Emma Pooley | Hedgehog Conservation Detective

Hedgehogs are in severe decline all over the UK, Emma Pooley was tasked with trying to map London’s hedgehog population to monitor their population numbers and movements. She has just completed a year long project as the Hedgehog Conservation Officer for London Wildlife Trust. Hedgehogs are shy and nocturnal, and they don’t leave clear field signs such as tracks or burrows, making them tricky to monitor.

Emma’s role as Hedgehog Conservation Officer

My main responsibility was to carry out surveys using footprint tunnels that capture inky prints of animals that pass through it. I did this with the help of a team of dedicated volunteers, who helped to set up the tunnels at nature reserves all around London and check them every day for four nights. We did find hedgehog prints, but mostly we found foxes, dogs, cats, badgers, slugs and even a few frogs! I also ran community events, gave talks about hedgehogs, watched hours of camera trap footage looking for hedgehogs and collated sightings of hedgehogs sent to us by the public. We also created and distributed 3,000 hedgehog detective kits, allowing Londoner’s to look for hedgehogs in their own gardens.

Why a conservation job?

I absolutely love nature, and I’ve always enjoyed learning; a job in conservation combines both passions. Every day I learn something new, whether it’s researching something for a talk I’m giving, chatting to the fantastic volunteers on my project or listening to a colleague talk about their latest wildlife survey. The Wildlife Trusts is a national conservation organisation, made up of 46 local Wildlife Trusts, so working for London Wildlife Trust has given me the chance to connect with colleagues doing similar work all over the country. There are several other Hedgehog Officers in the UK, and I’ve been lucky enough to meet my counterparts at meetings and training sessions.

Becoming the Hedgehog Conservation Officer

I didn’t start working in conservation until I went to university when I was 22. I left school during the peak of the economic recession and struggled to find full-time work. After a few years of working stressful part-time jobs, I realised that it was making me ill and I needed to find a better path. I’d recently got a dog and rediscovered my childhood love of being outdoors, so I started volunteering with London Wildlife Trust at my local wood. The encouragement and support I received from the staff and other volunteers there made me realise I wanted to pursue a career in conservation, so I applied to university and gained a first-class degree in Countryside Management. My dissertation research was all about hedgehogs, and I was very lucky that the Hedgehog Officer job came up around the same time I was graduating.

Hedgehog Conservation footprints

Hedgehog prints through a footprint tunnel

Best thing about the job

Working with volunteers has to be the best part of my job. Having received such fantastic support from others when I was a volunteer, it was amazing to be able to see the volunteering experience from the other side. I hope some of the volunteers were able to learn new skills and discover new interests through helping on my project, and I certainly learnt a vast amount from many of them!

Proudest achievement

We created 3,000 hedgehog detective kits for Londoners to use in their own gardens to look for hedgehogs. The kits contained smaller versions of the footprint tunnels we were using during the surveys on our nature reserves, and I created a footprint ID guide for people to use alongside the tunnels. It was a real logistic challenge making, packing and distributing all 3,000 kits in the space of about 10 months, so I’m really proud of managing to get it all done with the help of volunteers and colleagues. We received some lovely feedback about the kits, particularly from families with young children, and some people were lucky enough to find some hedgehog footprints!

Challenges

The biggest challenge I faced was trying to change public opinion on conservation issues. For example, badgers are the main predator of hedgehogs, which people often use as an excuse to support the badger cull. I absolutely adore badgers, and the Wildlife Trusts even use it as their logo, so we are strong defenders of badgers. Hedgehog research shows that badgers are only one small factor behind the current hedgehog decline in the UK. In fact, badgers aren’t present in large parts of London, but hedgehog numbers are still dwindling. Trying to persuade the public that there are more manmade issues involved in the problem is difficult and something I’ve really struggled with this year.

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As an organisation, the Wildlife Trusts often face issues with funding. Most of our projects, and many of my colleagues (myself included), are funded by grants from organisations like the Heritage Lottery Fund, or small charitable trusts like the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation. These pots of money are limited, and many projects and organisations are all competing for the same funds. Therefore, all Wildlife Trusts rely on membership and donations from the public to continue doing important conservation work.

New skills

My communication skills are better than ever before. I’ve had to give dozens of talks over the last year, and have also been interviewed for BBC Radio 4, the Sunday Times and a local news channel. Although it was terrifying to begin with, it’s been incredibly enjoyable once I’ve got past those initial nerves. All these have given me more confidence to speak up about many topics in the work environment, which I feel is very important for a woman in a traditionally male-dominated sector.

Advice for aspiring conservationists

Volunteer! I cannot stress enough how important volunteering is. Even while working for London Wildlife Trust, I continued to volunteer with them and other organisations whenever I could. It’s not only improved my skills but helped me make connections that have proven to be very valuable when I’ve been looking for my next move or when I need help with something. If you’re able to gain a qualification in conservation or ecology, that’s useful too, but many of the people I’ve met in the sector got their start through volunteering. It’s fun and it’s free! Most organisations will be able to reimburse travel (and sometimes even lunch) expenses for their volunteers, so it really shouldn’t have to cost you anything to gain new skills. You’ll also meet likeminded people and make new friends – many of my close friends are people I met while volunteering.

What’s next for Emma?

Unfortunately, due to a lack of funding, after 14 months, Emma’s role as Hedgehog Officer came to an end in October 2018.
Emma continues to work for London Wildlife Trusts on a part-time basis, running workdays and events when her colleagues need a hand. She also has a second job at Spitalfields City Farm in East London, where she has worked since her time at university and is enjoying be able to continue her involvement.
With a little more time on her hands, Emma is taking time to do more volunteering to widen her skill set after focusing an hedgehogs. She has recently been volunteering with a conservation grazing that has given her an insight into how farming can help conservation efforts.

A conservation career isn’t always consistent, as Emma’s role shows, gaining volunteer experience is a great way to create connections and help with future job searches. If you would like to find out more about the work of the wildlife trust or do some volunteering, go to www.wildlifetrusts.org and find your local trust.

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