My Journey to Ecological Consultancy

Hannah is the Assistant Ecologist in the Bristol Branch of Acorn Ecology. Hannah started out volunteering in the office. With a boost from the Certificate Course she then was taken on as a seasonal ecologist and is now permanent. Hannah is just one of the many success stories from our Certificate Students. Here she writes about how she got to where she is now.

At the beginning

From a young age, I always knew that I wanted to work with wildlife but didn’t know exactly what jobs were out there and what I needed to do to end up working in one. I knew that I wanted to help animals, have a job that was interesting and variable and the chance to work outdoors. I dabbled with the idea of veterinary nursing, wildlife education, working in an animal sanctuary and working as a ranger or warden on a wildlife reserve.

Gaining an education

Hannah Whitfield caimen
An exciting education!

Even without having an ultimate goal, I always knew that education would be a vital thing for me to have and that for many of the career options that I was considering, a degree was a necessity. Knowing this, I decided to undertake a Bachelor of Science degree in Conservation Biology.  This degree allowed me to gain practical and theoretical knowledge in the field of conservation and improve upon my ability to study independently. I was also able to build up transferable skills such as report writing, research and the ability to analyse, assess and critique my own work. During my degree I decided to undertake a placement year to gain more practical experience within the field. For this placement I spent ten months working within the Peruvian rainforest monitoring wildlife such as camains, macaws and giant river otters and assisting PhD students with data collection. This was a challenging and demanding yet incredible role that taught me about the practical and physical elements of field work and researching and made me fall in love with wildlife even more.

When leaving university I felt that I had a good understand of theoretical elements of conservation and biology as well as knowledge on different ecosystems and the conservation methods put in place to protect them. I knew that this degree could help me move into areas such as local or international conservation, research, academia or even areas such as wildlife film making. However, I also knew that in the majority of careers, employers were looking for more than just a degree and that I would have more success in my long term career once I had gained some more practical experience.

Voluntary work

Hannah Whitfield bird
Learning bird skills with the RSPB

After graduating in 2014, I spent the next few years in a range of voluntary positions in the fields of ecology and conservation. These positions ranged from carrying out turtle conservation in Costa Rica to carrying out habitat management on an RSPB reserve in the UK. All of these positions were invaluable to me and not only gave me a wealth of knowledge and experience but allowed me to focus and concentrate more on what career I ultimately wanted to go into by trying out different roles.

It is worth noting that volunteering is unpaid and not everyone is in the position to take weeks or even months off to gain this experience. However there are often ways to volunteer that are not time consuming and can be worked around a full time job. It is worth contacting wildlife trusts and local wildlife groups that often run plant and wildlife monitoring schemes that volunteers can get involved in and simply drop in on the odd days that you are free. Local bat groups often run a variety of activities from bat hibernation checks to activity surveys. It is possible to find programmes that run on weekends and always worth looking into voluntary bat monitoring which will normally be carried out at dusk or dawn and for most people can be carried out outside of normal work hours.

Certificate in Ecological Consultancy

After spending time volunteering in several different job roles within ecology and conservation, I was able to make the decision that I wanted to move into ecological consultancy.

Hannah Whitfield volunteering
Hannah working hard, volunteering

I knew that this job would be exciting and variable and would present an opportunity for continuous growth and learning within the field. Although I had experience in the general field of ecology, I still lacked the specific UK knowledge of ecological survey techniques, legislation and planning applications required to give professional advice on the impacts on wildlife from developments projects. I searched for professional ecological courses and foundCertificate in Ecological Consultancy. It was an eight month course that covered vital topics and skills such as how to carry out Phase 1 habitat surveys, how to write Preliminary Ecological Appraisals and information on a variety of protected UK species. The course is run as a mixture of classroom and field based courses, online classes, optional courses and marked assignments which allow you to cover everything that you need to know when starting out in ecology consultancy. Wanting to get the most out of this experience as possible, I also signed up for the optional four week placement which would be carried out at the Bristol Office. This placement would involve essential on-the-job training and allow me to immerse myself in the field of consultancy and see what was really involved. After signing up for the Certificate course and placement I was keen to start learning as soon as possible. I contacted Steph, the Bristol Branch Manager and enquired to see if there would be any possibility of me volunteering ahead of my placement. To my delight, she arranged a casual meeting at the office to run over my past experience, my suitability and to see what work I could get involved with at the office. We organised for to come in one day a week and help out her and Jo (an ecologist in the office) with surveys and report writing.

Starting in a consultancy

One of the first surveys that I went out on was a Phase 1 Habitat survey. This survey involves visiting a site and assessing what habitats are present, what species are on the site and what potential there is for protected species such as bats and badgers to be using the site. I was amazed by the amount of knowledge that you needed to have to carry out one of these surveys and how much Steph and Jo could decipher from a site. Walking around what looked to me like an ordinary field; Steph was able to list off 30 or more plant species as well as signs of badgers and potential habitats for bats and dormice. I felt quite daunted by how little I knew in comparison but was excited for the opportunity to start learning. Over the next few months I went out on more and more surveys and was soon able to understand different surveys methods as well as how to interpret data and how to use wildlife legislation to decide what outcomes are required for different projects. Working within the office also allowed me to gain valuable experience in seeing how reports were written, how electronic data was obtained and what kinds of queries and questions were normally received from clients. The work was incredibly varied. We would speak with homeowners planning a small loft extension in one phone call and nuclear power stations who were carrying vegetation clearance in the next call. Each case would present its own unique features that required consideration and thought. There is no real typical week in this field and the opportunities to learn are endless.

Job offers

Hannah whitfield dormouse nest
The Acorn Ecology dormouse course

After spending several months undertaking the Certificate in Ecological Consultancy and volunteering part-time within the office, I felt that I had enough experience to begin looking for jobs. In ecology, most survey work is seasonally constrained to the summer months. Due to this, many companies increase their staff workforce over these months and it is common for people to start their ecological careers as temporary field surveyors. It is worth keeping an eye out for jobs around February onwards as companies begin searching for new recruits. I was lucky enough to receive several job offers including one from Acorn Ecology as a temporary assistant ecologist. Every company will offer a different experience. Larger companies may require large amounts of travelling and the opportunity to gain field experience in a range of habitats, whereas smaller companies may offer survey work that is closer to home and more time within the office gaining experience with reporting.

As a side note, it is worth stating that for every consultancy, one thing that is necessary is a car and I found myself having to buy one before being offered any work. Consultancies will require you to be able to drive to sites to meet clients and carry out surveys. Bicycles can be impractical due to the long distances we are often required to travel and the amount of equipment that we need to take and public transport is inadequate due to the remote locations of many sites and the unsociable hours that surveys are often carried out in. When first asking to volunteer with Acorn Ecology, I did not own a car and made it a priority to purchase one over the next few months in order to be able to carry out surveys independently.

Working as an Assistant Ecologist

Having been offered a seasonal job with Acorn Ecology I was happy to accept the position and excited to increase my hours and become even more involved in projects that the company was working on. Going from part-time to full-time was a big jump and I immediately found that I was much more useful as I was present at every stage of a project from the initial client contact to the survey work and reporting and had a much better understanding of how these processes worked. This understanding was crucial when meeting with clients or contractors. They would often have many questions about our work, our time-scales and what outcome we predicted for their site.

Most people are fairly interested in the work that we do and I have met people who are quite excited to find rare and interesting species within their land. However, for many people, the news that they have protected species on their land is very unwelcome. In these cases the work that we do is seen as an inconvenient delay to their project and we are sometimes met with negative attitudes. In these moments, good people skills can often help diffuse unpleasant situations. Clients may have a limited understanding of wildlife and wildlife legislation and can become frustrated by unexpected delays or changes to their project. It is worth reminding people that you are trying to assist them and that it is part of your job to ensure that their planning permission and project go through smoothly by ensuring they do not breach any wildlife legislation. Often people are more understanding when can appreciate the significance of the bat roost or dormouse nest on their land and the reasoning behind your recommendations. However, in this job you should be prepared for the fact that you will not be everybody’s favourite person. It is important therefore to have confidence in your knowledge and decisions and to know that you will have backing from the law and your colleagues when you need it.

Hannah Whitfield trees
You need to love being outside!

In my first season in ecology, I found my colleagues to be a tremendous support to me, taking the time to train me and having the patience and kindness to guide me through the beginning of my career. In this role you will spend a lot of time working very closely with your colleagues, often spending a weeks at a time in shared accommodation working on projects far away from home. It is important that you all have good relationships and trust and respect each other as the work can be tiring and demanding. When you are on your 7th bat survey in a row and are climbing over barbed wire fences in the middle of the night carrying chairs and detectors halfway across a field it is good to know that you can at least have a laugh with the person that you are working with and that you are all in it together.

Gaining a permanent position

After reaching the end of my first season, I unfortunately had to be let go over the winter due to the lack of survey work available at the time. Again, this is quite common and people will often spend one or two years in a temporary position before a company is able to offer them permanent work. 

Steph felt that as I had already spent six months working full time for the company I had a good understanding of how the office was run and had built up a good rapport with her and Jo and offered me a permanent position starting the next March, which again, I happily accepted.

Working within a small company gives unique benefits and I am able to be heavily involved with many parts of running a branch and am able to get a well rounded experience as an ecologist. Over the last year I have gained a vast amount of specific ecological knowledge as well as the experience in the practical elements of surveying and organisational skills required to carry this surveying out successfully. I consider myself very fortunate to have been in the right place at the right time when it came to finding the course in ecological consultancy and applying for both my voluntary and paid work. However, I also recognise and am proud of the amount of work that I have had to do get into this position. Getting into ecological consultancy can take time and a great amount of effort but it is an incredibly rewarding and satisfying career and I look forward to the continued opportunities for growth that I know it will offer me.