We’re searching for a new field ornithologist. It should be simple to find someone who’s suitably qualified and full of enthusiasm for such a great role, shouldn’t it?
There are lots of young people looking for a way into professional ecology and, like any other career, the usual way is to start at the bottom and work up. In our industry this typically means fieldwork; assisting with species and habitat surveys is the norm. Often recent graduates cut their teeth on this type of fieldwork before moving on to more senior roles, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Certainly some of the fieldwork can be completed with relatively little experience or skill and most people feel the need to progress.
But here’s the issue. Much of the fieldwork can’t be properly carried out by recent graduates; it’s highly skilled and takes years of practice to become proficient. Ecology is a broad field, so it’s almost impossible for any individual to excel right across different areas. Whilst it takes very little time to learn how to complete, say, a great crested newt survey, other areas are much more complex. Botany and birds, in particular, take many years of practice. Skilled surveyors should be able to accurately identify a staggering array of species. Also as a field ornithologist, surveyors will need to include varying plumages throughout the year, birds glimpsed briefly and songs and calls. A good ‘birder’ will be able to look at the habitats and, coupled with a proper understanding of bird distribution, be able to accurately anticipate what species are likely to be found there. The reality of course is that you cannot obtain this level of skill unless you have a genuine passion for the subject. A university course isn’t going to teach you how to be a good field ornithologist, but equally a good birder must learn how to be a competent and diligent surveyor.
As a sector, we should value field skills more – good quality data underpins everything we do. So to fill our vacancy we need to look at the passionate graduates, but also widen the net to find those people who are natural field surveyors. In the UK there are a great many skilled amateurs out there, from young folk to those nearing retirement from other sectors. We should tap into this vat of knowledge more in our sector. Finding the right people with the right skills doesn’t only mean looking at higher education or for membership of professional bodies. So, to do that, we need to ensure that a move into professional ecology isn’t prohibited by a lack of a relevant degree or unfair salaries. We should welcome all those who can truly bring their skills to the table and offer them a chance, which means valuing, developing and rewarding them accordingly.