It’s widely known that volunteering in ecology is desirable or expected, ahead of securing a first position within an ecological consultancy. As a student who spent a month last Summer volunteering with Wildwood Ecology, I wanted so share my experience, to perhaps encourage other undergraduates or A level students to consider investing time volunteering in areas of personal interest.
I’m a final year BSc Biological Sciences student who is fast approaching that stage in life where I need to make some dramatic career decisions, so I decided to volunteer in various biology-related roles to better understand different lines of work. Volunteering with Wildwood has helped me to acquire the basics of ecological consultancy, and I now have a much better understanding of its pros and cons. I’ll go into much more detail about my experience below, but first I want to say thanks to everyone at Wildwood Ecology. The entire team were incredibly welcoming and friendly, which helped me to immediately settle into the role, despite being well out of my depth! Thank you all (especially Sofie, Laoise and Peter) for putting up with me and my questions! I’ll divide this post into the following sections, so feel free to jump directly to anything that seems relevant.
1. Why should you spend time volunteering?
2. Finding work experience
3. Pros and cons of working in ecological consultancy
4. My experience working with Wildwood
5. Future plans and final thoughts
Why should you spend time volunteering?
This sounds obvious, because it is obvious. Volunteering is a great way to discover what its like to work in different fields and, in my experience, it can be very different from what you’d expect. I’ve worked in research, land management, event support and consultancy roles, which have strongly influenced the modules I’ve chosen in my university course. Volunteering has also helped me to develop a broad variety of those all-important ‘transferrable skills’. However, it is worth noting that volunteering in more consistent roles is a great way to convince a potential employer that you’re committed to a particular career path, or have developed specific skills to a greater extent.
For me personally, volunteering has been especially important for other reasons, and I’ll share an anecdote to demonstrate them. Aged 17, I was convinced I’d be working as a genetics researcher post-graduation but, after spending 8 weeks of my last summer bored and frustrated in a research lab, I realised that this career path was not for me. Without this placement, I might’ve made this discovery after undertaking a Master’s research project, or after committing to long-term work in a lab. Instead, through other roles, I’ve realised that I’m more effective in a dynamic workplace, and especially enjoy working outdoors. Volunteering has dramatically changed my future career plans for the better, and could lead to similar changes in yours as well!
As a side note, I don’t regret my time spent in the lab. This experience impacted my life in other meaningful ways (e.g it indirectly led to my ADHD diagnosis), and I learned lessons that will last a lifetime. You learn more from volunteering than just how to do a job. Volunteering is an experience, and experiences can impact you in ways you would never expect!
Finding work experience
Finding work experience roles can be challenging, but it’s
far from impossible. I’ll describe the process I adopted, but keep in mind that different companies operate differently and there
isn’t one perfect strategy to follow when trying to secure a role.
After my surprising experience in the lab, I became determined to find a different career path to trial in the summer of my 2nd year. I was aware of ecological consultancy thanks to two 2nd year ecology modules, although I knew very little about what the job entailed. Using google maps, I discovered that there are many firms close to where I live and I began to investigate them further. I analysed their websites, ranked them, and reached out to the top options via email, stating my name, interest in volunteering and availability. Within a couple of days, Wildwood (my first choice) responded and, following a few quick and informative emails, I had a volunteer position lined up for the summer. I wish it was always this easy!
Welcome to Wildwood
I don’t know for sure what made Wildwood’s team decide to accept me, but I’ve found that showing initiative, and being polite but confident is a great approach when trying to secure a role.
Don’t be afraid to contact a company that isn’t advertising roles, but don’t pour all your energy and time into just one company either. There are plenty more tips online for how to find work-experience, which might be worth your research.
Wildwood’s head office just outside Stroud pictured here boasts an idyllic location, totally befitting an ecological consultancy.
Pros and cons of working in ecological consultancy
What exactly do ecological consultants do? In brief,
ecological consultants are hired by clients to determine how a development
project will impact wildlife, with a focus on species and habitats that are
protected by legislation. Consultants gather data from ecological surveys and
the results are collated in reports, along with advice and recommendations on
how to mitigate the negative impacts on wildlife. These reports are then
submitted within the planning application, to demonstrate that any negative
impact will be mitigated, and that wildlife legislation will be adhered to.
· Dynamic job with both outdoors and office elements;
· Work directly benefits biodiversity and conservation; and
· Passionate teams who care about the work they do (at least at Wildwood).
· Sometimes too dynamic – occasional extremely early mornings or late nights;
· Subjective results, so lots of experience and training is required for consistency; and
· Consultants often act as the bearer of bad news.
It seems that ecological consultancy can be split into two parts, an office and outdoor factor, which combine together into one very dynamic job. However, this job also has a unique set of challenges, which help to keep things interesting.
Throughout the year, scheduling is affected by survey seasons which limit when different activities can take place. This generates busy and quiet periods, which can make it difficult for part-time or temporary ecologists to find reliable work. Work hours are also variable within the week. Many tasks, such as report writing, can be completed in the usual 9-5 hours in-office, or at home, but on-site surveys, such as dusk bat emergence surveys (limited to 3 per person, per week, at Wildwood) disrupt this consistency. I love this day-to-day variability, but I’d imagine that others could find the erratic hours to be difficult.
The job also involves a lot of local travelling. Wildwood accepts contracts for sites up to 1.5 hours away from the office, although where team-members live is considered when allocating survey work. Surveys can feel like a treasure hunt or can be rather mind-numbing. I’ve seen some beautiful Cotswold buildings and stunning sunsets, but also heard stories of angry landowners, bad-weather surprises and other issues that make surveys much less enjoyable. Even the core aspects of the job can bring surprises – I’ve learned what to expect when surveying but also how keen bats (and other species, but especially bats) are on invalidating those expectations.
My experience working with Wildwood
Wildwood’s team enabled me to try out many aspects of ecological consultancy work, providing a holistic view of what the job entails. The most memorable and frequent surveys were the bat dusk emergence surveys, where consultants monitor a site for bat activity. As well as directly looking for bats emerging from a building or tree, consultants also record bat echolocation, such as foraging and commuting calls, to better understand how changes to a site would impact the local bat population. Specialist recording equipment, such as Bat Loggers (and various other tools) are used to amplify bat calls, and the frequency or noise pattern can be used to identify the species and its activity. Certain calls are much harder to recognise than others. As the name suggests, these surveys always take place around sunset, but a sunrise version can also be carried out, though it seems, unsurprisingly, that very few consultants enjoy the early morning hours.
PEAs, PRAs, BNG, QGIS & reports
I also took part in other surveys, such as Preliminary Ecological Appraisals (PEAs) to record habitats, and Preliminary Roost Assessments (PRAs) for bats, which took place at more sociable hours. PRAs are used to assess the suitability of a site, building, or tree, for roosting bats and are used to determine if emergence surveys are required before a report can be compiled. PEAs assess other ecological features such as protected or priority habitats, and the site’s suitability for other protected species features, giving a broad overview on a sites potential to support notable wildlife. Many developments are required to improve biodiversity, rather than just maintain it, which means biodiversity net gain (BNG) needs to be calculated. I learnt how this is done using the habitats mapped during a PEA, along with the development plans provided by the client. I quickly came to appreciate how important survey identification skills are – a skilled consultant can recognise most common plant species at a glance, whilst I was struggling to identify them using an identification key. A small PEA would’ve taken me hours to complete, but was finished by the team in far less time! Many other survey types exist, but all are restricted by survey seasons, and I joined Wildwood too late in the 2022 season to experience the full range.
Compiling reports is much more of an office based job, and digital tools are used to ensure that reports are of high standard. For example, I learned to use QGIS software to make and edit site maps, which I’ve already found useful for my university lab reports. Wildwood’s team also use Office 365, as they frequently share both data and reports with one another, so that multiple people can suggest improvements or raise ideas, which I suspect has really helped newer team members to develop and improve their report-writing skills. Other office work includes call analysis, where recorded bat calls are visually mapped to help with identification, and other more commonplace practises. Before joining Wildwood, I had no idea how much work went into a professional report, though I was pleased to see a resemblance between Wildwood’s reports and those I had been writing for my biology degree.
Future plans and final thoughts
My time with Wildwood has shown me what ecological
consultancy has to offer and given me a sense of how I would perform in this line
of work. I loved many aspects of the job and enjoyed this experience more than
any other work-experience role to date. This has given me a lot to think about
when considering my future plans and goals. I can definitely see myself
choosing ecological consultancy as a long-term career after my BSc degree
(or after a Masters), although I do plan on undertaking other
experience roles in the meantime.
So, to summarise, volunteering is great for trialling jobs before committing to career paths and helps you to develop in other important ways. All volunteering takes is a little bit of confidence and time, which isn’t a lot, considering the breadth and depth of rewards that can come from the experience. I really enjoyed my time with the Wildwood team, and they’ve shown me that I’d be well-suited to a career in ecological consultancy. I’ve picked up the basics of this job and will be able to make more informed decisions about my career choices in the fast-approaching future.
I would strongly recommend spending some time volunteering with groups or companies such as Wildwood, in whatever area is relevant to you. When taken seriously, the benefits of volunteering far-outweigh the costs.
Thanks for reading and I hope you’ve found this post useful. I’ll end with one final thank you to everyone at Wildwood Ecology for helping me to learn so much in such a short space of time. It’s been a month very well spent and I hope our paths cross again in the future.