Captivated by the natural world

If you want to be the next David Attenborough, you must do a course with fieldwork
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The Independent Online

The month of May has come, when many a forlorn, office-bound hack looks longingly out of the window on his daily commute.

Malory didn't call it the lusty month for nothing. Where most of us see a calming idyll of gentle petals and soft, wafting breezes, those in the know, ecologists, see a glorious, grotesque battleground, fuelled by lust and the terrible genetic imperative to survive. Understanding all the different actors in that strange, salacious drama is what ecology is all about.

It is an increasingly hot topic. Ecologists are leading research into the effect of global warming, building models that can predict what will happen to our environment as things begin to hot up.

The rising status of the profession has been demonstrated by more ecologists being appointed to top scientific positions, most notably with Lord May's tenure as Chief Scientific Adviser from 1995 to 2000.

Most people develop an interest in ecology at a young age, but, partly because of its relative obscurity, often only consider it as a career later on. Lord May is a convert from physics. Dr Bill Kunin, reader in spatial ecology at Leeds University, became interested as a student, when he took a field ecology course to prepare him for a summer job at a holiday camp. It was, he says, something of an epiphany.

"All of a sudden nature wasn't just natural history facts, it all made sense," he says. "It wasn't just this gets eaten by that, but why this gets eaten by that. Ecology is about asking questions about the dynamics of that system. Why things work in the way they do."

Obviously, the first qualification to study ecology is an interest in the natural world. Ecology is on the boundaries between biology and geography, and most applicants will have A-levels in both subjects.

So, if you are interested, what should you be looking for on a course? Beyond university rankings, one important factor is fieldwork. Some universities have been cutting back on this, because it is expensive to run. Some ecologists are up in arms: fieldwork, they say, is the heart and soul of the subject. Dr Kunin agrees. "People learn more in a week or two in the field than in a semester in a classroom," he says.

Nick Crumpton, 20, a second-year ecologist at Leeds, is of the same mind. "The best aspect of the course has been the fieldwork," he says. "It's just so much fun to use everything we've been learning and apply it in a real scientific way. It was like watching a David Attenborough programme but you're part of it. I'm still buzzing from it."

Crumpton has just got back from a field trip in Gibraltar, studying how Iberian wall lizards deal with predators, how much basking in the sun they need to stay warm while hiding, and whether they learn evasive strategies.

Crumpton started an ecology course as a reaction against the supremacy of genetics in biology. "I wanted to study the larger scope of biology," he says. "Although ecology deals in genetic ideas you still have to bear in mind classical biology. It appeals to the romantic idea of a biologist."

The study of ecology can lead to a range of specialised jobs, from countryside ranger and NGO work, to employment in research, education and policy, or as an ecological consultant. For most professional ecologists, the choice is between working in the field on a particular species or area, or working in policy, helping policymakers make informed decisions by reviewing primary ecological research on questions such as the effect of wind turbines on bird populations.

Dr Zoe Davies, 27, works in policy. After completing a PhD on the effects of climate change on the silver-spotted skipper butterfly, Davies is now a research fellow at the Centre for Evidence-Based Conservation at Birmingham University.

"I love it," she says. "I get a lot of stick from friends doing white-collar jobs who earn much more money than me, but I wouldn't swap my job for anything. It's amazing that you can use ecological theory to predict what's happening around you."

Davies's advice for aspiring ecologists is this: "Get as much experience as you can," she says. "Get out into the field, learn how to identify things, ask why this affects that. Be inquisitive."

For more information on how to become an ecologist go to the British Ecological Society website at www.britishecologicalsociety.org

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