What does an ecologist actually do? An interview with ecologist and nature author, Andrew Painting

Andrew Painting works as an ecologist for the National Trust for Scotland at Mar Lodge, located in the Scottish Highlands. Not only this, he is now the author of a wonderful new nature book – ‘Regeneration’.

Our paths have crossed before, as is typical within the small world of conservation, so I took the opportunity to ask Andrew all about his experience writing his debut book. As stated in the Prologue, this book sets out to answer the fascinating question of,

‘What does an ecologist actually do?’ Read on to find out…

Andrew Painting in hills. Credit: Lindsay Linning.

Hurrah! The technology is working. After a couple of minutes, I get a slightly pixelated Andrew on the screen. We are both looking somewhat dishevelled, after spending a day out rummaging in nature, enjoying fieldwork in on a rare sunny day in Scotland. Spring is a busy time of year for conservationists.  

Before chatting about his new book, I wanted to get some background from Andrew on how his career as an ecologist started.

Can you tell us what led you to where you are today, in your current role as an ecologist?

I’ve always been a bit of a birder and naturalist. However, this is not something I originally pursued, as it became apparent during my A-levels that there weren’t many jobs in this field. So instead, I decided to do a degree in English Literature.

Over time, this changed as my interest in this sector grew, following from my voluntary experiences on RSPB reserves. I spent a winter volunteering at Loch of Strathbeg, a few weeks on the Orkney reserves and 6 months at Forsinard Flows reserve.

After this, I got an apprenticeship with South Somerset District Council. This had a great mix of knowledge building and practical skills, as it had a Level 3 diploma attached and there was the opportunity to get plenty of tickets (practical qualifications, e.g., chainsaw, brush cutter, etc.). This led me to my current role as an ecologist at Mar Lodge.

Regenerating pines at Mar Lodge. Credit: Andrew Painting.

From reading your book, it’s clear you work in an inspiring setting and have had some really exciting wildlife experiences. What would you say are your career highlights so far?

A thoughtful pause. There must be a fair few to choose from…

Hmm, finding my first hen harrier nest by itself was pretty good.

This job is filled with minor highlights, where every now and again, when you are out and about, you come across things that you are not quite expecting. I wrote in the book about finding a greater butterfly orchid and that really stuck with me. I mean, in the grand scheme of things, you’re not going to win an award or anything for finding a greater butterfly orchid, but it brought a real satisfaction.

Greater butterfly orchid. Credit: Andrew Painting.

I wrote a wee paper that got published in Conservation Evidence, which was the first time I got published in a scientific capacity, which felt very cool.

There are a few particular species I really enjoy working with. I really enjoy working with peregrines, as they are such beautiful birds, and probably my favourite bird of prey. We also work with dotterel, which just feels like a privilege, as there are only about 500 breeding pairs in the UK.

There was a moment in 2018, working at Mar Lodge, where the birch just suddenly came out. We realised our birch regeneration was going really well and our work was actually paying off.

That was the moment when I decided to write this book, as I realised that this is a story that deserved to be told.

Hen harrier chick. Credit: Shaila Rao.

In your book, you don’t shy away from the challenges of an ecologist, from the midges and early mornings to the reality of how difficult the politics around conversation can be. What would you say have been your toughest challenges working as an ecologist?

The toughest general challenge, which I still haven’t resolved and doubt I ever will, is the precarity of the work.

Occasionally the cold and wet can get to you. One time, in July 2017, I was nearly hypothermic as I’d been outside in the rain all day. There was also a time at RSPB Forsinard Flows reserve, where I forgot to wear a long-sleeved shirt whilst peat probing in clear-fell forestry and I came back with over 100 horse fly bites. I counted! However, you can deal with this discomfort because you know the day will finish soon, and you are doing it for a good reason.

The politics can be interesting. The other thing I find difficult, and this has happened far too regularly, is when one of our hen harriers has ‘mysteriously disappeared’ over a grouse moor. That’s quite hard to swallow.

Now, I’m keen to find out all about Andrew’s new book…

Did you have a specific aim or audience in mind when writing this book?

The main reason I started to write this book is that I was aware we were sitting on this ecological good news story, that would be interesting to share. As I started writing, however, I realised the really interesting story was how people with very different perceptions of the same landscape, could come together in common cause, and work in the best interest of the land.

In regards to an audience, the first audience that came into my head was RSPB members! Again, however, what I realised was that I really wanted to write something for people who were interested in the environment, but didn’t yet have that much of a grounding in it. The other target audience was university undergraduates, who might want an accessible book about the key issues within conservation in the Highlands.

Regenerating trees at Glen Derry. Credit: Andrew Painting.

Now we know you studied English Literature at university, but did you have any other writing experience before starting this book?

The book was quite influenced by my Master’s in Environmental Anthropology, which can be interpreted as fitting social sciences within ecology. This is a theme that is threaded throughout the book.

I’ve always found the literary history of the Highlands really interesting. One of my inspirations was the book ‘On the Other Side of Sorrow’ by James Hunter, which provides an excellent examination of/insight into how environmental and social issues often intertwine.

In terms of writing experience, I wrote a series of articles on the website Wildlife Articles. This was good practice, as it’s a free online forum that anyone can access. At university, I moonlighted as a music reviewer for a while, and I also do interpretation writing on the side.

So, some useful bits and bobs.  But the main thing I would say, is if you want to write something, just start writing.

How did you find the process of writing this book and subsequently getting it published?

I would say that I was incredibly lucky to be sitting on multiple interesting ecological stories.

I wrote this book (first draft) over two winters, mostly based on fieldwork completed over the summer. When it came to publishing, I sent it to 3 or 4 publishers, who registered interest, but I had a chance encounter with someone from ‘Birlinn Publishing’ (an Independent Scottish Publisher), as a member of staff had booked on a volunteer week at Mar Lodge. This is who ended up publishing the book. They were really great to work with.

Writing the first draft didn’t take too long, but editing took longer. The really important bit was also the most difficult, which was the fact-checking and referencing. I was conscious that a lot of this subject matter was contentious, so I was keen to get it right. This probably helped the overall quality of the book, as I knew it could be picked apart!

And finally, what advice would you give any aspiring ecologists or nature writers?

To an aspiring ecologist, I would give a practical piece of advice, which is to learn your plants, including grasses, rushes and sedges. That way, you will get a job.

I was asked recently by some students on what one thing you can do to get into the conservation sector? I said, volunteer at RSPB Forsinard Flows. It’s a really good reserve, with lots of the surveys being very relevant for Scottish ecological monitoring e.g., peat probing and NVC surveys.

Apart from this, a lot of the surveys are actually fairly horrific, so it’s a good test for early ecologists! I remember, we did a common scoter survey nest watch, with shifts of 8 hours, and I got stuck in a thunderstorm in the middle of nowhere, vainly trying to watch this nest!

I thought, if I could do this, then I must be in the right job.

(I concur, having also spent 2 weeks at Forsinard, which was actually my first voluntary placement in the conservation sector. Being eaten alive by midges, falling waist-high into bog regularly, yet still loving every minute of it.)

RSPB Forsinard Flows Reserve. Credit: Paul Turner.

For writers, the standard thing is read a lot and write a lot and not to worry if it’s not any good at the start. This is important, but my key bit of advice would be to find an interesting story. When you are writing about something you are really interested in, you will find it much easier to keep writing.

If you have a good story, you can’t go wrong.

Final thoughts

I fully enjoyed reading Andrew’s book. I would highly recommend it to anyone who has an interest in nature and wildlife conservation. An invaluable insight into the world of an ecologist.

Author Profile

Molly works as a wildlife conservationist in the Scottish Highlands, with the role of ‘Capercaillie Advisory Officer’ for RSPB Scotland. She also works as a freelance writer and manages her own blog, Hippy Highland Living, which features content on sustainable living, Scottish nature and wildlife conservation. To read her blog, visit Molly’s website  www.hippyhighlandliving.com.

Careers Advice, Interviews, Mid Career, Ecologist, Restoration & Rewilding, Wildlife