Ptyxis Ecology - Our Botany Blog

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Ecology careers

Want a career in ecology?

As a professional ecologist and botanist, and a trained teacher, I often get asked for advice on ecology careers. Training is a major part of my freelance work, and I teach undergraduates and postgraduates at Newcastle University. I also sit on the Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management’s (IEEM) working group on the ecology skills gap, a project addressing the fact that many biology and ecology degree courses do not train students in the vocational skills that employers are looking for.

Working in nature conservation is extremely competitive. There are currently more opportunities in commercial ecological consultancies, working mainly for the corporate sector (such as property developers, wind energy companies etc), but also for local authorities and government agencies. To maximise your opportunities during your early career, you will need to be prepared to develop your CV by volunteering and to move around the country for work.

Top tips for careers in ecology

What is your summer project about? If you want a job in the UK ecology sector, make sure you do a project on British or Irish habitats and /or species! Although the large ecological consultancies do require ecologists to conduct survey work abroad, this is generally in Europe or North America. If you do a project on African or Asian ecology, expect to work for organizations who work in Africa or Asia, such as universities or international charities. You will not be attractive to the British conservation sector or commercial consultancies.

Build up the evidence for your skills by volunteering. You need to make time to do this at weekends; it is at least worth as much as a high grade degree, arguably more. There are plenty of first class honours graduates without jobs because they have not got any work experience. You need to show that you have the skills listed in IEEM’s booklet ‘what every graduate should know’ which is available from

Botany – by which I mean plant identification and survey skills – is in demand. Consultancies are very short of young graduates who are proficient botanists. Join BSBI, attend their field meetings and put this on your CV. No one expects you to be an expert overnight; but you do need to show a serious commitment to improving your field identification skills and going on BSBI meetings demonstrates this. BSBI also offer a one day test and a certificate, called a Field Skills Identification Qualification or FISQ, to evidence how good a botanist you really are, which also looks good on your CV. See

Whether you plan to be a mammal ecologist, entomologist or an ornithologist, all commercial consultancies need graduates who can do a Phase 1 habitat survey. Find out about this by reading the survey handbook (it’s amazing how many interview candidtates don’t do this!); go on a short course (The Field Studies Council and IEEM both run Phase 1 habitat survey courses); do a voluntary Phase 1 survey for your local Wildlife Trust to prove to employers that you can really do it!

Be careful when you choose an MSc course. Having an MSc will not assist you in finding a job if you still have little or no work experience. Look for an MSc that has a strong vocational element: training in ecological survey methods combined with business skills, like project management and negotiation skills, which you will need in the workplace.

Good luck!!

Clare O'Reilly


Thursday, 3 July 2008

Blysmus bliss!

As you can see from my face, I was pleased to find Blysmus compressus (flat sedge) the other day when Clare and I looked for it at one of its previously known sites near where we live at Lambley, on the South Tyne river, Northumberland.

The river's edge habitat (which is regularly flooded) is apparently one of its typical habitats in Northumberland. There was a very big colony here - we estimated over 6,000 flowering spikes.

Flat sedge is a good name for it as the inflorescence is very flattened, which makes it fairly easy to separate from other sedges.

Close-up of Blysmus with its stigmas sticking out.

This is an uncommon species nationally with a real cluster of records around our part of the north of England as you can see from the BSBIs distribution map -

We were looking for this as part of the BSBI's threatened plant survey. Botanists all over Britian are going out searching old sites for 10 uncommon and declining species (including Blysmus) and recording detailed information and accurate grid references when they find it or reasons why it might have gone extinct when they don't find it.

In my view this is the best survey that BSBI has organised for a long time, but its a shame they are keeping it a secret. If you want to find out any more about it you will have to contact your county recorder.


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