Why I became an Ecologist


25 Jan 2021

Why I became an Ecologist

In another insight into the wide variety of roles within Highways England, this month we talked to Leonardo Gubert, the Senior Ecologist in the South West. He gave us an interesting insight into his role, why he got into ecology and some advice for any budding ecologists out there.

Check out below for the full interview:

Hello Leonardo. So, to start with, why did you get into Ecology?

As with many fans of the natural world it all started at an early age. As a child I remember spending time watching the birds in the garden, chasing glow-worms, and really enjoying the outdoors – particularly the coast and woodlands. But I think what sealed my fate was a pocket encyclopaedia of the Animal Kingdom that I asked my mum to buy me at a book fair when I was 7 or 8 years old. It seemed all very technical but I was keen to memorise different taxonomic groups and scientific names and imagine the habitat the different animals lived in. From small sea invertebrates to giant mammals. From there on I knew I wanted to study something involving wildlife and their habitats.

With that resolution in mind I joined an agricultural college, as back then, wildlife courses were not so common until you got to university. At the college I learned many interesting things that became valuable assets later in life. I had a great introduction to botany, animal husbandry, anatomy and physiology, beekeeping (which became a hobby during my early teens) as well as learning agricultural and horticultural practices that provided a great foundation for the work I do today.

After graduating from college, I decided to travel abroad during my gap year and accepted an offer to work in a state of art farm in the Middle East as a trainee. The plan was to return home and start my university degree but that only happened after nearly five years later and only I managed to get the travel bug under control. A few continents and many countries later I joined an ecology degree programme - curious to learn about how the animals and plants I observed during my travels adapted to different environments. The same curiosity led me to a master’s degree in wildlife and conservation and now lives in the form of a doctorate that I am due to complete in the coming year.

I remember people saying that there is little financial gain in nature conservation, but I couldn’t imagine being in any other career that could provide me with high job satisfaction whilst keeping the same flame I had as a child alive for so long.

How long have you done it for?

I’ve have been working as a professional ecologist for over 20 years but before that I had a spell in bee keeping, landscaping and research.

How long have you worked for Highways England?

I started working with Highways England as an ecologist in 2003 with the main task of implementing the newly released Highways Agency Biodiversity Action Plan, helping with environmental assessments and management of the natural habitats that line the motorways and trunk roads.

It all sounded a bit odd in the beginning as working on major road networks are not the first thing that comes to mind when you are an ecologist. But with time, the people I met and the great opportunities I had to learn and develop my own skills it has certainly become an obvious path to follow.

What your role involves within Highways England?

My role of Senior Ecologist in the South West Operations Division is extremely varied. It ranges from identifying projects such as new biodiversity improvement schemes, protected species licensing, providing ecological advice in the design and delivery of highway schemes, coming up with pragmatic solutions for the day to day operation of our network, carrying out ecological surveys and monitoring.  

Our region covers a large geographical area and our soft estate makes up over 3,300 hectares that include many different habitat and numerous species of animals and plants, many of which are rare and/or endangered. As a member of the environment team we provide support on all matters involving the management of the soft estate from grass cutting to treatment of invasive species to tree planting. Our job here is to help Highways England to keep the soft estate safe whilst maximising key ecosystem services such as screening, carbon sequestration, increase landscape aesthetic value, support biodiversity and others.

Why ecology is a great profession to get into?

There are so many different areas to work in that will surely keep anyone with an interest in the natural environment entertained. Ecology by definition is very broad, it is the science that deals with how organisms relate to one another and to their physical environment.  With ecology being a science, there will always be the challenges of breaking new ground, filling knowledge gaps or contributing to the establishment of known concepts.

As we are becoming more aware of how we are connected to nature and how important this relationship is to each one of us, the field of ecology has grown consistently across a number of industries including construction, transport, forestry and others in the last 30 years. Tougher environmental legislation also means that specialist action or advice is required for almost anything with an impact on the natural environment.

There is also the potential to really make a difference as there is an ever-growing need for ecologists and other environmental professionals, particularly in this era we currently live in. The situation of our environment has never been so delicate, with climate emergency declared by the UK and many other nations across the world, plastic pollution, increased rate of extinction, degradation and loss of habitat, human overpopulation and so many others. So, for anyone looking for a true challenging profession, then becoming an ecologist is probably right up there!

Any advice for any future ecologists?

It is important to decide exactly what you want to do and then get as much experience as possible at the earliest stage of your carreer. It is likely that the first jobs will be related to previous experiences and subjects studied at college or university. Luckily there are numerous free courses and a wealth of information online these days that may be useful to create a solid foundation to build the skillset needed.

Like many other disciplines, it is a tough and competitive field so the more practice you get the better and easier it will be to find the right post. It is a good idea to spend some time looking at an attractive job role and see what skills are required so that the mastering of these can get underway.

There are a number of volunteering opportunities from a range of organisations that may be useful to learn and develop skills that will be useful during a career in ecology. Also, it provides aspiring/young professionals with hands on experience and help fine tune the direction their career may take whilst providing fantastic networking opportunities.

Another route is via one of several companies and organisations that provide apprenticeships and graduate schemes and some even offer opportunities whilst qualifications are being obtained.

 Lastly, the key message I would like to pass on is that it paramount to look for something that you really enjoy doing as only then you will be able to see how rewarding a career in ecology can be.