Working in Ecological Consultancy – Claire Wansbury – Atkins
Claire Wansbury is the Associate Director of Ecology at Atkins, a large engineering and environmental consultancy. Most of her time is spent advising on the protection of wildlife on major infrastructure projects such as road schemes and railways. She also works on introducing new approaches within the industry, like Biodiversity Net Gain and Natural Capital valuation, where they can benefit nature if introduced alongside existing systems like legal policy and protection.
I asked Claire to share her experiences in her role and advice for budding ecologists.
Why choose ecology?
For me, it isn’t so much a question of why I work as an ecologist; in my mind the question is why everyone else doesn’t want to be one! Basically, it is very interesting, it is important, and I can make a difference.
Initially I worked for government nature conservation bodies, and moving into consultancy was purely because I wanted to find a job close to my husband. In the 1990s there were far fewer jobs for ecologists, and several people working in English Nature (now Natural England), including me, lived over a hundred miles from their spouses and only saw them at weekends. Once I moved into consultancy, I initially worked for a small consultant, and learned a lot there, but I moved to Atkins for the chance to work on a greater variety of projects.
Claire’s career steps
I did a biology degree, because it was the most interesting subject for me. At the time I didn’t know what jobs were available, but I knew there weren’t many. That meant it was very useful for me to gain experience alongside my degree by volunteering. Volunteering also helped me decide I wanted to work in conservation in the UK.
Looking at my CV, you might think my career was a carefully planned set of steps. In reality, every time I needed or wanted to change job I ended up simply taking the first job that was offered to me! One very fortunate step was my first paid job at the Countryside Council for Wales. I had applied for a job that needed several years’ experience, and unsurprisingly wasn’t asked for interview. However, the UK conservation agencies were also recruiting for a series of short contracts for more junior staff and my CV was passed to the recruiters, who got in touch.
Best thing about the job
I am much more office based than earlier in my career, and that actually gives me a good balance. As I have become more experienced, more and more I found my role changed to advising junior colleagues on their projects, and I enjoy this. I also like the variety, and the fact that when I am leading on a project myself it is normally an unusual one. This gives me a good balance of ecological technical input and problem solving.
Form me, it is definitely a project we did a few years ago for London Wildlife Trust (LWT). I got approval within Atkins and then led the work, an ecosystem services valuation of Camley Street Natural Park. Using our study as support for applications, LWT secured over £1 million funding for a new visitor centre, due to open in 2020. LWT also used the study as evidence campaigning to improve protection of locally designated wildlife sites across the whole of London.
I used Atkins’ innovation fund and inspired colleagues to volunteer time through our volunteering system, so the study was a free donation to LWT. The study demonstrated a value of £2.8 million per annum to the local economy and wider society.
It is hard to see beyond Coronavirus just now, but as ecologists we must do so. We are living in a time of both climate and biodiversity emergencies. They are not separate, but intertwined, and ecologists have a critical role to play. We have a real challenge to give clear, balanced advice to non-experts at a time when it has never been more important.
As ecologists we never, ever stop learning. One of the most important things is to know when to ask for others’ input, whether a specialist, someone with more experience, or a group to brainstorm when faced with something truly new.
Advice for aspiring ecologists
Get experience as well as qualifications. It will help your job prospects, but also it will help you think how you might want to focus your career. Taking consultancy as an example, while it is great to be out in the field a lot, you also need to learn reporting skills, so look for opportunities to develop these alongside field ecological experience in your early career.
Claire’s career goals
I am looking to progress, either developing in my current role or expanding my role in a more senior position. That can be challenging in consultancy as specialists like ecologists can’t always become more senior in generalist companies unless we take a role that is purely managerial. However, while I have enjoyed roles that involve managing others, that isn’t the direction for me – when all is said and done, I am an ecologist and want to stay one.
Exploring a career in ecology? Find out more about ecology careers with Atkins.