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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9 Replies to “Guest blog – Volunteers in the conservation sector (2) by Louise Bacon”

  1. Maybe the interesting of white, middle-class males are exactly that and that expecting everybody else to adopt similar interests and become more white, more middle-class and more male is perhaps
    unreasonable or given the mediocre levels of uptake in other groups, unrealistic.

    The current culture of natural history enthusiasts is somewhat unique to the UK and has been developed over the past 300 years or so. You do not see interests in ringing birds or counting moths to nearly the same degree in even our closest European neighbours. Such activities there are generally solely undertaken by professional scientists. The numbers of amateurs are marginal.

    The current economic system requires that the education system is what it is. Whether the education is effective or even value for money is open to question. The current system has 30 years in the making and will likely take a similar amount of time in which to effect real change. Brexit is just going to compound the difficulties. So you can expect an awful lot more of what is currently on offer before there is any real prospect of investing in alternative approaches.

    There appears to be two long term paths which could remedy the current situation: 1) create sufficient wealth that the general population has enough free time in which to develop peripheral interests or 2) start investing more in training more professional and ensuring that the population at large is sufficiently well informed of the work they do that they are happy to continuing paying the taxes required to sustain them.

    Until then asking people to switch to careers with low pay, low job security and generally poor prospects is asking a little to much.

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    1. Stuart - maybe, although her blog strongly suggests that Louise is not male or middle class.

      But I take your point. I do think sometimes of opera (of which I am a fan) and sport (of which I am a fan) and see the efforts that go into encouraging them, and the public investment in their future, and sometimes wonder why recreational nature watching and conserving nature as a public good receive such little attention.

      By the way, the membership of the RSPB certainly used to be well-represented by middle class members (although with a million members obviously not entirely) but was certainly not male.

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      1. I would say that white, middle class, males are more likely to do things like studying moths in their free time. Maybe this is cultural, maybe this is genetic, maybe this is a product of having too much free time. The real issue is that expecting others to do the same is probably not realistic unless there is financial support. If you want science done then open then chequebook and start writing. Expecting people to do it for free is not realistic nor is it sustainable.

        Once our economic systems are generating enough wealth and distributing it equitably then perhaps systems such as Basic Income can allow people to indulge in their hobbies or pure intellectual pursuits for the greater good. Until then if you want something done then make it worth their time and effort and definitely reward the good ones according to their contribution.

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  2. I thought I should put a word in for fungi .
    In 1995 Maurice Rotheroe reported in the New Scientist on the decision by the Crown Estate not to fell 20 ancient oak trees in Windsor Great Park, because one of them was host to 25 per cent of the population of the rare oak bracket fungus, Phellinus robustus.

    "The reasons for its rarity," he wrote, "are becoming more obvious. To begin with, 275-year-old oak trees are rare. Secondly, mycologists are rare. Rarer still are mycologists who can spot a bracket fungus 20 feet up a tree. Rarest of all are mycologists who are still young and fit enough to climb an oak tree to identify the fungus."

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    1. I remember reading in BBC Wildlife Magazine in the mid 80s that the Duke Of Edinburgh had to be dissuaded from having the ancient trees in that park felled because he thought they were scruffy.

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  3. Having re-read my own piece, and read the responses, I think I need to add that I dont actually mind what ethnicity or gender naturalists are, and never have. I feel that its all part of bring on the next generation of naturalists - away from the 'easier' groups, building the field, identificationand recording skills for many of the taxonomic groups such as fungi, lichens, many of the invertebrates, needs a significant input of time and effort. I am certain this was, several decades ago, more likely to happen in ANY sector of UK society, although still highly encouraged in the more priveleged, than it is now. The divide gets wider, and when we have reached a couple of generations of people who do not connect with biodiversity in a more in-depth way, let alone the more superficial way often encouraged, then the harder it will be for us as a people to maintain that reputation for serious natural history which we have enjoyed for so many decades.

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    1. Absolutely agree. Engaging young people was a problem 35 years ago when I first started ringing birds. I think there has been some improvement but the general trend is negative and there does not seem to be a way of changing that despite a lot of effort.

      Maybe volunteer naturalists giving up their time for NGOs is an idea whose time has come and gone and that perhaps something completely new has to be put in place.

      One interesting development is what Cornell Lab of Ornithology are doing with eBird. Instead of dedicated surveys they are producing range maps based on casual observations of large number of people. Take for example the abundance map for Hooded Warbler, https://ebird.org/science/status-and-trends/hoowar/abundance-map It appears that statistics can satellite imagery offers the possibility of real-time monitoring of the environment - something that the more traditional, 10 yearly atlas surveys were simply not able to do. Clearly you still need volunteers for this but here mass observations appear to out-perform small numbers of trained volunteers by quite a wide margin. The barrier to entry is really small. eBird have league tables which gamify the process of submitting observations and make the whole process fun. The tools (web site, iPhone and Android app) are pretty good too. All of which combine to make it easy to participate. This is only anecdotal but the number of birders here in Portugal seem to have exploded since eBird became popular.

      Times change. Maybe data collection needs to change too.

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      1. AH - Mark hinted at another piece from me, which will be in the next few weeks, which might cover a little bit about the on-line issues in places and from one perspective. I think that the big problem really isnt with birds, butterflies and moths but with those things which are far less charismatic and need a lot more time to start to master..........just how do we firstly get people interested and then find a mechanism to support them through the very lengthy learning process for the more specialist groups. The education system isnt going to do it, the wildlife and conservation NGOs dont have the expertise or money to do it, so it becomes increasingly niche. FSC and the Natural History Museum have had funded inititives to start to address this, but with only a handful of people per year becoming highly skilled, it doesnt go anywhere near filling the generation gap in expert naturalists.

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