How do you become a conservation officer?
Alex is Senior Conservation Officer for BirdWatch Ireland – a voluntary conservation organisation in the Republic of Ireland, devoted to the conservation and protection of its wild birds and their habitats. It was formerly known as the Irish Wildbird Conservancy.
WHY DO YOU HAVE A CONSERVATION JOB?
Initially, because I loved being outdoors watching, recording and conserving wildlife and wild places. As the years have passed and my roles have changed, I have remained in conservation for the same reasons, but now more because I want to make a difference, to make sure the wildlife and wild places I love are still there for my children to enjoy.
WHAT DOES BEING A SENIOR CONSERVATION OFFICER FOR BIRDWATCH IRELAND ENTAIL ON A DAY TO DAY BASIS?
I have two main areas of work: farmland and bogs. In both cases, my work focuses on the impacts of human activities on these habitats and their species, trying to reduce negative effects and develop and promote beneficial actions.
I’m very fortunate that my job involves the whole spectrum of work in these habitats, from designing and undertaking field surveys, to analysing data, communicating findings to an array of audiences (from those who do care to those who should care), and developing and advocating policies from these findings to government and decision makers.
The work is cyclical – at the moment I’m focused on the policy side, working on Common Agricultural Policy reforms and, in particular, designing agri-environment measures. However, the recent completion of the Bird Atlas 2007-13 in Ireland (and Britain) will drive a new wave of research over the next few years.
WHAT’S THE BEST PART OF THE JOB?
The variety – there’s always something interesting to do; something worth getting out of bed for in the morning and the rather egotistical feeling of making a difference – if I stayed in bed the world might, in a very small way, be a worse place to live in!
WHAT’S THE WORST PART OF THE JOB?
Failing to get support or recognition for important issues from audiences, from the general public to politicians and decision makers. This has serious knock-on effects, such as struggling to get critical work funded. Although when I look back to the situation ten years ago, progress is being made, it is often at a frustratingly slow pace.
WHAT KEY STEPS IN YOUR CONSERVATION CAREER HAVE YOU TAKEN?
I was always interested in wildlife, so after school did Ecological Science at Edinburgh University.
After graduating, I had a series of voluntary, part-time and seasonal jobs, mostly dealing with reserve management and wildlife recording.
I have a farming background (well, I grew up on a hill sheep farm) and this had been useful in a few jobs when dealing with landowners, so figuring this was my “USP” (and because farmland biodiversity was increasingly threatened), I started looking for jobs related to conservation management on farmland.
I got a job with BirdWatch Ireland working on Corncrakes (which involved a lot of farmer contact). After three years of Corncrakes I got funded to do an MSc on agri-environment impacts on bird populations in Ireland. As this research progressed it expanded to a PhD.
My PhD produced a range of policy-focused recommendations on agri-environment in Ireland, and it fell to me to advocate these recommendations to government. This is probably the reason why I have such a diverse job – I love the basic data collection and research side, but this doesn’t conserve biodiversity or protect habitats on its own. Policy development and advocacy – getting the message about your research out there in an accessible and understandable way is the how you change the world!
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE SOMEONE WISHING TO FOLLOW IN YOUR FOOTSTEPS?
Until you have a few years of experience, it is difficult to decide what you want to do within conservation as the work can be so varied, from fieldwork to research to education to reserve management to policy development and advocacy, etc., etc.
My career to date has shown this quite well – reserve management to species monitoring and protection to research to policy and advocacy – with a bit of education thrown in along the way!
However, for most jobs a good education is a must – not just at school, but also some third-level qualification as well. This will open more doors than it closes.
During this time, I would urge anyone to start working as a volunteer (at weekends and in holidays, etc.). Get involved with your local wildlife groups – they are always desperate for fresh faces and most conservation organisations have well-developed opportunities for volunteers.
This is important for three reasons:
1 – You get experience (the Achilles heel of most recent graduates is a lack of work experience);
2- You get a chance to see what is out there, what jobs there are and what work you might want to do;
3 – Perhaps most importantly, you show prospective employers that you care about conservation enough to get up and out there and give something in your own time.
Finally, the most important thing if you’re working in conservation is to do something you not only enjoy but are also passionate about – there will be disappointments aplenty, so you need drive and enthusiasm to keep you going – if you’re passionate about it, it is easier!
AND FINALLY, WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE SONG?
The Curra Road by Ger Wolfe (from the No Bird Sang” – the title track sounding like an anthem for CAP reform!)