Operation New World – How a One-Week Ecology Course Changed My Life
So you’ve graduated with your degree in biological or environmental sciences and were expecting an instant pay-off for all that hard work? But you’ve seen no such thing as of yet. If you’re nodding your head – welcome, friend.
Graduating can be a difficult and confusing time, especially if you’ve never been out of education before. Most of us end up fumbling around in the dark for 6-12 months’ post-graduation, trying to figure out what we can actually do with our ‘ology’ degrees. Having received erroneous career advice from stagnant university career services, I joined an online community of environmental job-related websites. It is here that I discovered Operation New World.
At first glance I thought this cannot be real – a 100% FREE ecology course abroad with principal ecologists giving me one to one careers advice. But, my fellow fumblers in the dark, I’m here to tell you I’ve attended such a course – and it is 100% free and 150% real. Unfortunately, the charity is UK based and with our dire lack of wildlife and environmental jobs, the course is only open to people under 25 and from the UK. Application details will be posted at the end.
Operation New World is a charity set up by Anne Leonard MBE (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) to help the young and unemployed to gain paid work and has been running for over 20 years. The course’s two principal lecturers are inspiring ecologists Dr Todd Lewis and Dr Colin Bailey, as well as a British Army official Sgt. Major Rendall. The one-week super intense ecology course I attended on the island of Fuerteventura, Canary Islands has helped me tremendously by providing me with career direction and key skills for consultancy work.
Once we arrived we went straight into a lecture. This lecture probably contained more useful day-to-day job information than my whole degree ever provided me with. I learnt the relevant statutory organisations to contact when adhering to environmental regulations; the differences between NGO’s, charities and various land designations; the broad areas of the environmental sector such as consultancy, academia and park management; what the right and wrong volunteer programmes are and how to spot them.
I learnt which areas need to be improved and where and how to gain UK protected species licences if I needed them. I learnt about land owners, county recorders (whom you need to contact in order to gain information about protected species) and various other job positions I had no idea even existed. We finished the day by learning how to approach a field survey site by completing some simple orientation recording. This involves standing in a defined spot and surveying everything you see. We soon realised how we focused on implicit detail, forgetting to record simple information such as the site name, weather and landscape features etc.
Our second day began with an introduction to map reading. We learnt how to take grid and magnetic bearings and went through what to do if I ever became lost, using DDCRAPS technique (direction, distance, conventional signs, relief, alignment and proximity).
The afternoon session consisted of group survey work. We were given the brief ‘to think about what you would need to survey in this area, with regards to the Government wanting to know how sea level rise will affect tourism’. We were all very perplexed and my group came up with an idea to start doing some rock pool surveying in order to see if we had any flagship species that we could use to attract ecotourism tours. We came up with a community based business project, but later feedback explained we had completely gone off brief and gone beyond what the ecologists role would have been in this situation. The field work provided us with some real skills in choosing appropriate methods for surveying, such as using a transect and taking photographs of individuals we could not identify in the field. Giving our first presentation gave us a lot of things to work on, such as timing, being concise, sticking to the brief, introducing ourselves, having a clear and easy to follow presentation and not having 6 people editing the final layout. By the end of the week, we had learnt to present our ideas clearly and concisely to an audience, a key skill for any scientist.
Day 3 and 4
Day 3 began with our first Landscape Character Assessment (LCA) Survey. This weird and wonderful survey technique draws on your creative and emotive abilities, requiring you to describe the character of a landscape or seascape, typically used in before and after development projects. Most of our brains had to be indoctrinated to remove adjectives from our scientific vocabulary, but by the end of the course everyone was completing LCAs at a high quality.
Phase 1 habitat surveys are assessments within a selected site (e.g. a proposed SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest)) that classify the broad habitat types. This is a key skill desired by a lot of graduate ecology roles. Although our survey was conducted in a different country, the skills learnt are transferable to anywhere in the world. Being able to classify key habitat types is essential in any conservation or ecology related role.
I learnt how to gauge map size, how to adapt your survey methods with regards to your survey size and how to quantify dominant vegetation types. We also learnt how to conduct vegetation surveys using stratified random sampling, with methods such as transects and quadrats. We were even lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the endangered sub species of Egyptian Vulture and its nesting grounds.
Lobas Island is an islet just off Fuerteventura where we spent a day appreciating the island’s history of monk seal conservation and spotting our first endemic plant species. On this visit I had the most encouraging conversation about my career that I have ever had with Dr Todd Lewis. Throughout the course, Todd helped everyone understand their valuable skills while sharing some of his own personal stories.
Day 6 and 7
Our brief comprised of a real-life issue imposed on Pozo Negro (the area we were staying in). In 2012 The Spanish Government passed a bill stating that all urbanised coasts within 50m of the high tide mark must be relocated over the next 30 years. We were told we would be presenting a presentation to the Spanish Government, that demonstrated our companies’ mitigation plans for the relocation.
We touched on topics such as local stakeholders, cost-benefit analysis, finance, specialist consultations, relocation sites, flood defences, demolition procedures, Environmental Impact Assessments, cultural and social needs, renewable energies, mitigation impacts on local protected species and sustainable community living. My team ‘EcoPozotive’ won the competition, giving me a real sense of achievement as well as relevant, real-life skills.
The course was phenomenal and I’ve never been surrounded by a group of more inspiring, driven and like-minded people. I’ve made friends for life and we will continue to support each other in the coming years. As for Anne, Todd, Colin and Pete, I can never say thank you enough and I only hope this blog post reaches all who need the course in the future.
If you’re reading this blog, don’t give up on an environmental career. You can do it and if you need a little extra help see the contacts below. If I could sum up what I’ve learnt from the course in three words, they would be:
I am valuable!
Contact Anne for further details or check out their website: