Working for the Wildlife Trust - Rebecca Neal

Becca at Woodwalton Fen by Andrew Chapman

Communities and Wildlife Officer Rebecca Neal tells us of her career in conservation and how she came to be working for the Wildlife Trust BCN

Inspiration

I recently discovered that I have been appreciating a book on natural history given to me by my parents, since 1984! My interest started with watching the birds in our garden with my mum (I remember getting very excited about identifying a reed bunting that visited our feeder), and from wandering Epping Forest looking for fly agaric mushrooms for my dad to photograph. As a family, we used to watch lots of David Attenborough programmes together, and despite not having much money, my mum signed me up to the junior membership of the RSPB (at the time this was called the YOC). In primary school, I was good friends with the daughter of a nature reserve warden and we visited the local reserve often. I think I even went to a wildlife club there a few times. I was lucky enough to have had a free-range child-hood where I was allowed to cycle all over town, run around the woods and fields, and climb trees. Nature was always part of my life, but I didn’t think about it as a career until my 20s.

My first book on natural history Rebecca Neal

My first book on natural history Rebecca Neal

Field Studies Tutor

I started my career in connecting people with nature in 2004. I had been a classroom science teacher for a few years and had just returned from a two-year VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) placement at a rural school in Guyana, South America. I had an interim job at the college where I did my own A-levels, but it was a short-term contract and I wasn’t totally happy living an ordinary life in my home town. I was finding adjusting to life back in the UK quite hard. I had been scouring the TES (The Times Educational Supplement newspaper) for something a bit different, when a job came up at a field centre in Devon.

Working for the Field Studies Council at Slapton Ley Field Centre was a real turning point in my life; this was where I decided that I wanted to do something like this as a career. I already had some teaching skills and an interest in ecology, and working here gave me a huge amount of knowledge about wildlife. The field centre was connected to a nationally important nature reserve, and south Devon was a beautiful place to work which was full of wildlife. As well as providing field trips for students, the FSC run courses for people interested in identification, so I went on many of these whilst I could. I was surrounded by a dynamic and knowledgeable team, and came into regular contact with experts in all manner of fields.

I taught mostly A-level Biology and Geography, but also some primary and university groups. In this job, I came across my first starling murmuration, glow worms and dormice. I took students rock-pooling, and badger watching, and showed them how to estimate the size of a population of snails using the mark-release recapture method. I lived with a colony of lesser-horseshoe bats and heard Cetti’s warblers regularly. I often ate my lunch on a beach, sometimes on Dartmoor, and occasionally in a bluebell-strewn ancient woodland. There is definitely a rosy glow over my memories of working here; it wasn’t all sunshine and flowers. I worked hard, sometimes over seventy hours a week with long stretches at a time without time off. It was intense living and working with the same people and was not a sustainable lifestyle, so eventually I left to do a Masters.

Studying Conservation

I studied Biodiversity and Conservation at the University of Leeds. I am not sure now how much I rely on what I learned from this course, but I did enjoy studying and challenging myself. Leeds is a friendly city, and I picked up an appreciation for urban wildlife doing my project “Birds and the City”.  Many of my fellow students were interested in global conservation, but I decided that I wanted to work in the UK. Sometimes the jobs you do or experiences you have help you decide what you don’t want to do in the future. I definitely did not want to go into academia.

Whilst I was looking for a more permanent job, I worked in one of the labs in the Biology department, on a project about farmland wildlife. My job was to separate samples of (dead) invertebrates and classify them to a basic level, pin the hoverflies and bees, (this means mount them with a pin through their body with a label, so they could be picked up and studied), and then use a microscope and classification key to identify the hoverflies to species level. We made a chess set using bee bodies.

This sounds bad now I write it.

Hoverfly

Hoverfly - Chris Gomersall/2020VISION

Lifelong Learning Officer

I eventually found a proper job and moved to Tamworth to work on a new nature reserve, RSPB Middleton Lakes. It was a wetland reserve that had recently been a gravel pit. My job was to work out how the reserve might be used to engage people, and to build up partnerships in Birmingham and the surrounding towns. It was an interesting reserve to work on because it did have some high quality habitat and an associated keen following of hard-core wildlife watchers (mostly birders), but also had less sensitive areas and a target to bring ordinary people out to enjoy nature. I saw my first lesser-spotted woodpecker here, managed a budget for the first time, and recruited and trained staff and volunteers. We regularly found grass snakes in the play meadow. I was involved as a volunteer here as well as a staff member. I liked doing the breeding bird surveys although I did spend more of my time slapping away horseflies and swearing, than distinguishing a reed from a sedge warbler.

Grass snake coiled on leaf litter

Grass snake by David Chamberlain

Conservation Youth Worker

The contract with the RSPB came to an end, and I moved to Peterborough to work for the amphibian and reptile conservation charity, Froglife. I managed a project for five years called Green Pathways. I worked with vulnerable and disadvantaged young people on conservation projects, and doing fun activities outside. The first time I saw an adder, I was out on a guided walk with a potential new volunteer. It scared the life out of me and hissed, but I had to be calm and pretend it was an everyday occurrence for me. I liked doing reptiles surveys on this job. Slow worms are ace.

Slow worm by Bruce Shortland

Slow worm - Bruce Shortland

Education and Outreach Officer

After a few years, I was ready to move on. It took a long time to find another job, but I ended up in Cumbria working for West Cumbria Rivers Trust. I delivered workshops to schools, outdoor activities for families, and volunteer sessions for adults, all linked to wetlands. I learned about salmon, electrocuted fish (well technically, I caught the stunned animals rather than actually delivering the current myself), and did surveys for freshwater pearl mussels (which involves wading in rivers using a bathyscope [a glass-bottomed bucket]). I also took on the management of two toad patrols in Keswick. It was hard work in Cumbria as everything is so spread out. I had to drive a lot and get up very early. I did get to play with young people in the wilds of Ennerdale though, and let them splash in rivers and climb trees. I loved these Forest School sessions the most.

Linda Pitkin/2020VISION

Toad crossing sign, ahead of a pond, warning motorists about migratory toads. England: Surrey, Coldharbour, on outskirts of village, March, spring, - Linda Pitkin/2020VISION

Communities and Wildlife Officer

I didn’t stay long in Cumbria, about two years, partly because my partner and I missed being around Cambridgeshire. I was very lucky to get the perfect job with the Wildlife Trust for Beds, Cambs and Northants. Now my job is connecting people with nature, and has a broad remit. I work within our Communities and Wildlife team with people of all ages. I run events like walks, talks, and family sessions, as well as delivering Forest School and working with schools. I also look after volunteers who run youth groups, and continue to help toads cross roads.

Having worked in a standard classroom setting, I knew that I needed a career where I was less stressed, and an important way of doing that for me was to spend more time outdoors. I wasn’t aware at the time that this was something that helps everyone (now there is lots of research about this), but I did (and still do) feel significant effects if I am stuck inside. It’s great that my job not only helps me, but helps others, to access nature and feel better.  

I gain a lot from my job: I get to spend time in beautiful nature reserves, I get to play with children outdoors, I get an audience to talk to about my favourite subject, but most of all, I get to feel part of a team making a difference for wildlife and people. The Wildlife Trust BCN has people with skills in many different areas and we all play our part working towards a Wilder Future.

I have been very lucky in the jobs I have done. My career has been, and still is, my passion, and I have built up skills and knowledge from the dedicated people I have worked with, and been able to gain extra skills and enjoyment through volunteering outside my role. I have moved around a lot, but this has allowed me to bring different things to the organisations I have worked for. I am now at a time in my life where I want to stay in one place, and simply get better at the job I am doing. There will always be more to learn and I am fortunate to be working for an organisation that values this.