If you're passionate about the environment and want to encourage others to enjoy and protect it, a career in nature conservation could be for you
As a nature conservation officer you'll work to protect, manage and enhance the local environment. This can include grassland, woodland, forests, coastal areas, moorland, mountains and rivers. Depending on the region, you might also work in marine habitats.
Part of the role is to encourage people to use the countryside and promote awareness and understanding of the natural environment. You'll develop policy which may have local and national impact.
Job titles within this sector are varied and you could be known as a:
- conservation assistant or technician
- project officer or biodiversity officer
- sustainable development officer.
As a nature conservation officer, you'll need to:
- educate all sectors of the local community, including local schools and colleges, and raise awareness of environmental issues and nature conservation work
- promote and implement local and national biodiversity action plans in partnership with local and national statutory and voluntary organisations
- contribute to planning and policy development for sustainable management, including input into environmental impact assessments
- provide advice to clients, employers, community groups, landowners, planners and developers
- prepare and implement annual management plans based on ecological surveys and scientific observation
- contribute to the selection of, and assist with casework for, Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) and National Nature Reserves (NNRs)
- evaluate and monitor features of nature conservation interest in habitats
- maintain and develop your own knowledge and skills, especially with regard to the knowledge of developments in policy, legislation and European and international regulations
- promote the concept of sustainability to the public, colleagues and fellow professionals through talks, tours, literature, displays and workshops
- organise, supervise and train supporting paid staff and volunteers
- maintain effective records using IT database systems
- prepare applications to get funding and grants
- assess applications for funding from other organisations
- liaise with the media to publicise organisation or conservation sites
- deal with enquiries from the public
- educate young people, and those considering entering the profession, through talks and seminars to local colleges and universities.
- Typical starting salaries generally range from £18,000 to £24,000.
- Salaries at senior level or with experience (e.g. after 10 to 15 years in the role) are generally between £20,000 and £30,000.
- Experienced managers may earn £30,000+.
Salaries are generally higher in the private or consultancy sector. Consultancy work (freelance or self-employment) has increased in recent years, as developers will often call in environmental experts to assist with their planning applications.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
Unsocial hours, such as early starts and evening meetings, may typically be included in your working hours as a nature conservation officer. It may also be necessary to work some weekends and public holidays.
What to expect
- At entry-level in particular, the work can be rough and extremely demanding, often outdoors in all weathers.
- The balance between field work and office-based work varies considerably, with more administration, statistical analysis and report writing associated with senior positions.
- There may be a large amount of administration, normally requiring IT skills. Individual officers are often responsible for their own clerical work.
- The work requires considerable contact with the public and, increasingly, with the media.
- As environmental work is often developed from international policy or good practice, travel abroad to conferences and meetings may be common in some posts.
Entry with a relevant HND is possible with substantial experience, but this is a competitive area and graduates are usually preferred.
Relevant degree subjects include environmental, life and urban and land studies. These particular subjects may increase your chances:
- botany/plant science
- earth science (physical)
- land/estate management
- marine sciences/oceanography
- sustainable development.
If you have a non-relevant degree, a relevant postgraduate qualification might help. Preferably, this would be a course that balances the first degree, for example a management course to complement a science degree. Some employers see a Masters as the minimum qualification required and entry may be difficult without one.
Most advertised posts ask for experience and this should be your first priority. The importance of paid or voluntary experience cannot be over emphasised. To gain full-time employment, even for short-term contracts, you must demonstrate that you have become involved and shown commitment. Many people working in this sector start in voluntary work and building up contacts and experience.
You'll need to:
- have good administrative and IT skills
- communicate effectively through talks and presentations
- produce literature such as leaflets
- be confident in leading walks
- have some knowledge of geographical information systems (GIS).
Becoming a student member of a professional institute or a member of a relevant organisation such as The Wildlife Trusts is an excellent way to network. Environmental consultancies may be prepared to offer work experience if you've completed your degree. Some Masters courses offer project placements at organisations such as the Environment Agency (EA) and this may be a good way in.
Any experience in conservation, management, education or planning will be invaluable. National and international working holidays are great opportunities to develop valuable experience.
Short residential camps, where tuition in a range of skills is provided, alongside experience in practical conservation are all provided by organisations such as:
You could consider volunteering overseas, assisting with local conservation schemes, such as those offered by the UNA Exchange. TCV also offers structured training as a volunteer officer, with responsibility for a specific area of work (depending on the location).
For more ideas and tips, see work experience and internships.
Local authorities, government departments, utilities companies, consultancies, nature reserves, national or country parks, private estates, engineering companies (particularly those concerned with road building) and housing developers are all likely to employ nature conservation officers. Particular employers include:
- The Conservation Volunteers (TCV)
- Countryside Council for Wales (CCW)
- Environment Agency (EA)
- Field Studies Council (FSC)
- Natural England
- National Trust
- Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA)
- Scottish Natural Heritage
- The Wildlife Trusts.
Look for job vacancies at:
Recruitment agencies that handle vacancies include:
You'll be expected to have the necessary qualifications, experience and skills on taking up the post.
Once you start your employment, you'll be able to access a number of training opportunities, which can be completed on the job. These include the courses offered by the Countryside Jobs Service. The Field Studies Council (FSC) also offers a range of courses designed to enhance the skills of anyone working, or aspiring to work, in this sector.
Training for a range of environmental qualifications for employees, students, professionals or people with a personal interest in this area of work can be arranged through the The Conservation Volunteers (TCV). Depending on budgets, the local authority or employer that you work for may contribute or fully pay for you to complete work-related courses, as well as NVQs or SVQs.
You could ask your employer if they will support you while you undertake other types of continuing professional development (CPD), such as studying for a Masters. They may also pay for membership of professional bodies, such as the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (CIEEM).
In many organisations there is no established career hierarchy, although in some environmental consultancies there may be a path from ecologist to senior ecologist and then on to principal ecologist.
There is considerable competition at all levels for jobs in conservation work and applicants have to be able to demonstrate an enthusiasm and passion for the issues. A good way to do this is by participating in other activities, which will add to your experience and enhance your CV.
To further your career development you might consider volunteering to sit on the local biodiversity steering group or undertaking work for a local office of the. You could also participate in schemes run through:
By getting involved in organisations such as these you will be able to meet key players in this community, which should create more opportunities for future development.
To gain promotion you may need to move to another organisation and possibly relocate. More senior posts usually involve a greater degree of office work, including planning, budgets, people management, and the administrative aspects of environmental management. Moving between the public, voluntary and private sectors may help you to gain experience and promotion.
Find out how Lorna became a conservation apprentice at BBC Bitesize.