Many people stick to their favourite areas, such as ornithology or botany, and spend their careers carrying out habitat surveys or breeding bird surveys, for example. But the more skills you have, the more appealing you are likely to be to prospective employers.
This is certainly the case in the private sector, where you are likely to get a greater range of experience than you would working for an organisation such as a Local Authority or Wildlife Trust, both professionally and geographically speaking. Opportunities do exist in the public sector to move around, but these are still relatively limited compared with the private sector, where the need for flexibility and adaptability is at its most intense.
At Bullen, our current range of work includes: undertaking a detailed botanical survey of the majority of Sites of Special Scientific Interest in West and South Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire; undertaking walkover ecological surveys and desktop data searches of proposed pipeline works for water companies; and producing environmental assessments for road and flood alleviation works, linking with the design engineers to ensure that the engineering designs are environmentally acceptable.
This forms the majority of the day-to-day work, but over the past couple of years our workload has started to diversify. We are currently working closely with our computational modelling group to identify the optimal flow regimes for tributaries of a river in Cumbria. The flow in the tributaries is greatly affected by a long-standing abstraction (the taking of water from the streams for domestic and industrial use) and now the Environment Agency are keen to reinstate a more natural flow regime to encourage salmon spawning, for which the river was once one of the most important in England. This work relies on the expertise of the computational modellers to identify existing flow regimes, who then link with the environmental staff to identify how much more flow would be required to increase the habitat areas.
This is a very scientific piece of work and one that could have real long-term benefits for conservation. It has been a very enjoyable job for all those involved, but in the main our projects are very much more practical. For instance, we are currently assisting the Highways Agency with all the environmental aspects of the proposed A1 motorway extension in West and North Yorkshire. This is a £300 million scheme that involves the construction of 14 km of new road. The road will pass close to a Scheduled Ancient Monument and therefore we are currently organising an extensive archaeological investigation aimed at providing a greater understanding of the archaeology of the area.
In the majority of projects we undertake, the main output is a scientific report. Often this is the only document that our client would see, and therefore it is extremely important as it acts as our 'shop window'. We may have undertaken the most important piece of ecological research or survey work, or produced some of the most innovative mitigation measures for development schemes, but if this is not conveyed clearly, or the report is badly written or laid out, then this is what the client will remember. We put a great deal of emphasis, therefore, on report writing and presentation, and these skills must be developed quickly by new recruits.
I hope this gives some pointers as to the type of work that might be undertaken and the skills that are required by those aspiring to a career in environmental assessment. Most firms accept that new graduates will require training in field skills and, provided that you are willing to put the time in yourself, the rewards are well worth the effort. Whilst you may never become rich from a career in the environmental field, I have not come across many ecologists or environmental scientists who do not enjoy coming to work. We look forward to the start of the field season because we are never sure just what is around the corner.