Habitat Creation with Robbie Hawkins
Do you like the sound of creating new habitats, leaving a positive legacy of nature behind you? That is soon to be the reality of working as an ecological consultant, as the upcoming Environment Bill will make it a legal requirement for new construction developments to have a positive impact – a ‘net gain’ – on biodiversity.
I spoke to Robbie Hawkins, senior ecological consultant at Wood plc, who, in 2006, swerved away from a sports journalism degree after an epiphany moment walking down the River Ribble. He shares his top tips for succeeding in a career that is only set to become more important – and more valued – as perceptions shift and the law changes in the coming years.
Why did you choose to work in conservation?
My mum says that when I was very small, and we lived in London, I used to ask, “can I see the ducks, Mummy?” Almost every child loves nature in some way, whether that’s looking at bugs or being fascinated by the wind. We lose that as we get older. We get funnelled into sitting down and passing exams. I guess I didn’t lose the love of nature easily because I had a short attention span! I wanted to go outside and explore.
My first idea for a career was sports coaching and journalism, but I had an epiphany moment while doing a sports journalism degree. I was in the middle of Preston – it wasn’t that pleasant – and I went for a walk down the River Ribble where there was lots of wildlife. At that moment, I decided to transfer to a conservation course with the same university but in the Lake District, to turn my passion into a career (the University of Central Lancashire, which later became the University of Cumbria).
How did you go from there to becoming an ecological consultant?
It started with a lot of volunteering with organisations like the RSPB and the Wildlife Trust. When I was at school and university I volunteered whenever I had time. At secondary school I did placements at Chesil Bank and the Fleet Nature Reserve, working with little terns, and with Ham Hill Country Park working on habitat management. They were good starting points. Then the degree was the next thing. I went on some great trips with that – to the Gambia and into the highlands. I learnt a lot.
The next thing was to join a professional body for ecologists. I’m a member of The Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (CIEEM) and was originally a student member. There is also British Ecological Society and various others. The next step was gaining work experience as a consultant. I did that over a broad range of subjects, from soil to birds. I think having a broad experience is important early in your career.
After university, I got a job identifying seabirds and cetaceans from aerial surveys for offshore wind farms. That job was quite niche to start with, but I went on to do wetland creation, and a variety of habitat, individual surveys and assessments. Then, following my research, I got to be a co-author on a publication for assessing ecosystem services and global wetlands (Wetland Ecosystem Services and the Ramsar Convention). That was a good step.
I went from there to getting licenses. A big part of being a consultant ecologist is having licenses and specialisms. I have a barn owl license and I specialise in ornithology.
Could you describe a typical day in your job?
Earlier in my career it was more seventy to eighty per cent fieldwork. I would do a lot of surveys, in all sorts of places, then write up data, GIS and reports. Now, I only spend a couple of days per week onsite or surveying. The main activities for me now are organising surveys and site visits, and working with contractors, planners, engineers and other stakeholders to ensure best practice and compliance, then writing reports, policies and protocols.
My main project at the moment is a large building site in the UK that involves working with multiple companies. I ensure that they comply with legislation and put in place ecological best practices. I’m always looking for a ‘win’ for biodiversity and nature. We’re not just looking to ‘not destroy’, we’re looking to enhance habitats for the future. I like working on big projects because you have the potential to put in place impressive mitigation elements. You can create habitats and leave a legacy.
Being an ecologist is all about managing the process well, putting management plans in place, making sure that everyone knows what their obligations are, and it can happen on quite a large scale.
Day to day, the job can vary. I’ve been doing this for eleven years now, and my role as an ecological consultant has changed almost every year. How you spend a working day depends what project you’re working on and what stage that project is at: whether it’s pre-construction, post-construction or somewhere in between. Some of my favourite projects have been with wildlife trusts or the environment agency on pure habitat creation. Then, the only construction involved is to create a new habitat.
In the latest Environment Bill (2019-2), due to become law in 2023, developments will have to show that they have a ‘net gain’ effect on biodiversity of at least ten per cent, not a net loss. So, if it’s managed properly, things in the future could be much improved.
What’s the best part of the job?
I like working with people. In any job it’s the same: the people make the job. But aside from that, I like exploring new places, finding great wildlife and landscapes, and changing people’s attitudes to the value of biodiversity.
What are your career highlights?
Analysing over 100,000 records of seabirds and cetaceans from boat surveys. I must be one of the only people in the country – or in Europe – to look at that many digital reels of surveys for seabirds, whales and dolphins. It hurts your eyes after a while! That was in my first role after university, which lasted for a couple of years. I have since enjoyed travelling to Europe on boats recording some amazing wildlife.
Another highlight was being part of the team that undertook the first International Waterbird Census (IWC) for Kuwait, which involved training government staff on identification and survey techniques. That was an incredibly interesting project.
Designing and overseeing the construction of various wetland areas around the world, and then seeing them being built, is another highlight. They don’t all get built, so it’s great when they do. I was happy with one that was built in the middle of Manchester, a new wetland area as part of a £10 million flood prevention scheme (Kersal Wetlands, Salford). I’ve done some in China and Dubai too.
I also enjoy changing people’s attitudes. I am often asked, “what is an ecologist?” I explain that it involves the study of everything in the environment around you and how it all interacts.
Do you travel within your role?
At the moment, I mainly work in the UK, and have done since I joined Wood. That’s largely my choice now that I have a small child. They have projects around the world, but I’m happy making a difference close to home. I’ve worked in Kuwait, the US, Ireland and other places too.
Part of my role at Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) Consulting was to look at wetland areas and try to create wetland habitats. Or, when other organisations or governments in the UK or abroad wanted a visitor centre, we’d go and do some surveys, then provide concepts plans, detailed designs, interpretation and more. I worked for their external consultancy for seven years. That was a great starting point and gave me a broad range of experience with different habitats and species.
What is the main challenge in your role?
Seeing ecology and biodiversity being undervalued in society. For instance, when I went to the Middle East, I saw the scale of some of the issues that ecology, conservation and the planet are facing. I was doing a bird survey in Kuwait. There was a fence in a sandy desert – there wasn’t much about, apart from a blimp that the Americans had left on the Iraq border. But there was a high fence completely covered with plastic – all the way up it. That was a striking image, to see that in the middle of nowhere.
On a larger scale, you can see that nature and our work is under-appreciated… whether we’re looking to alleviate flooding, or sequester carbon, or improve mental health, there are so many things that the environment does for the world, and for us as humans.
But, there has been a massive change in perceptions over the last decade and I think that will continue. Hopefully what we do will be more valued as a part of the bigger picture. It’s an exciting career to be in. You only need to look at the number of consultancies now compared to the amount there used to be. But there are also more people wanting to get into the industry.
I think there will be more opportunities going forwards. How we deliver ‘net gain’ will be a big part of the next five to ten years in the UK. Companies will have to think about ecology at the front end of a project – at the moment it is sometimes an afterthought. That’s what people like me do: we highlight the things that need to be thought about earlier, such as the timing of works or ecological features. Then we put things in place that will help projects avoid delays further down the line.
Sometimes we get a bad rep: ‘here he comes to stop work’! Sometimes people at construction companies are surprised to find that we’re quite practical, not just activists. We highlight what is needed to ensure that the law is adhered to and that best practice enacted, so that work can successfully take place.
What skills are important for people wanting to go into ecological consultancy?
Most people seem to need a degree. Then I would say, get as many skills as possible! If you go and work as a ranger on a reserve, you might not necessarily want to do that as a career, but you’ll pick up some transferable skills while you’re doing it. Having good species identification skills across a range of taxa is helpful. Having specialisms off the back of that will add more value. That’s what employers tend to want. Although, in consultancy, you can be at risk of being put in a pigeonhole.
You will also have to produce tech notes, or reports, or management plans. I wouldn’t say I was perfect at English literature or language at school, but I was good enough to get by. I think if you have enough passion about the subject matter, that can go a long way. I can recommend joining institutes and societies, getting involved with as many things as possible. Technological innovations are important too – the effective use of tablets and GIS are good skills to master.
It’s also about forming relationships, both within your company and with other companies. Once you have a reputation for doing something well, then you become the person that people go to for that task. But I think you need a lot of patience with this career. You might have to do a lot of voluntary work.
I’m at a place now where I’m happy with my career. I’ve done a lot of different things, and most of it I’ve really enjoyed. But there were times when I thought, ‘maybe I should do something else’, because you sometimes feel undervalued. But, I think if you persevere, then you can get to where you want to be, and I think this industry is going in the right direction.
Do you have any top tips for people wishing to follow in your footsteps?
Volunteer if you can, keep your options open and keep believing in yourself and your own value. Conservation ecology is an exciting area with many opportunities for those who work hard and persevere. It can feel like a bit of a slog sometimes, because you do need specific skills, and the hours can be long and unsociable. But, get involved at a grassroots level, perhaps volunteering for wildlife organisations, and there you’ll meet people who will help you get species-specific survey experience or obtain a license. You can go from there into a first job.
Would you give similar advice to career switchers?
It’s probably more difficult for people who want to transition from another career, because they have to emphasise their transferable skills, and get a job that reflects their abilities while volunteering on the side. That’s perhaps easier to do when you’re a student, or not working full-time. But it’s still possible! When I ask myself, ‘would I transfer now from another career into conservation?’ The answer is that I would, because I’m going to have to work for another thirty years, so I want to get enjoyment out of my career. I think a lot of people will be thinking the same, after the pandemic, as they get a new perspective on things.
And finally, what is your favourite animal?
What a question! My favourite animal will have to be a hobby. These agile little falcons always make my summer in Somerset when they arrive in numbers over our wetlands after a winter in Africa. They are incredible to watch. I have seen them catch dragonflies, swifts and even bats!
Check out these resources for more information:
- CIEEM is a professional membership organisation that supports ecologists and environmental managers in the UK, Ireland and abroad.
- The British Ecological Society is an ecological membership organisation open to everyone.
- The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust undertakes conservation projects worldwide.
- The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is the largest nature conservation charity in the UK.
- The Wildlife Trusts is a grassroots movement with independently run branches all over the UK.
- The Chesil and Fleet Nature Reserve protects an area of the Dorset coastline.
- The University of Cumbria is where Robbie studied conservation.
Wood plc, Robbie’s employer, are currently advertising for ecologist roles across the UK.
To read more careers advice for working in ecological consultancy, explore interviews with professional ecologists on our Careers Advice blog.