The world of conservation can be a daunting thing to tackle. It’s an industry that many people are keen to work in; that is to say, it’s a competitive industry. That is not to say, however, that it is an industry to be afraid of. Just knowing that there are young people out there who want to move into the world of nature conservation makes me very happy indeed. Happy because it means we are still connecting with nature, and happy because at the moment, nature needs all the help it can get.
Addressing the first point, connection with nature: in 2013 the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) undertook a piece of research that showed only 21% of 8-12 year olds felt a meaningful connection to nature. If you’re 15 now, that means you could have been in this age group. 21%. About than 1 in 5. To me, that’s quite scary. This is why I’m happy to hear that young people are keen to move into conservation.
Addressing the second point, nature needing all the help it can get, we only need look at the State of Nature report. This remarkable piece of work, the result of over 50 conservation bodies pooling their research, sadly makes for grim reading. The report was updated in 2016, and now shows that 56% of UK species have declined in numbers since the 1970s. Not only that, but 15% of them are threatened with imminent extinction! If we don’t take serious action, we could loose the hedgehog in 10 years. This is why I’m really glad to see the next generation stepping up.
However, I opened by saying this is a competitive industry. So how do you ensure that you are noticed, and that you are the ones getting the jobs? To answer, I’ll give you a bit of background on myself.
I’m currently a trainee with Somerset Wildlife Trust (SWT). That means I’m on the first stepping stone of my conservation career. And it’s a stepping stone I took a long time to get to. I’m 30 now, which must seem an age away to you guys. The reason this has taken me so long is because at your age, I didn’t know what to do with my life. I’ve been interested in the natural world since I was old enough to wave a plastic dinosaur in the air, but when it came to it I became an engineer. However, when I read the statistics I mention above, I realised I needed to take responsibility. There’s a phrase: ‘be the change you want to see’. I realised that if I wanted the things I cared about to survive for the future to enjoy, I needed to take action. I needed to change my life to go and help. So, I arrived at the situation you guys are in now. As yet, no formal qualifications, but a burning desire to make the natural world my life’s work.
It’s at this point I can share my experience with you. In my view, there are three things that are absolutely vital to successfully pursuing a conservation career. These are:
Enthusiasm, Dedication, Expereince
These factors do, of course, play a part in building any career, but in conservation, they are absolutely critical. Let’s look at each, and what makes a good conservationist.
Anyone thinking of a career in conservation will already have an enthusiasm for the natural world. It’s what you can feel inside driving you. It’s why you find the natural world so interesting. It’s really important not to let go of that. Drive yourself to learn new things, constantly question what you see, and really tap into that desire to learn. This begins by getting out and enjoying nature. Spend time observing plants and animals, ask yourself why they are doing what they’re doing, then go and find the answers. It’s also a good thing to keep up to date with what’s happening in the world of conservation. A great way to do this is through social media. Follow conservation groups like the Wildlife Trusts and RSPB on Facebook and Twitter. Keep an eye on what they’re talking about. You’ll soon find links to all sorts of fascinating articles and to other conservation groups. This will all help you broaden your knowledge and help you pinpoint what really fascinates you.
This is where things get serious! Knowledge and enthusiasm are great, but what employers will be looking for is evidence of you taking and applying that knowledge. The best way to do this is through volunteer work. Until you turn 18, you cannot volunteer alone with the Somerset Wildlife Trust; you need to ensure you have an adult with you. This means it’s a good opportunity to get others involved who can accompany you. Maybe make it a family activity! At the moment, I work on reserves all week, and still volunteer at weekends! I will admit mine is an extreme case, but employers look really favourably on this. If you can show that you care enough about nature to give up your free time to help look after it, they’ll be really impressed. You’ll likely meet some of the people who would be looking to employ you in the future too, which is no bad thing. Loads of conservation groups offer volunteering opportunities. Have a look around to see what’s on offer. You can start with SWT; they’ve got loads of opportunities all over Somerset.
This is an extension of dedication, but with one crucial difference; it shows you what to expect. Conservation is a huge subject, and there are many jobs involved in making a conservation group run smoothly. By volunteering, you can decide which aspect of the field suits you best. My role, for example, is about practical habitat management on nature reserves. This may be cutting down patches of bramble, coppicing trees, or simply cutting access routes. You can gain experience of this by attending practical work parties. Maybe species monitoring is more your thing? If so, you could volunteer on surveys, looking at birds, butterflies, otters, dormice, flowers, all sorts of things. Maybe you’re interested in helping by raising awareness of the issues wildlife faces? In this case you could volunteer at fundraising events. In my case, I’ve dabbled in all of these, as it’s only by doing this that you realise what you truly want to do.
All of this adds up to evidence. And in the end, that’s what’s important. There will come a time, daunting as it seems, when you will be sat in front of an interview panel, telling them why you are the best person to do your dream job. And if you can say to that panel ‘I have experience in X, Y and Z’, that’s how you demonstrate to them that you are.
So to each and every one of you looking to build a career in conservation, I wish you the very best of luck. Remember to incubate that enthusiasm for the subject, and always look to learn new skills, meet new people, and gain more wildlife experiences. The more time you invest in nature, the more invested you’ll become, and the greater that drive to help preserve what you love. It is through the actions of people like you that we can ensure the next generation see what we can see today. To me, if we ever find ourselves living in a country where we can’t find an unexpected hedgehog, a country where the Turtle Dove only exists in a Christmas song, a country where those 15% of species no longer exist, that will be a sad day indeed. I’m really glad to hear you’re keen to help us stop that day arriving.
There’s a lot of work involved to break into conservation, but it’s enjoyable work. My advice is to get out there, and enjoy this wonderful and constantly surprising world that we live in!
Best of luck!
Phil Bruss, Wildlife Skills Trainee