50 for the Future – More expert field ecologists

Our recent publication, 50 for the Future, lists 50 things that we believe should happen in Scotland over the next 50 years to benefit both people and wildlife. In this week's 50 for the Future article, Adam Butler, a graduate of the Scottish Wildlife Trust's Experts for Nature programme, discusses the need for field ecologists in Scotland.

 

Number 48: Increase the number of expert field ecologists by providing top quality training

 

There is a shortage of expert field ecologists in the UK at the moment and this is recognised by conservation groups, private consultancies and government bodies. From one perspective, this is a good thing! It means that under EU law and other policies there is a growing demand for expert advisers charged with protecting nature and wildlife –  long may it continue. Unfortunately, it also means the pressures wildlife needs protection from are also increasing. In Scotland, the rapid expansion of wind energy and the dualling of the A9 are major developments that demand constant scrutiny by expert ecologists to minimise their impacts. We should also point out that ecology is not the only sector suffering from a skills shortage – it is a wider trend –  but may be particularly acute in ecology thanks to the recent expansion of  environmental consultancy.

There is good work being done on all sides to address this problem. Relevant degrees in Scottish universities are making efforts to include core elements in ecological surveying, especially on local flora and fauna. The University of Glasgow’s SCENE at Rowardennan is a good example and the University of the Highlands and Islands is exemplary in providing accessible, field-based courses that are informed by the needs of the sector. 

However, the Scottish Wildlife Trust still recognised a critical gap between higher education and the demands of the ecological sector and with generous funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, they were able to develop an 18-month, SQA-accredited training course in Developing Ecological Surveying Skills (later known as Experts for Nature). The Trust and the SQA constructed a comprehensive, field-based course which was co-ordinated by an experienced field ecologist with core training from nationally renowned biologists and plenty of internal expertise from Trust staff. Above all, trainees would be encouraged to carry forward their own and the Trust’s passion for defending nature.

The scope and diversity of the training on offer during the Experts for Nature programme is reflected in the diversity of careers that graduates are currently enjoying. The majority of trainees have so quickly found work in professional ecological consultancies where their advanced training and their passion for defending nature can be applied where it is needed most – on the front-line of industrial development. There should be no less celebration, however, for those trainees who have gone on to apply their expertise in higher education, public engagement, policy and planning, local authorities or advising government! 
The real question is how we fill the skills gap further. Scotland must recognise the growing need for field ecologists but it goes well beyond that – we need a generation of people growing up with a love of nature and a passion for saving it. 

This is the legacy of HLF’s funding. Hopefully, it will inspire minds far beyond those twenty Experts for Nature. As William Butler Yeats put it, education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.

Let us know your thoughts by emailing thefuture@scottishwildlifetrust.org.uk or Tweet @ScotWildlife using #50fortheFuture.

 Adam Butler is a graduate of the Trust's Experts for Nature programme and a lecturer at South Eastern Regional College. 

Preface

In this week's 50 for the Future article, Experts for Nature Graduate Adam Butler discusses why we need more training to increase the number of expert field ecologists. 

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