Natalie’s guide to becoming a Bird Aware Ranger.
People often ask me “How did you become a Ranger?” or mention that their children, nieces, nephews or friends would love to do something similar. With that in mind, I thought I would share with you my journey to becoming a Bird Aware Ranger…
Unlike most people within the conservation sector I did not grow up with a love of nature. Despite being brought up in a small village with plenty of freedom to go and explore the countryside, I did not really take an interest in the natural world, nor was I encouraged to do so.
In my late teens, and being reasonably academic, I was encouraged to attend University. I was lucky enough that my school taught Environmental Science at A Level and having thoroughly enjoyed this subject I decided to continue it at University. It was also pointed out that it was a ‘safe’ subject that could lead to many things.
During my first year, a forward-thinking lecturer encouraged us to break out of the ‘student bubble’ and experience as much as we could. I found myself volunteering for a conservation charity every week and this was the big turnaround – conservation was what I wanted to do!
I loved everything about it; being outdoors, making new friends and conserving the natural world. I continued to volunteer with this charity until my graduation and for my last two years became the Student Project Leader.
Following graduation, I immediately began applying for ranger and warden roles within the sector. I was pretty confident that I would find something soon – after all I had volunteered for almost three years! Looking back, I see how poor my application forms must have looked, and in reality how little experience I actually had. The conservation sector is highly competitive – especially considering people will volunteer and work for free. To get a paid job can be quite a challenge.
After many knockbacks, I took a job outside the sector and held out for nearly two years. Having saved a bit of money, I decided enough was enough – I left to volunteer full time with the National Trust at Strangford Lough in Northern Ireland. I was there for 14 months and I honestly did not want to leave. I learned so much – practical skills, wildlife surveying methodology and had even gained one of the essential ‘tickets’ (chainsaw qualification) for a practical Ranger role! After that I secured a year-long internship with the RSPB.
I worked on some fabulous reserves in Norfolk, gaining the rest of the necessary tickets such as brushcutter use, pesticide application and a quad bike licence. I also learned some of the softer skills needed for the role. When people see rangers they are often out ‘on site’ doing the practical management work, such as reedbed cutting, fencing or tree felling. Let me say now there is so much more to the role than that! The ability to plan and deliver projects, manage a budget, lead volunteer groups, provide educational activities, and health and safety are also a large part of the job.
I left the internship with a permanent Assistant Ranger job in the bag at a RSPB reserve in Essex. This is something else worth pointing out – as the sector is so competitive, it really is necessary to be prepared to move for the right job. If you wait for something in your local area you could be waiting a long time! Once you have more experience you can then be a bit more selective. I held the role for three years, but the time came when I wanted to put down some roots and move closer to my family.
I moved back to Hampshire with a new job as a Community Engagement Ranger for Hampshire County Council. This was a terrific role and allowed me to work closely with the local community – but I missed my birds! All my past roles had involved working on wetland reserves, so I was familiar with the birdlife around the Solent. When the Bird Aware Ranger position came up – happily combining both birds and people engagement – I took my chance and applied. I’m pleased to say I was offered the role!
Natalie’s Top Tips
Key things to consider if you want to become a ranger are:
Muck in! Volunteer early on, this shows you are keen.
Develop yourself. Think about where you see yourself and what academic requirements might be necessary.
Prove yourself. A love of nature isn’t enough. You will need to show proven wildlife identification skills and some background knowledge too. So get a wildlife ID book take an interest and go on guided walks.
Plan ahead. Be ahead of the game and always look forward to the next step.
Be practical. Work towards certificates for power tools and vehicles.
Expand your skills. Develop non-practical skills – find out what’s going on in the office.
Travel. Don’t be afraid to move around the country.