Water and Wildlife with Chris Gerrard
This week we’re speaking to Chris Gerrard. He tells us about his role as Anglian Water’s Climate Change and Biodiversity Manager, his fascinating career path to date, and provides some practical advice for people looking for a job in conservation.
What’s it like being the Climate Change and Biodiversity Manager at Anglian Water?
I’ve got a team of four people, most of whom are based on the nature conservation wildlife side of the work. Together we identify plans and projects to reduce any potential negative impacts on wildlife, whilst also seeking to maximize the benefits to wildlife of our day to day activities.
We also have a multi-million pound construction program running, and so we need to know when there’s going to be problems with things like protected species or protected sites.
This means having a team member involved in the screening of those projects so they can point out all the work that needs to be done to address Great Crested Newts, Bats, Sites of Species Scientific Interest (SSSI) or whatever it is that might be a constraint that we need to manage.
I also do climate change adaptation for Anglian Water, which is saying “what is the inevitable climate change that we are going to face in this part of the world, and what do we therefore need to do in order to continue to provide great service to our customers”?
When people think Anglian Water people don’t necessarily immediately connect that to wildlife and biodiversity.
Naturally we have impacts on the natural environment because we are taking water from it temporarily, and are putting most of it back once it has been treated in our water recycling centers. We recognize the dependencies we have on the environment, and we want to play our part in protecting it.
One example of our work is within the 3,000 hectares of SSSIs in our control – much of which are water bodies. My team has resources to work in partnership with Wildlife Trusts to manage aspects of those reservoirs, so that they become great nature reserves for people to come and visit.
We also have a lot of operational sites which have wildlife value. Therefore, I’ve got a member of staff who’s job it is to go and find those places of wildlife value and put in place active management to maintain it.
We also fund species conservation work, and have supported the Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust’s reintroduction of Ospreys at Rutland Water, which has just seen its 100th chick to fledge. A huge success.
Which bits of your job do you enjoy most day to day?
I’m very keen for Anglian water to be seen as and recognized as delivering and doing the right thing by the natural environment.
I like seeing our SSSIs being managed in the right way, and being brought into favorable condition. Most of this is done vicariously through my team, as I sit behind my desk most of the time now and write strategies and budgets and things like that.
All the partnership working with the third parties is also great. I like getting together with them and looking at what our collective ambition is for the next few years, trying to get the resources in place to do it, and seeing things being delivered as a result.
Looking back at your career so far, what steps have you taken to get to the position that you are in now?
I’ve had a fairly traditional route into nature conservation. I started with a degree in environmental science and I majored on historical ecology.
I then volunteered for a year which gave me my first step into a paid job where I ran a team of unemployed people working at the Wildlife Trust doing practical management on our nature reserves. Then I worked for the Wildlife Trust in a series of roles for a total of 20 years. During this time I did ten years running the Great Fen Project and became the Director of Living Landscapes.
I would say that getting the original academic qualification was important, followed by getting the toe in the door, volunteering and then constantly trying to develop in my roles through various means.
I did bespoke training courses and a number of management qualifications through the open university – constantly growing my CV both on the nature conservation skill side, but also on the management side. This has really helped me to develop throughout my career.
What drew you into conservation?
I could have at one stage gone into forestry, I could even gone into geology, so I’m just really interested in the natural world in its broader sense but I became fascinated by historical ecology – how the British landscape has changed over time and this stimulated my interest in nature conservation.
When you are viewing CVs and applications, what other things do you look for that help people to stand out?
When I was at the trust, I employed a lot of people.
When I read a CV or cover letter I check if the person has the right qualifications. This usually means a degree – often a no brainer for people entering into the market.
However, I’m looking alongside that for other evidence that they have tried to stand out. For example, so they might have literally just got their degree qualification, but did they do anything during their degree to for example get field experience doing practical conservation work? Did they run a conservation volunteer team at university? Did they go on courses whilst at university which is cheap, often free to do, so they could have been doing things during their university career to stand out, but then after that what are they doing?
Because there’s absolutely no reason not to be gaining skills even if they’re working to pay the bills whilst seeking their first step into a conservation career.. They should still be able to dedicate some weekend time or some evening time to do something.
Also if the company asks for something, give it to them! Don’t make any assumptions, just fill in every single thing – don’t give anybody an easy reason to say: “Well they didn’t do that, so let’s get rid of that.”
What are you looking for at interview?
And then at interview I’m looking for someone who is lively, really. It’s fine being an introvert – I’m an introvert naturally – but you have to carry yourself in a certain way.
I want a firm handshake, I want eye contact, I want an impact in the room, I want to hear words that indicate this person loves what they are interested in, really wants to work for us, has good examples, comes back with questions at the end and never say: “No, I don’t have any questions, thank you.” Ask questions even if they have already been answered.
And what we are seeing more and more is that interviews are now competency based interviews, so the other thing is, give us some example when you have done x. I see a lot of people talk about that passion, but actually can I evidence it?
Another thing that actually I learnt when I was interviewed for this role is that you are not always going to be able to evidence things, you are always going to have blind spots in your experience, it is better and this is backed up by evidence, it is better to be upfront when you are lacking something and explain what you are to do in order to fill that gap. It is not the right strategy to hope it either won’t be noticed or that people will forgive it.
Is a Masters Degree important in the conservation job hunt?
It used to be that in order to stand out, graduates would think they should and get an MSC and it’s still a perfectly viable route to do so. However, I’d also say when this might add another nine grand to people’s debts, what actually is it that you think you might need?
Sometimes you can address things just by getting experience. For example, if you are going for a job with a wildlife trust, it looks fantastic to say that you’ve volunteered for your local trust, that just speaks fully when you’ve got some practical experience, you already know how environmental charity might operate on the ground.
Have you got a message for people considering working in nature conservation?
I love working in the natural environment and I encourage everyone wholeheartedly to go in there if they know they’d like to do it.