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Guest blog – Volunteers in the conservation sector (2) by Louise Bacon

Louise writes: I used to be a biochemist studying human immune system malfunction whilst being a part-time naturalist and conservationist. Then I converted to being an environmental data geek, which is what I do part of the time in a vague attempt to pay the bills I have been a birder since childhood, and am now the Cambridgeshire county bird recorder, and am also a butterfly and moth enthusiast, with an interest in several other taxon groups including lichens, ants and molluscs, and when not in front of maps or a database can usually be found in woodlands carrying out vital management work, or surveying farmland birds.

Volunteers in the conservation sector: Part 2, Building expertise

Over the past few years, whilst working within the conservation charity sector as an environmental data specialist, recorder and amateur naturalist, I have attended several seminars/one day conferences etc. asking the question ‘where do we get our next generation of experts from?’. None of those events has ever come up with a solution but has seemingly spent the day hearing presentations going round and round the topic.

Whilst there have been a few initiatives which have, mostly successfully, addressed this issue at a small scale, we seem still to be asking the same question several years on.

There seems to be a good recruitment of beginner recorders into birds, butterflies and moths as taxonomic groups. However, other taxa remain very niche, with an ageing demographic in their recording base, although I believe earthworms are bucking this trend. It also remains a stubbornly white, male, middle class area, despite the altered gender balance of conservation undergraduates (but probably not the class background – we will return to that later)

I have a few thoughts on how this has happened, but not necessarily how it can be fixed.

Most of the current generation of ‘experts’ for want of a better phrase, came through an education system which was essentially free at point of use, or early in the introduction of loans etc. for undergraduate level – we went to university or otherwise, after being educated in schools where there was no performance table pressure.  We were, essentially, free to learn whatever and however we chose.  There was, at a low level, an encouragement of nature, be it through formal clubs and groups or much more informally, the latter definitely the case in my pretty average working-class area comprehensive. However, we were encouraged.  We were not part of a treadmill of performance tables leading to an undergraduate education system run as a business, leaving those leaving with a degree and a very large debt.  I get the impression that there is a lot more structure and a lot less space for individual thought and innovation within the school and university system, everything is scheduled, no scope for missing a class here and there to go out birding (as I did regularly, especially quantum theory or analytical chemistry, where my attendance was especially poor) but we were TRUSTED to get an education, and it was assumed that it would be more rounded in life lessons than simply the subject we were nominally there to study.  WE had the flexibility to fritter our three years away down the pub or not, to learn things about all sorts of things from all sorts of people, and there was no pressure to work to earn money to pay our way. Hence naturalists were formed, whether they liked to admit it at that age or the knowledge and ability to enquire, record and learn lay dormant until they were a little older.  There was not as much pressure, when leaving with a degree, or leaving school with qualifications, to conform to career types.  I guess what most of us took away from education, at whatever age we left it, was that there was a big diversity of approaches, mind-sets, abilities and interests out there and the system had given us time to develop pastimes and interests whilst giving us an education. Many naturalists and conservationists built their skills in their spare time, at university or afterwards, because this was how we had learnt.

From what I have seen of the modern education system, through a few friends and relatives or their children, the system is more rigid, based on learning x, y, z, less interpretation, little incentive to go off on a broad reading and learning tangent, more pressure to get grades based on these rigid curricula. On top, many student work, to pay the bills and to end up with less of a debt at the end of it. Courses are structured, drip-fed, no need for thinking outside of the box, and spare time which we would have used doing natural history or practical conservation work is used earning money or doing the coursework.

I mentioned earlier that I had been to several days discussing why we no longer had the next gen of naturalists coming on – this is probably why…

For those on degree courses learning conservation etc., there is limited fieldwork, it is focussed towards very specific taxa, and very regimented. A Masters degree seems near-essential to progress with a job. Let alone a Bachelors degree.  But of course, there is no practical experience when those graduates go to look for a job.  SO they have to spend 6 months on a placement somewhere getting some skills. Which will inevitably be basic botany, bat surveys, maybe great crested newts or water vole surveys.  NO opportunity to spend time studying lichens, or woodlice, or ants.

To do a degree, a masters, to volunteer for 6 months, implies a degree of financial support from parents or partners, which in itself must imply those in the middle income brackets and not those scraping by on a low salary or the minimum wage… Although a degree may be subsidise for those, its the extra year or two needed to build and consolidate the naturalist skills which are then unfunded, and the extra years part time beyond that to really get in-depth expertise in a difficult taxonomic area.

Then the job appears, and there is no time to volunteer.  Or if they do, they reach the exhaustion burn-out levels experienced by some of us older ones, but at a far younger age.  The peer-pressures to have the ‘normal’ family and social life mean that if there is free time, that’s where it will go, and not into hours spent grubbing through leaf litter, sweep netting a meadow or recording wildlife in depth.  The recording and the skills will stagnate at the taxa with appeal, with those easy to do surveys such as the Big Butterfly count or garden bird count, where it does not eat into the family time.  Family or friends’ time is vital for wellbeing, and I would not for one minute propose this was abandoned at the expense of learning natural history, but where is the time needed in the system to learn those things as well.  I spent time with friends and family, but because I had been given that time in the education system years to learn the natural history basics, those stood me in good stead later.

This sounds bleak, and I believe it is… and the fault lies firmly at the feet of the business-model education system, and clearly not with the need to balance work and family. And around that qualification-driven system goes ever-rising thresholds for entry-level jobs. Even getting qualifications or experience in the more physical, practical side of conservation, reserve management, landscape scale project work, etc. needs training courses which cost money, and take working–hours time…..which only the financially-cushioned can afford to self-finance. This will inevitably allow the class and ethnicity bias within the sector to continue down the route it is on.

Louise’s earlier blog on conservation volunteers was published in January this year. And there’s another one on the way – maybe next week.

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