Employers recognise that ecologists and environmental managers have a diverse range of skills and therefore a background in ecology and/or environmental management can lead to a variety of career paths, such as:
Local Government and Statutory Agencies
Many departments and agencies of central and local government have responsibilities to promote or have regard to the conservation of wildlife, habitats and landscape quality e.g. Natural England, Natural Resources Wales, Scottish Natural Heritage, Defra, Environment Agency, and so they need staff who have sound knowledge of ecological practice.
Employment opportunities in the public sector have been created through European Union environmental policies in the Government’s agri-environment programme, which includes schemes to enhance the wildlife value of agricultural land. The UK accepted the resolutions from the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, which called for sustainable development, the maintenance of biodiversity and a reduction in emissions to the atmosphere. Resolutions from Rio are being implemented both at the national level and by local authorities.
Both permanent and short-term contract work is offered by some organisations. A single job, such as that of an area officer in a statutory nature conservation agency, may involve a wide variety of activities (see Rooting for a Career in Ecology or Environmental Management for career profiles).
Government departments and agencies are frequently reorganised, but the major employers at present include:
National agencies with a statutory remit for wildlife and landscape conservation:
- Natural England
- Natural Resources Wales
- Scottish Natural Heritage
- Northern Ireland Environment Agency
- The Joint Nature Conservation Committee
Other Government agencies:
- The Environment Agency
- The Scottish Environment Protection Agency
- The Forestry Commission
- Forest Enterprise and British Waterways
- Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (CEFAS)
- Marine Management Organisation (MMO)
Government funded research institutes (also see ‘Science and Research’ section):
- Museums, including the Natural History Museum in London and national museums e.g. Edinburgh, Cardiff etc.
- Botanic gardens, including the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and Edinburgh, and the National Botanic Garden of Wales
- Government Departments such as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA)
- Local authority planning, environment, and leisure and recreation departments
- National Park Authorities
Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs)
NGOs have an increasing influence on attitudes to the environment. Many NGOs are involved with conservation and habitat management e.g. RSPB, Wildlife Trusts, British Trust for Conservation Volunteers, British Trust for Ornithology, and many more.
The employment opportunities offered by NGOs are as wide as the variety of work done by them. For the young and aspiring ecologists, NGOs can provide an accessible and attractive route into work in practical ecology. Organisations such as RSPB, County Wildlife Trusts, and the National Trust employ between them a large number of ecologists and environmental managers, but many jobs are temporary or seasonal and competition for salaried posts is very strong. Voluntary work for NGOs is often used as a stepping stone to work elsewhere.
The Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG) is an excellent example of an NGO which enjoys recognition and acceptance by the Government Ministers, the National Farmers Union, the Country Landowners Association, farmers and other NGOs. Changes in the attitudes of many farmers and landowners towards conservation have been achieved by persuasion and sound reasoning provided by FWAG advisors.
Practical conservation – NGOs own or manage a very large area of land throughout Great Britain. Whilst much of the estate work carried out by land owning NGOs is done by their own rangers, estate workers and members, some of them use other practical conservation organisations to help with specific tasks. These might include scrub management, hedge laying, ditch maintenance, stone wall construction, pond digging and woodland management.
The British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTCV), The Scottish Conservation Projects Trust (SCPT) and Conservation Volunteers Northern Ireland (CVNI) run programmes of tasks throughout the UK. Volunteers are trained by professional staff to carry out practical tasks in nature reserves and on land which has other forms of amenity value, like recreation. Groundwork Trusts employ, amongst others, ecologists and project officers. Some Trusts operate a graduate training scheme, opportunities also exist for volunteers to work with these organisations.
Information gathering and campaigning – The energies and resources of campaigning and pressure group NGOs are devoted primarily to gathering environmental data and to fundraising. They employ campaign managers, advisors and project-based staff, who may research and collect information on conservation issues, supervise ecological surveys, carry out impact assessments, assess planning applications, prepare and give evidence at public inquiries, formulate conservation policies or produce campaign literature.
The analysis of information provides evidence to persuade central and local government, companies, landowners and farmers to act on conservation issues, demonstrate greater environmental awareness and manage resources in sensitive and responsible ways. Some NGOs are very active and influential at an international level. The WWF, Greenpeace and Birdlife International, in particular, offer opportunities for work overseas.
Recording biodiversity – A number of NGOs specialise in the collection, compilation and dissemination of biological records and in other work on biodiversity. Most of this information is gathered by volunteers, but some of the work is done under contract to Government departments or agencies. The NGOs employ project managers and research staff to coordinate surveys, often at a national level, and to analyse the data. The information is used mainly in nature conservation and applied research. Further reference to this is made under the ‘Science and Research’ section.
Broadly, NGOs can be split into four main categories of interest to ecologists or those wanting environmental work. Some organisations fit into more than one of these categories.
- NGOs that own nature reserves or manage land for wildlife conservation. This group contains:
- The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB)
- The Wildlife Trusts (County Trusts in England and Wales and the Scottish Wildlife Trust)
- The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust
- The National Trust
- The National Trust for Scotland
- Plantlife International
- The Woodland Trust
- Campaigning organisations including:
- Friends of the Earth
- The Marine Conservation Society
- The Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF)
- Whales and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCs)
- Organisation Cetacea
Many of the first group of NGOs (for instance the RSPB, Plantlife International and The Wildlife Trusts) are also campaigning organisations.
- Practical conservation organisations including:
- The British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTCV)
- The Conservation Volunteers for Northern Ireland (CVNI)
- The Scottish Conservation Projects Trust (SCPT)
- The Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG)
- Groundwork Trusts
The last are bodies co-funded by Government and industry that carry out practical environmental work in urban or regeneration areas.
- ‘Learned societies’ and research and data recording organisations, such as:
- The British Ecological Society (BES)
- The Botanical Society of the British Isles (BSBI)
- The National Biodiversity Network (NBN) Trust
- The Royal Entomological Society
- The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO)
- Birdlife International
- Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU)
Consultancies provide expertise on ecological and environmental issues to industry, government agencies and other organisations. Their services include Ecological Impact Assessments, surveys, habitat management and restoration guidance.
The increasing volume and complexity of European Legislation, together with new environmental laws and regulations in the UK, has resulted in a corresponding growth in the ecological consultancy sector.
An ecological consultant undertakes research and surveys to provide advice on ecological matters such as, how plans to use a particular area of land may affect the plant and animal species and types of habitats present. They will have gained specialist knowledge in this field, such as an appropriate first degree and often a second degree or relevant background in nature conservation as well as field experience. The work is very rewarding but can be quite demanding. Dependent on the type of work involved, completion of various tasks may be restricted due to a number of factors, such as the budget for the work, planning conditions or seasonal constraints.
Consultants must have a flexible approach to their work and may have to accept long hours. For example, survey work is sometimes carried out at night, in the case of bats and newts. A consultant must be prepared to spend periods of time working away from home and in some cases, abroad. The benefits of this are traveling to interesting sites and working outdoors, but there can also be a lot of administrative work and consultants must frequently work quickly in order to meet deadlines.
Ecological consultancies provide a range of services on a contract basis to organisations that do not employ specialist staff or have insufficient expertise. Many of the larger multidisciplinary consultancies that employ ecologists may also have staff with estate management, arboricultural, forestry and landscape design skills and experience. Some consultants have an environmental science background and will deal with issues such as contaminated land and air/water quality. The smaller, more specialised consultancies may focus in on individual species, for example, bats.
Field survey, monitoring and data collection – Consultants are often employed in routine field survey of flora and fauna, in data analysis, mapping and in monitoring of designated sites and proposed development schemes. This is most often carried out in conjunction with collation of existing data that is publicly available from record centres and other bodies. Initial site visits will typically describe the habitats present and assess the likelihood of protected species being found.
Often the methodology is the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) Phase 1 Habitat Survey, but other standard methodologies are used for follow-up surveys. Ecologists are encouraged to specialise in one or more taxonomic groups as their career progresses, as well as developing general botanical identification skills.
Impact assessment – A large proportion of consultancy work is now devoted to providing information for Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and/or Ecological Impact Assessment (EcIA).
Impact assessments are carried out for many projects, often related to the planning process. Projects may include industrial or building developments or transport schemes and consultants must produce evidence of the potential impact of proposed developments on the environment. This information is used by the developers, planning departments, conservation organisations and other stakeholders in a variety of ways, but mainly in public inquiries and when considering planning consent for work on a designated site. Sometimes the consultant employed to carry out the original assessment will also be involved in designing a programme of measures that reduce or cancel the harmful effects of new developments. This is called avoidance, mitigation or compensation. There may also be a requirement to attend planning meetings or give evidence at a public inquiry.
Provision of advice – Consultants are often called upon to give advice on a wide range of ecological issues; for instance, the type and level of survey work that could be required to meet a particular objective, nature reserve management (including the preparation of management plans), habitat creation or restoration schemes and issues relating to wildlife legislation. This advice usually takes the form of a report, but the output may also be in the form of presentations or meetings. More and more, this advice is often focussed on protected species, such as bats, badgers and great crested newts. This will often result in the consultant preparing a detailed mitigation scheme.
Mitigation and translocation – Mitigation schemes usually involve trapping and relocating animals as well as constructing new habitats for them. A specific licence must be held to carry out the work if the animal is a protected species. The consultant will be expected to take responsibility for the success of this work and make sure that all the requirements of the licence are adhered to. Habitats such as diverse grasslands may also be translocated if the conditions are suitable. This type of work involves liaison with engineers, production of method statements and supervision of contractors sometimes involving long periods of time on site.
Research – Research projects are often undertaken by consultancies for nature conservation agencies, local authorities and wildlife organisations, to investigate the success or otherwise of countryside schemes, monitor or prepare inventories of important species and habitats, or to monitor changes brought about by man-made alterations to the environment.
Business management – The more senior members of staff in consultancies generate policies, give advice, deal with legal and financial matters, engage in activities to generate new business and work closely with clients. They also supervise the work done by more junior staff, appraise their training needs and provide the relevant training required. Project management is a valuable skill as various elements such as finance and health and safety need to be incorporated into the work. Senior ecologists may become involved in public inquiries and need to be able to present information clearly and knowledgably.
Consultancies vary in size from firms with one or a handful of staff to much larger concerns. Large engineering companies now have ecological divisions that can work with both the engineering teams in-house and on other projects. Some practitioners combine academic work with consultancy – indeed, a requirement to work as a consultant is now written into the contracts of some college and university teachers. The research institutes carry out many of their activities on a consultancy basis and NGOs, such as some of the Wildlife Trusts, may also have staff who carry out consultancy work.
Business and Industry
Environmental action by industry is largely driven by legislation on pollution and the requirement for environmental/ecological impact assessment in the planning stage of developments.
Many of the potentially or actually harmful activities of manufacturing industries are monitored by environmental regulators such as the Environment Agency, Natural Resources Wales and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency.
Opportunities for direct employment by manufacturing firms and businesses are limited, as much of the environmental work is done by consultants under contract. However, some companies do employ in-house ecologists and environmental managers. There may be opportunities for work abroad, for instance on large civil engineering projects.
The following are examples of the areas of work available:
Planning – Ecologists and environmental managers are employed during the preparation of specifications for civil engineering projects. Impact assessments for large industrial, road building or housing developments are required prior to the submission of planning applications and the expertise of ecologists and environmental managers should be called upon. Their advice may be needed, for instance, in route planning for new road schemes, to prevent important wildlife areas being threatened.
Land and water restoration and utilisation – Environmental managers are involved in designing and supervising restoration projects for disturbed, degraded or contaminated land, in order to maximise nature conservation value. Ecological expertise is needed in the development of opportunities for recreation in reservoirs or sites used for mineral extraction or forestry. Environmental managers may also be asked to advise on such varied activities as mitigating site managing effects in large industrial complexes, designing marine protection schemes around fish farms and oil terminals, or ensuring habitat and species protection on golf courses, for example.
Maintaining and monitoring standards – The introduction and implementation of accredited environmental standards, including energy use and waste minimisation, is a requirement for industries, and this may involve ecological input. Agrochemical companies may employ ecologists or environmental managers to test and monitor the effects on wildlife and the environment of products such as toxic chemicals and, increasingly, genetically modified crops and other organisms. At the supply end, another form of monitoring which may require ecological knowledge is the sourcing and certification of sustainable raw materials for manufacturing and distribution industries.
Horticulture – The gardening industry is becoming very conscious of its potential for promoting wildlife conservation. Advice is needed on such things as water and wetland gardens, wildflower gardening, attracting birds and enhancing butterfly populations.
Ecotourism – The rapid growth of the ecotourism industry offers opportunities for ecologists. Their expertise is needed in planning for tourism, to ensure that the activity is sustainable and does not damage the environment. Organising, marketing and guiding wildlife tours throughout the world are a rapidly developing area.
Industries and businesses that provide the greatest scope for employing ecologists deal with:
- Mineral extraction
- Growing and processing food or timber
- Production and supply of energy
- Abstraction and supply of water
- Collection, processing and disposal of waste
- Pest control
- Civil engineering
- Landscaping and gardening
- Providers of outdoor leisure facilities and pursuits
- Holidays and tourism
Media and Public Relations
There has recently been an enormous growth in the environmental media industry with television, radio, magazines, books, websites, exhibits and interpretation centres contributing to the quality and amount of material available.
The people who control and direct the industry tend to come from journalistic backgrounds, but many of the people who make the films, write the books and magazine articles, and take the photographs are ecologists by training or persuasion. The BBC Natural History Unit provides an excellent example of effective symbiosis between media personnel and ecologists.
Writing about the environment – Many national newspapers and magazines employ environment correspondents. Professional ecologists and campaigning journalists may also be paid to write articles for newspapers, magazines and journals. This kind of writing is mainly ‘piece’ work, in which an author is commissioned to write (or may write and then submit) articles to magazines like British Wildlife, Natura World or New Scientist. Larger commissions (e.g. for books on environmental topics) are arranged by publishing houses or sometimes by organisations such as the statutory conservation agencies. Staff of these agencies are often required to produce reports and booklets about conservation issues for publication.
Increasingly, information is being made available through the internet, so there is a growing demand for people who are able to design websites. A career in journalism may also provide opportunities for foreign travel.
Editorial and commissioning work – Publishers of magazines and books about the environment (including NGOs such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and the National Trust) employ editorial staff who work with or commission material produced by others. Photographs, as well as written material, are in demand (also see ‘Science and Research’ section).
Radio, television and film – Production of films and broadcasts about wildlife and the environment creates openings for presenters, researchers, technicians, film crews and producers. The popularity of wildlife films and programmes gives this kind of job a romantic appeal. Not surprisingly, competition is intense and those who are successful often work on short contracts.
Public relations and environmental interpretation – The dramatic growth of NGOs and the need for them to create and maintain an effective public image offers opportunities for ecologists who are good communicators. Publicity managers and fundraisers are employed by NGOs. Statutory agencies, too, have publicity and press officers. Many organisations, including NGOs, statutory conservation agencies, Forest Enterprise, national parks authorities and local authorities, run visitor centres to inform the general public about nature reserves, parks and other areas of ecological or landscape value and to generate appreciation of the environment.
Scope also exists in museums, zoos, and botanic gardens for work in environmental education, interpretation and customer care. Much of the work involves the maintenance and display of collections, but the modern emphasis has moved on from the simple acquisition of material to exhibits that demonstrate how conservation and biodiversity can be achieved. There are specialist groups, such as the Museums Association, which provide an introduction to careers in museum work.
Campaigning – The chief activity of many NGOs is campaigning on environmental issues. The effectiveness of these organisations depends to a large extent on employing forceful and credible campaign promoters and political lobbyists (also see ‘Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs)).
Different categories of employer are:
- Publishers of books, magazines and newspapers (scientific journals are covered under the ‘Science and Research’ section)
- Radio, television and film companies
- Environmental NGOs
- Statutory nature conservation and countryside agencies
- Museums, zoos and botanical gardens
Science and Research
Research into ecology and environmental management covers a very wide range of topics and ecologists are employed as researchers in many of the employment sectors listed previously.
Academic institutions and research centres carry out much of the baseline research, working to contracts awarded by organisations such as the Research Councils, countryside agencies, Government departments and industrial clients. Other research is done as personal projects, carried out alongside other aspects of the job, such as university teaching. Results of research are published in scientific journals and specialist magazines. Some of the research data generated are published and used by the media to create awareness or to lobby and persuade.
Junior scientific positions are often laboratory based or involve fieldwork. Senior staff act as team or project managers and as strategic planners. Opportunities exist for working abroad on some projects. There are also academic jobs available, offering support to research scientists. Examples include laboratory technician work or practical work in zoos and botanic gardens. The following are examples of work in this area:
Pure and Applied Research – Pure ecological research is carried out mainly in universities and by specialist organisations such as the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH), although some takes place in other Government funded institutes, museums, zoos, botanic gardens and large companies. Much of the work carried out in universities for higher degrees is pure research. Most of the organisations already mentioned also carry out applied ecological research.
This may investigate the population dynamics of species that are either too numerous or are under threat; the ecological impacts of agricultural policy, climate change, genetically modified crops, pollution, implementation of legislation or introduced species; or methods of habitat restoration. Some applied research involves the testing of products on species or ecosystems; some are concerned with campaigns to create awareness (e.g. the effects of stress on hunted animals); some are directed towards monitoring the quality of air and water.
Biological Recording – A huge amount of data on species distribution is collected, mainly by amateurs in botanical, ornithological, entomological and similar specialist societies. Some NGOs, such as the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), hold their own information and employ staff to handle the data. Others pass data to local Biological Records Centres (often run by provincial museums) or to the National Biological Records Centres, operated by the CEH for analysis and dissemination. Biologists are employed in record centres and the information is used in nature conservation, planning and applied research.
Conservation Work in Zoos and Botanic Gardens – Zoos and botanic gardens are important employers of biologists and ecologists and many are deeply involved in conservation projects. Some zoos are now running captive breeding programmes in which the release of endangered species back into the wild is the major objective. Parallel studies aim to determine the habitat requirements of endangered plants and animals. The international seed bank at Kew is the most important in the world and is making a significant contribution to the conservation of threatened plants.
Editorial Work for Scientific Journals – Publishers of scientific journals, such as Biological Conservation and Journal of Ecology employ editorial staff, often on a part-time basis. Journal editors are experienced scientists, whose job includes sending proposed papers to referees and, in the light of their comments, making a judgement on the suitability of the contributions for publication. Some organisations employ staff to compile databases of references and abstracts on scientific topics, including ecology, for publication in electronic form.
The main employers in this field are:
- Research organisations, funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), including:
- the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH)
- the National Oceanography Centre (a joint venture with the University of Southampton)
- the British Antarctic Survey (also see ‘Local Government and Statutory Agencies’ section).
- Organisations that carry out environmental and biological research for government departments dealing with agriculture, for example:
- the Institute of Arable Crops Research (Rothamsted); and
- the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research and the Scottish Agricultural College.
- Government agencies (also see ‘Local Government and Statutory Agencies’ section);
- Museums (both national and local), zoos and botanic gardens;
- Industry (also see ‘Business and Industry’ section); and
- Non-Governmental organisations (also see ‘Non-Governmental Orgnisations (NGOs) section).
Teachers in schools, colleges and universities enjoy more job security and have better promotion prospects than people in many other jobs in ecology. Career opportunities include promotion within the system, involvement in teacher training and working for examination boards. There is plenty of opportunity to choose where to live – there are schools everywhere from inner cities to remote islands communities.
For the right kind of person, teaching can offer great job satisfaction. The multi-disciplinary nature of ecology helps to make ecologists flexible and effective science teachers.
Primary School Teaching – A Primary school teacher often teaches a range of subjects in an interdisciplinary fashion, so primary teaching offers scope for creativity without the rigid subject boundaries of the secondary school. Most young children are fascinated by animals and plants and will appreciate a teacher who knows about ecology. Out-of-classroom activity can combine ecology with numeracy, creative writing and art work, and teach children to enjoy, understand and care for the environment.
Secondary School Teaching – Ecologists entering secondary school teaching tend to specialise in biology up to A level (Higher in Scotland). There are schools that welcome teachers who are keen ecologists to develop field studies and organise fieldtrips. A biology teacher needs to be able to teach not only ecology but also elementary chemistry and physics, cell biology, microbiology, genetics and human physiology.
Teaching in Sixth Form Colleges – In sixth form college the absence of younger pupils means that the institution differs in character from a traditional school. There is greater emphasis on specialist academic disciplines than in a school, with more opportunity to teach A level courses. Sixth form colleges also often run one-year GCSE courses and may offer General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQ), and Diplomas covering some environmental subjects. Some colleges offer the International Baccalaureate or Welsh Baccalaureate.
Teaching in Colleges of Further Education – Colleges of further education not only cater for the 16-19 age group, but also deal with mature students. They offer a wide range of specialist courses, including those that support or are aligned to National Vocational Qualifications (NVQ) or Scottish Vocational Qualifications (SVQ). These are workplace, competence focused qualifications, which include subjects such as environmental conservation and management. Many colleges offer National and Higher National Certificates/Diplomas, and some provide degree courses.
An ecologist appointed as a biology lecturer might have to teach an A level/Higher class, a non-examination recreational evening class on plant ecology for adults, a GCSE science re-sit class, a science course for hair dressing students and microbiology input to a catering course! This type of institution offers interesting variety to those able to adapt their teaching to a broad ability range.
Teaching in Colleges of Higher Education and Universities – A new university teacher may have to accept short-term contracts before being appointed to a permanent post and university lecturers are not necessarily better paid than school teachers. But in spite of this, entry is highly competitive. The challenge of teaching ecology to a high level to well motivated students, combined with the opportunity to be at the cutting edge of research, makes this a very attractive career for many people. Initial Teacher Education (ITE) takes place in university faculties of education or in colleges of higher education.
Teaching at Field Study Centres – A field study centre may provide for the whole age range from primary to higher education and will also cater for groups of adults who wish to spend time studying natural history or participating in an increasing range of other outdoor pursuits. A number of centres collaborate with employers to offer workplace experience and assessment towards NVQ/SVQ. A field study centre offers the opportunity to specialise in teaching ecology in both geographical and biological contexts and usually the chance to live in a rural situation. Some centres provide opportunities for research and involvement in local conservation initiatives. Staff may work unsocial hours, but in spite of this the job satisfaction means that there is a lot of competition for vacancies.
There are at least 5,000 secondary schools in the United Kingdom and each employs several science teachers. There are many more primary schools. This could mean that school teaching offers ecologists more than all the other careers listed here put together.
There are teaching posts in colleges and universities, as well as opportunities for ecologists to teach in field study centres. Some of these are administrated by local authorities or national park authorities, others are run by universities, commercial enterprises, the Field Studies Council or other NGOs.