Influencing Governmental Policies & Strategies for Conservation – Brendan Costelloe’s Story

Brendan Costelloe is the Senior Policy Officer at the largest nature conservation charity in the UK; the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds). Here he tells us how and why he got into conservation, some of the important work he has done and some advice on how to get into this line of work.

Brendan in the Sapa Mountains of Vietnam with some indigenous women (Tom Simpson)

Brendan in the Sapa Mountains of Vietnam with some indigenous women (Tom Simpson)

Why do you work in conservation?

I’ve always loved spending time amongst nature, and I feel very strongly about the need to protect it, both for its own sake and for the joy that it brings to people. It would be a very sad world if there was even less wildlife for future generations to enjoy! I guess I’m very lucky to be able to do something that I’m so passionate about for a living.

Otter in Thetford Brendan saw with Matt (Matt Adam Williams).

Otter in Thetford Brendan saw with Matt (Matt Adam Williams).

What are the main activities in your work?

I try to influence Government policies so that they protect and enhance wildlife, while allowing sustainable economic growth. Ideally, this is proactive work that involves setting out a preferred vision for sustainable development, but sadly, it generally involves reacting to proposals that haven’t given due regard to the environment.

I’m fortunate to work for such a large organisation with so many members. This gives us a lot of credibility and means that the Government are more likely to listen to what we have to say. It also means that we have a lot of expertise to draw on, which is great for me as my work tends to be quite cross-cutting. For example, in the Conservation Policy department where I work, we have economics, agriculture, marine, climate change, planning policy and water policy teams. It’s also important to present a unified voice with other environmental NGOs, and I work closely with them as part of Wildlife and Countryside Link – which acts as an umbrella organisation, bringing us together to work on core issues.

What’s the best part of the job?

It sounds cheesy, but it’s making a difference! The work we do really does make a difference and helps to ensure that Government policies protect and enhance our wildlife.

What’s the worst part of the job?

Sadly, not everyone in life shares our desire to protect wildlife, and it can be an uphill challenge trying to influence Government, especially during recessions, when desperate governments often mistakenly see environmental regulation as a ‘barrier to growth’! Responding to consultations also involves lots of deadlines, which can be quite stressful at times!

What are you most proud of achieving through your work?

Revisions of the National Planning Policy Framework which set out national planning policy. The first draft wasn’t great, so we re-wrote it in track changes and the Government accepted many of our changes, verbatim, which was great! The document went from disregarding environmental protection, to including lots of positive policies for environmental enhancement.

Another area of work I am proud of is helping to stop the merger of Natural England (a governmental agency for conservation) and the Environmental Agency (a governmental agency which works on more general areas such as flooding and coastal changes, oil storage, waste and land management).

… And why was this important?

If the two had merged we would have lost the only governmental organisation that focuses on conservation!

What key steps in your conservation career have you taken?

I gained some great experience working for the local authorities on planning policies, where I helped with local development plans, which involved trying to reconcile competing economic, social and environmental issues.

I then went on to complete a Masters in Conservation Science at Imperial College London, which gave me an excellent understanding of the drivers of ecological decline, and the importance of science-led policies to help reverse those declines.

What advice would you give someone wishing to follow in your footsteps?

Gain as much experience as possible and think outside the box as to what good experience can be. For example, I had no idea that working for the local authorities would give me so much experience that would be relevant to conservation policy in general.

What’s your favourite animal?

Harpy Eagle. You wouldn’t mess with one of them!

Majestic endangered costa rican harpy eagle feeding on mouse (Stock Photo).

Majestic endangered costa rican harpy eagle feeding on mouse (Stock Photo).

What’s your favourite bird song?


About the author

Sarashka King in Romania, credit Philip King

This post was written by Conservation Careers Blogger Sarashka King. Sarashka is passionate about nature and conservation. She used to work for the RSPB and is now waiting to start her Postgraduate Diploma in Ecology at the University of East Anglia to go along side her degree in Marketing and Advertising. She hopes to then take this forward to do a Masters in an area of interest. She also has a passion for travel and would love to combine the three elements of conservation, marketing/communications and the travel industry to concentrate on ecotourism in her future career.

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