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Gap Year Profiles

James Bird

James BirdWhy should you take a gap year? Because if you do, it’ll probably be the best year of your life! If planned properly, a year out from studying can enable you to achieve a number of your life ambitions leaving you happier and better equipped for the rigours of studying that lie ahead of you. Set out with clear aims of what you want to achieve and don’t stop until you reach your goals.

I spent my gap year gaining as much experience of working as an Ecologist as possible; before I started I knew very little about the role of an ecologist and due to my lack of experience and relatively poor identification skills, my chances of employment was very slim. A university degree in Ecology would teach me the science of ecology but would not give me the experience which is so greatly desired in this industry.

To overcome these obstacles I took a gap year and opted for volunteering as a means to improve my knowledge and skills. Throughout the year, I was involved in a range of voluntary activities. Most relevant to the field of ecology being my volunteering with the Broadland Flood Alleviation Project which coordinates flood defence improvements in the Norfolk Broads. Through assisting the Halcrow environmental team on this project I was able to gain firsthand experience of surveying and translocating reptiles including adders, common lizards, grass snakes and slow worms. The practical skills I gained from this experience proved crucial as it soon led to me being employed as a ‘sub-consultant reptile fieldworker’ on a large translocation of common lizards in the Norfolk Broads.

My volunteering did not just stop at reptiles though; I also spent some time assisting the warden of a local nature reserve with monitoring birds and butterflies on the reserve. I was taught how to complete bird surveys following the BTO/RSPB/JNCC Breeding Bird Survey methodology and to identify butterflies as part of the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme. Both of these schemes are dependent on the support of volunteers so, are an excellent opportunity for budding ecologists to improve their identification skills whilst adding some valuable experience to your CV.

After a spring full of surveying for all manner of animals I moved onto the next phase of my gap year; travelling to the Amazon rainforest. I spent the last 10 weeks of my gap year in the depths of the Peruvian Amazon working as a ‘volunteer researcher’ on a wildlife and ecotourism monitoring project called Fauna Forever Tambopata (FFT). Throughout my time in Peru I learnt a number of field survey techniques including line transects, camera traps and footprints traps for mammals and refuge searches, visual encounter surveys and quadrat searches for amphibians and reptiles.

When I look back at the experience I gained from my gap year, I can safely say that I would not be where I am today without it. I am still in contact with many of the people I volunteered for during my gap year and many of them are now in fact my employers as I continue to pursue a career as a Freelance Ecologist.

For more information on the work of the organisations referred to please follow the links below:

Fauna Forever Tambopata
Broadland Flood Alleviation Project
UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme
BTO/JNCC/RSPB Breeding Bird Survey


Sally Walker

Sally WalkerI decided long before my final A-level exams that I wanted to see the world and take some time out of studying to get real experience of practical ecology work. My first stop was Sri Lanka and the Turtle Conservation Project with Teaching and Projects Abroad.

The aim of this project was to protect and study the nesting sea turtles of Sri Lanka by employing locals to monitor the beaches, turtles coming up to nest, the eggs laid and their success. I spent a month with the project during which I carried out beach surveys during the morning to record any changes in the structure of the beach and whether any turtles had beached during the night. Any eggs that had hatched were excavated during the afternoon to investigate the success of the eggs. During the night, the beach was monitored for turtles making their way up from the sea to dig their nests and lay eggs. Biometrics for each turtle were recorded, an estimate made of the number of eggs laid and the location of the nest recorded.

I also volunteered with the Department of Conservation in New Zealand at their offices at Lake Waikaremoana. I helped with a range of protected species conservation work, including monitoring the location and condition of radio tagged kiwi adults and supplementary feeding of kiwi chicks, the assessment of possum damage to native trees and placing wire cages over rare plants to protect them from browsing by vermin. After this, I assisted on a PhD project in Canterbury, funded by Landcare Research, ringing birds and taking samples of their parasites.

In addition to giving me practical ecological and nature conservation experience, my gap year helped me practise organisational skills through planning the trip, fund raising and arranging the voluntary placements. The ability to work with people and the experience of different cultures helped me to better understand the challenges involved in successful ecological management. This in turn gave me an edge when applying for jobs during my year in industry, which I spent as an Assistant Natural Environment Advisor with Defence Estates, part of the Ministry of Defence responsible for the management of the MOD estate. This was arguably the most useful of all my years experience.

I took a 50 week contract to work with the Natural Environment Team of Defence Estates, the small team of ecologists responsible for advising on the management of the nature conservation resource across the MOD Estate, both in the UK and abroad. This year gave me experience in ecology and environmental management from a professional perspective. You can only learn so much from lectures and literature. Working with ecologists, in the office and in the field, every day really cemented key principles from my studies. It also gave me realistic view of what an advisory job in this sector would be like. It's not all about looking for dormice and watching birds in lovely countryside locations. There's plenty of office hours required. I wrote two large management plans during the year, each the size of a dissertation.

I returned for my final year at university, more aware of the direction I wanted to head in, and stocked up with plenty of case studies and experience to supplement my exam answers with. It's also given me the boost I needed above other graduates to find a relevant job, both in terms of experience and confidence.