How does a wildlife conservationist really spend their time?

There is no such thing as a typical day in my job. When describing my position, as Capercaillie Advisory Officer for the RSPB, I generally receive an animated response. Whether its intrigue or just plain confusion, its certainly not something you hear everyday, even in the conservation world. With so many priorities, there aren't too many roles focused on just one species. Capercaillie, however, are different. They are in a perilous position with a huge number of complex threats facing them that having one full time member of staff is necessary. I just hope I am enough.


This all sounds fairly glamorous but this is certainly not always the case. Much of my days are spent in my home office. Sending emails and inputting data take up huge amounts of my time. However, that is not very interesting to read so won't be the focus of this blog! Instead, I will focus on the times when I am able to venture outdoors into my Highland office on my many adventures.


Finding poo


Of course, an important aspect of my job is surveying the birds. My most important survey time in lek season, which is the mating season for capercaillie that runs from March to May. This is an incredibly hectic time as we attempt to monitor all the leks in Scotland. Its a time of little sleep and unbrushed hair, which you can read more about here. Things are slightly less hectic outside of this season but its important to keep a close eye on these birds and their habitat all year round so we can fully protect them.



My humble abode during lek surveys

These surveys have led to some bizarre life experiences. Being chased by a rogue capercaillie, intent on driving me out from his forest, is certainly up there with memorable experiences. Pumped up with hormones, some males show abnormal 'rogue' tendencies and show no fear of humans or even land rovers. It was definitely a Jurassic Park moment, spotting the sudden large silhouette approaching me from the trees. I lived to tell the tale. This time.


Monitoring such an elusive species is challenging. Like many wildlife conservationists, much of my time is spent tracking down poo rather than the birds themselves. Now, we are trying to get more information from this poo. Drawing on my research skills, and my almost forgotten 'conservation genetics' module from my MSc, we are planning to delve into the world of genetics to help us learn more about these birds. Having trawled through many research papers, we now have a method in place. Over the next couple of years, we will be investigating whether genetic methods can be used to count birds and eventually replace our traditional survey methods, which are often clunky and incredibly time-consuming. Its very exciting work, even if it as led me to be a capercaillie carcass delivery person at times as I move specimens between freezers. There is still a whiff of capercaillie in my car, which I suppose is fitting. Another life experience.



Capercaillie droppings

Its all about talking


As my role title suggests, providing advice is key. This covers a whole range of audiences, such as government organisations, other charities, private estates, community groups and the odd dog walker I meet out on my travels. Of all these, I spend most of my time with land managers. These are the people working within capercaillie forests, such as foresters, stalkers and keepers. They are essential in the fight to save capercaillie.


Visiting capercaillie forests with these land managers is one of my favourite parts of my job. I am often amazed at how well they know their forests. Maps are abandoned as they move through their world with such familiarity. It is an insight like no other. I am hear to listen. Advisory roles can be tough. It is not as simple as providing one-size fits all methods and expecting people to listen. Communication is key and it is my job to find solutions that actually make sense for the people using the forest but still crucially protect the capercaillie's home. This is not always easy. There can be tension, perhaps even resentment, but I have carefully honed my communication skills so that I don't leave their forest until I am satisfied that my birds are safe.



I am still often surprised about how much people care. It is not only me who is obsessed with these birds! Given the right information, people will go to great lengths to help protect capercaillie. From estates forking out impressively large amounts of money to remove fences that pose a risk to these birds to mountain bikers willingly avoiding popular routes so these birds can breed in peace. It is heartening. I must admit, people were not the reason I decided to work in wildlife conservation. In fact, rather the opposite, as I often find humanity incredibly frustrating and often depressing. Yet, I spend so much time talking. Even more surprisingly, I enjoy it and it is vital if we are going to save this species.


Working as a wildlife conservationist is difficult. The stakes are so high that the pressure can feel immense. Its never just a job that I can walk away from. Despite this, the conservation world is fascinating and can be so rewarding. It is, after all, something I have always wanted to do. So far, I have not been disappointed...