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Wild Careers with Maria Gill, Ecology Officer at a Local Nature Reserve

In the first article of our new series, Wild Careers, Antonia Devereux talks to Maria Gill about her career as an Ecology Officer at St Nicks, a local nature reserve in the heart of York.

Credit: Maria Gill

With such a range of Environmental Careers out there, it can be difficult to know which career path is right for you. Plus, if you ever manage to figure that out, how do you even get there? In this series of articles, Wild provides you with a first hand account of what it is like to work within the wildlife and environmental sector, and an idea of the experience you might need.

Ever dreamed of working on a nature reserve or within the ecological field? This is the article for you! Maria Gill is our first interviewee, talking about her role as an Ecology Officer at St Nicholas Fields, a local nature reserve and hidden gem in the City of York.

What is your role, and where is it based?

St Nicks is an environmental charity based in York. We have a 24-acre former landfill site turned nature reserve in Tang Hall. The site is made up of various habitats, managed with the help of amazing volunteers, and boasts over 2000 species. Within the site, we have an environment centre where we run a variety of projects including our low carbon emission kerbside recycling scheme, Ecotherapy, an environmental education programme, and provide a range of sustainability advice. The project that I work on is called Green Corridors York, focusing on connecting green spaces across the city to make habitats bigger, better and more joined up for wildlife. We have three main corridors that we are currently working on including Fulford Ings, Clifton Ings, and the Osbaldwick and Tang Hall Becks.

My official job title is ‘Ecology Officer’ but that doesn’t quite cover everything that I do within my role. With a team of volunteers, I do the ecological surveying and monitoring of our Green Corridor project sites, including freshwater invertebrate, grassland quality, and National Vegetation Classification surveys, as well as water vole monitoring and habitat mapping.

Additionally, I manage the habitat improvement of our Becks Corridor. We have a group of volunteers who help to carry out tasks such as tree planting, coppicing, hedgelaying, scrub control and diversification, scything, raking, seed sowing, invasive species control, wildflower planting, footpath management and litter picking – this can include getting in the beck and pulling rubbish out from there! I run a couple of sessions a week carrying out these tasks with the volunteers, rotating around the different sites along the Beck Corridor, improving the area for both wildlife and our local community.

Credit: Maria Gill

How did you become an Ecology Officer at a Local Nature Reserve?

I studied Ecology and Conservation at university and absolutely loved it (I know, what a nerd!). I had hoped to go on to do a master’s in Biodiversity and Conservation but at the time, there was no financial support for master’s students and despite trying my best to save, I just didn’t quite have enough to do it. Instead, I started working in a call centre for Lloyd’s bank and very quickly learnt that this was not the environment for me. I was really keen to move into something that I was truly passionate about, as stocks and shares just weren’t cutting it. As I trawled through job adverts related to conservation, it became clear that despite my studies, I didn’t have the practical, on the ground experience that employers required.

So, knowing I wasn’t ready for a job in the field, I looked for volunteering opportunities that would allow me to develop those practical skills that would get me closer to a paid role doing something I loved. I sat at my desk in the call centre and in the brief moments between calls, I searched for relevant opportunities and one day, stumbled across the Volunteer Park Ranger internship with St Nicks. It was exactly what I needed, a formal, structured volunteer role, providing so much training and so many personal development opportunities that I couldn’t help but jump at it. I was invited to an interview and was so lucky to be offered the role. With my unused master’s degree savings, I dropped down from full time hours in the call centre to two days a week and spent the other three days at St Nicks. In this role I learned conservation skills and developed my wildlife knowledge, whilst leading groups of volunteers in conservation tasks, gaining volunteer and project management skills.

After six months, my placement finished but the competitive sector was proving difficult to crack. Not wanting to go back to full time in the call centre, I decided to move into a new voluntary role that my supervisors were keen to trial focusing on species surveying and monitoring for the nature reserve. I did this for a little while, improving my identification skills and carrying out various surveys across the site to gather more ecological data and help create an ecological monitoring plan.

After another six months, I was very lucky to still be at St Nicks when a paid position came up. The Volunteer Coordinator at the time was moving into a new role focused on fundraising, so, I applied for the position and was fortunate enough to secure it. It was part-time at first but with additional funding coming in and new projects being set up, this became a full-time position. I recruited volunteers across our different projects and worked with the volunteers to manage and survey the nature reserve. Over time, St Nicks continued to grow, and our projects became more ambitious, with work starting on green spaces across the city as well as our little nature reserve. In 2022, we were awarded the funding for our Green Corridors York and I took on my current role as Ecology Officer. The role is amazing because I get the chance to do habitat improvement work and ecological surveys on so many interesting sites in York, while still working closely with our volunteers.

Credit: Maria Gill

What was your inspiration for this career?

I have always loved being in nature and watching the wildlife around me. I am from Liverpool and so I think that wildlife seemed a little bit novel and exciting to me as, being in a city, green spaces are less abundant. It meant when I did see butterflies flying around, or a flash of a fox’s tail in the park, it felt exciting and special. For a long time, I wanted to work with animals as I get so much joy from them, but as I grew older and I became more and more aware of the issues our planet was facing, I knew I wanted to help tackle those problems. I wanted to ensure that our wildlife had an opportunity to thrive, not just survive. I wanted everyone to see and value our natural environment as much as I did. Though that may be overly ambitious, I am so pleased to be where I am, supporting our wildlife on a local level (but who knows how far our Green Corridors will eventually reach!).

What is a typical day like?

A typical day does not exist at St Nicks, and certainly doesn’t in my role. What we do can vary depending on the project, the site, the season, and the available resources. I have a couple of weekly volunteer sessions that I run doing practical conservation work along the becks, but the rest of my work week is very variable. Here are some typical tasks I undertake:

- Surveying on any number of sites across the city

- Meeting with stakeholders to discuss how we progress our project,

- Liaising with landowners about how we can work together

- Site visits to see what other green spaces we can incorporate into our project

- Additional training to advance my expertise

- Taking photos and creating social media posts

- Creating sign-up sheets for our volunteers

- Putting together monitoring plans or habitat management plans

- Writing project reports

- In the office (with a cup of tea) getting through a few emails

- Eating biscuits left over from other groups (it’s not a huge part of my job but I probably spend more time eating biscuits at work than I should!)

- Or even reflecting on my job as I happily respond to interview questions

I would like to point out that a lot of these things are done with the support of colleagues or volunteers, I don’t single-handedly do all of these tasks!

Credit: Maria Gill

Is there anything about your role that people might find surprising?

I think how varied my role is surprises some people, there are so many aspects to it and that does mean there is no real routine. I know some people would absolutely hate a lack of routine in their job but I love it, as I think it keeps my working life exciting.

What’s your favourite and least favourite aspect of your role?

My favourite part of my role is working outside with an amazing team. Whether we’re doing a practical conservation task, site maintenance, or a species survey, I really enjoy working with the group to carry out what I believe to be important work.

What I really don’t like is situations where I have to present or lead meetings. I am very uncomfortable in the spotlight. Luckily, I don’t have to do that too often!

If a student wanted to do what you do, what would your advice be?

I would encourage anyone wanting to work within the sector to get as much experience as possible. Volunteering is such a great way to do this. It is so valuable as it shows that you are dedicated and motivated, but also provides you with a good baseline set of skills so that they are ready to move into a paid role when the opportunity arises. The sector is very competitive as it is, so any head start you can give yourself by getting experience in the field is going to help when it comes to starting a career.

Credit: Maria Gill

Are you happy with your current salary, did it meet your expectations?

The salary definitely met my expectations and by that, I mean as I work for a small environmental charity, I haven’t exactly picked the most lucrative profession. However, I was aware of this going in, and I did it regardless of the money because, at the end of the day, I absolutely love what I do and I really don’t think there is a price tag on that. I get job satisfaction and I feel like I am doing something positive. And although I might not be making millions, I can pay all my bills, feed the cat and dog, and still get a take away every couple of weeks! That said, I wouldn’t turn my nose up at a pay bump at any time, but who would?!

How can I get involved?

Check out our volunteering opportunities, including our dedicated student sessions held every Wednesday, where you can take a break from studying to give a little back to nature!

About the Author: Antonia Devereux is Wild Magazine’s Managing Editor, and a final year Environment, Economics, and Ecology student at the University of York. She has been lucky enough to volunteer as a Park Ranger at St Nicks since September, seriously improving her bramble destruction skills.


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