Photograph of RSPB warden and tree surgeon Matthew Wilkinson fitting an owl nest box to a tree.

From farming for profit to farming for wildlife – Advice for career switchers

As an RSPB warden in the Norfolk Broads, Matthew is the custodian of one of the rarest fenland habitats in Europe. Many career switchers are hesitant to apply for warden roles, believing they would have to study for a biology degree or learn to identify every species on the reserve to be successful. However, in this interview Matthew explains how his background in farming and the building trade gave him the perfect skills for his dream job. 

What inspired you to work in conservation, and what are the key steps you’ve taken in your career? 

I grew up on a farm in Orkney, and my first job was as a farm manager. One day I had an audit done on the farm by the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group and they got very excited by the fact I had otters. I was a bit non-plussed by it but then I realised – wow – they’re so excited by this, what am I missing? I had always been quite fascinated by nature, but I had never really learnt how to identify species or thought that I could help wildlife on the farm before. So that got me inspired to an extent.

After four years as a farm manager, I worked for a stable for a bit before I was offered a job as a mason’s labourer. I was in the building trade for two years. I wanted to get back to farming and animals, so I applied for a job in a dairy. While I was working in the dairy, I realised I enjoyed learning new skills. It was at this time that I was introduced to the RSPB.

The corncrake officer for the RSPB moved in next door and introduced me to her team on Orkney. The RSPB team got to know me for my practical skills and work ethic. I remember seeing an advert for an assistant warden and thinking I would love that job. The senior warden asked why I hadn’t applied, because if I had, I would have got the job. I was shocked that somebody thought I was capable enough. Next time, I applied and got my first contract as an assistant warden! 

I went on to work as an RSPB corncrake officer for two summer seasons. After these contracts, I started applying all over the UK to progress my career. I was employed for a 14 week contract as a warden in the Norfolk Broads, and I’ve stayed here ever since!

What are the main activities in your current role?

I look after 450 hectares of fen which is some of the rarest habitat in Europe. I spend most of my time managing habitats, surveying species and mentoring volunteers. My skills lie in getting people working together with their different expertise to get a project done.

Photograph of a chainsaw resting on a log, looking over an area of fenland at sunset.

Habitat management.

What are the best and worst parts of your job?

The thing I love about my role is that it is very multi-skilled, each day is different. I also love seeing the difference we’re making and the positive effects over time. I like being part of a team; working with people who are like-minded and passionate is really important, especially coming from a farming background where the work can be very lonely.

The worst part is the paperwork and red tape. There are constraints on a lot of aspects of what we do, which can stifle creativity and enthusiasm. This is the issue with valuable sites that have the highest protection levels; the regulations protect the site from people who might harm it, so they are overall a good thing, but they can inadvertently stop us from being bold and trying new ideas. 

Photograph of a narrow waterway in the Norfolk Broads, viewed from a small boat.

Not a bad view from the office!

What are you most proud of in your career so far?

That would have to be how I help the people who come through the residential volunteering scheme. My input into the future generation through my coaching and mentoring of them means that they go on to do bigger and better things, and they are now making a difference themselves. It is really rewarding to invest in other people and see them go into fulfilling careers. 

The fen is now all in a favourable condition; I’m proud of that too. It is all planned by the site manager and Natural England, but my work ethic has made the changes happen in reality. 

What were your most important transferrable skills when you switched into conservation? 

The skills from agriculture and the building trade have been key. Hard skills I learnt from the building trade, like being able to repair things, were particularly useful. It is not such a big leap from farming into conservation because they are both about land management. It’s just a different “crop”, we farm for wildlife; we produce bitterns instead of lamb, swallowtail butterflies instead of cabbages!

Most important of all was having a can-do attitude. It’s that belief in yourself that helps you succeed. Sometimes the volunteers I mentor are lacking self-belief and confidence and I help teach them they can do it! If they believe they can do it, they will. It’s all achievable. 

Matthew switched careers from the agricultural and building trades to be an RSPB warden. He is photographed using his heavy machinery skills to create a nature reserve car park.

Transferrable skills! Matthew switched careers from the agricultural and building trades to be an RSPB warden. He is photographed using his heavy machinery skills to create a nature reserve car park.

Which key skills did you need to learn in order to switch successfully?

The things I struggled with and had to learn on the job were the computer software that we use, and bird identification.

Although I didn’t have any qualifications in ecology and conservation, this should never be a barrier to employing somebody because skills are more important than qualifications. You can train someone up to take a qualification but if they haven’t got the experience, or the right attitude in the first place, that’s not something you can teach. For example, I had used a chainsaw and a quadbike before, but had no certificates. The RSPB soon put me through quadbike safety and chainsaw training to enable me to use those skills at work. 

What advice would you give to others who want to move from the agricultural or trades sectors into the conservation sector? 

Residential volunteering has to be the absolute best way in. One day a week volunteering doesn’t really cut it because you don’t get a full understanding of what the various jobs involve and how the reserve works. Without that knowledge, you would be in the dark when applying for an assistant warden job. You need to immerse yourself in a team for a period of time to get those skills and to get your name known, which is what helped me. I was offered an assistant warden job because my skills were known.

When you are applying for jobs, don’t think about what your employer can do for you, think about what you can do for them. Ask employers what skills can you add and what can you achieve there. See the big picture and view each job is a cog in the machine. This point of view and initiative can often come with maturity, which is another reason why career switchers can be very good. 

You need to keep on trying after rejections. Keep knocking at the door, that determination only comes from you. You will get rejection after rejection, but go back, knock again! When a door opens go through it. I didn’t know I would enjoy conservation as much as I did until I tried it.

Are you interested in getting involved with the RSPB? Why not learn more about the RSPB Residential Volunteering Scheme!


About the Author

Jenna is a freelance writer, poet and natural sciences graduate. Wildlife and conservation are at the heart of their work, and they aim to make nature more accessible through their writing.


Careers Advice, Interviews, Mid Career, Senior Level, Land Manager