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Highs and lows of fieldwork in wildlife conservation

Let's face it, there is a tendency to 'glamourize' fieldwork. Its the aspect of wildlife conservation that often draws people in. That chance to have mind-blowing experiences by getting up close and personal with nature's finest. Beats the typical 9-5 desk job.

Now, I'm not disputing this. But, years into working in this sector, I have a more realistic idea of what fieldwork really entails. I thought I'd share the highs and lows that I've experienced today, and perhaps provide an insight on what you may be letting yourself in for!


Close encounter's with iconic species

This is the end goal. Getting to spend time with the species you are working so hard to conserve. Its fantastic for morale and reminds you what your putting the hard work in for. Not many conservationists get to spend all their time in the field. Our work revolves around wildlife's timings, so much of our monitoring work is done during the breeding season. I find it amusing how empty the RSPB office can be in the spring/summer, particularly on a fine day! No, we are not all skiving with ice-cream, that's just part of it...

Some of my most treasured memories are these glimpses into wildlife lives. I've had the privilege of monitoring a hen harrier nest, holding pufflings (puffin chicks) in my hands and being mere metres away from lekking capercaillie. All in the line of 'work'. Now, that's some upside.

Me and a puffling on the Farne Islands

No two days are the same

Working with wildlife is never predictable. Even if I walk the exact same route two days in a row, the experience can be wildly different, depending on what decides to cross my path. If you rummage around in nature long enough, your bound to have a multitude of encounters to spice up your day. One of my favourites has to be during my fieldwork at RSPB Abernethy, an ancient Caledonian pine forest in the Scottish Highlands. I was conducting vegetation surveys when I sensed a shadow, which seemed to eclipse the soft winter sun entirely. On glancing up, my breath caught as I witnessed my first white-tailed eagle. My raptor ID skills have never been my finest, so have on occasion squinted at a buzzard in the distance and thought it may be a golden eagle. But there was no mistaking this bird. Often described as a 'flying barn door' the sheer size of the wingspan was remarkable. I was full of admiration at it's grace as this bird effortlessly navigated its environment. Within moments, it had disappeared over the hills, but I was left rooted for much longer. In the blink of an eye, I had a memory that would last me a lifetime.

Time in nature

Fieldwork can be one of the best ways to boost your physical and mental health. Rather than crouching over a screen, your limbs can flow freely as you navigate through this natural arena. The air is fresh and the world is quiet. You can be alone with your thoughts and any problems feel a long way away. A serenity I don't get when emailing! Plus, there is nothing better than returning to a warm cup of tea and a bourbon biscuit after a hard day of trudging through forests.

My office


It can be uncomfortable

This is a given. Nature is not all twittering birds and sunshine. It has a dark side. Working in the Scottish Highlands, I have had many a day where I am battling torrential rain and gale force winds. All whilst trying to squint through binoculars and make records in my soggy notebook. I would rather this, however, then the dreaded summer fieldwork. Its the insects. The famous Scottish midge, is a real morale-drainer. I think one of my worst experience with these insects was whilst counting a bat roost one evening on the Isle of Eigg. I had to sit for 2 hours whilst I was eaten alive. No smidge or midge hoods could save me. Another lovely fieldwork creature is the tick. As I spend a lot of my time traipsing through heather, these are almost a given after a day in the field. In the summer, I feel the need to fumigate as soon as I arrive home and jump straight in the shower! I'm just grateful that my survey season in my current role is mostly over by May...

Crouched in a tiny hide!

Its hard work

Working with wildlife is filled with unsociable hours. Survey season can be intense. I have done many a dawn start. Whether this has been attempting to count thousands of seabirds whilst rocking in tiny inflatable boat (cue sea-sickness), or crouching in a cramped hide, attempting to discern capercaillie through the pre-dawn light, it can be a challenge. There is always short-time frames involved in monitoring, so surveys can be relentless and weekends become a thing of the past. You need all your physical and mental strength to survive it!

That sense of failure

Working in conservation means that you are often affronted with the harsh reality of nature. No matter how much work you put in, sometimes it just doesn't pay off. You can't save them all. I remember the devastation of waking after a ferocious storm to find that a seabird colony I was monitoring had been wiped out. No chicks survived and the parents were left looking as helpless as I felt. I also still get that knot in my stomach when I have been unable to track down capercaillie, knowing that there is a real chance that they have been lost from another forest. Its a hard pill to swallow and there is no hiding from it. At times, our tasks can feel insurmountable. Perhaps some of them are, but do not underestimate the gritty determination of a conservationist. We continue to celebrate the small wins and battle on. The alternative is too devastating to consider.

My fieldwork is now in full force. I am spending my days hiking through Highland forests, tracking the elusive capercaillie. In April we will get to count birds at their leks (read how we do this here). As we missed this last year, we are chomping at the bird to see how the numbers are doing now. Wish me luck!

If this blog hasn't put you off (which I hope it hasn't!) then read my previous blog with my 5 essential tips for budding conservationists here. It could be you covered in midges before you know it! If you work in conservation and have thought of a point that I haven't covered, then please comment below. Lets celebrate and commiserate together...


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