I want to be a ranger ...

The city worker's dream is within reach, thanks to the demand for managed wild habitats.
To abandon a well-paid career for a working life in the country is an occasional dream of many a city dweller who has spent too many years staring at a computer screen whilst longing for the sight of buzzards wheeling in an open sky. Most probably dismiss such thoughts as a fantasy, but at agricultural colleges up and down the country a curious phenomenon has emerged: the middle-aged professional retraining for a new career in nature conservation.

"I was always interested in conservation, even in my childhood when it was just called natural history," says Julian Cross, a 44-year-old student at Lackham College in Wiltshire. "I'd go out to the Chilterns with my father to hunt butterflies and I could identify all the wild flowers, but when it came to a career, none of that seemed relevant." Instead, Julian became an archaeological illustrator, escaping only at weekends to satisfy his love of nature.

But attitudes to conservation and the countryside have changed dramatically since Julian left school. Our national parks and forests are visited by millions each year. Unspoilt stretches of the coastline have been acquired by organisations such as the National Trust; downland has been taken out of cultivation and given over to public access; green lanes and ridgeways are now busier than they have been since the advent of the motor car. This new view of the countryside as a popular amenity rather than an agricultural resource has been matched by an increased concern for its proper conservation: coppicing is on the increase, new hedges are being laid, dry-stone walls repaired, and rare habitats preserved as sites of special scientific interest.

Such changes have created a demand for country rangers, wardens and custodians trained in ways that might seem strange to some traditional estate managers. They must treat members of the public as welcome visitors, not trespassers, even when a child is swinging on a fragile gate. Their concern for wildlife must extend to birds of prey and other species that a gamekeeper would classify as vermin. They must be prepared for constant scrutiny of all they do, and to justify even the felling of a tree. Experience with people, enthusiasm, and a proven interest in conservation are the qualities required; even those with roots set deep in city pavements may prove to be suited to the life.

For Julian, the first step towards changing his career was to join the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers, Britain's leading practical conservation charity, which co-ordinates activities involving more than 80,000 volunteers each year. Working unpaid at weekends, Julian learnt how to build cob walls and coppice hazel woods. Also, for the first time in his life, he met countryside rangers and other full-time conservationists. Many, he was astonished to discover, had previously been soldiers or accountants. Now they had, it seemed to him, "the most fantastic jobs in the world". And, as they all assured him, it was not too late to join their ranks.

Most jobs in nature conservation now require a qualification in countryside management, available at most agricultural colleges, and mature students are generally encouraged. Julian had little difficulty in being accepted on a two-year part-time course at Lackham, leading to an advanced national certificate. The academic course is wide-ranging, with an emphasis on business studies: managing a National Trust estate, or even a remote wildlife preserve, is no refuge from the modern world of market forces.

Julian is now about to start his final term at Lackham. The past two years have not been easy, since the need to spend two days a week at college made it impossible for him to keep his job, and a grant of just pounds 600 a term has proved inadequate for even basic needs. Thanks to his artistic skills, he has managed to survive by doing picture restoration, but many fellow students have fallen by the wayside and returned to their old careers. Nor does Julian expect that it will be easy to find a job, for cut-backs have affected countryside management as surely as they have the world of archaeology. The difference is that he has yet to meet a burnt-out conservationist. "It's a way of life," he explains. "A vocation to be proud of." And he's just heard of a post that may become available: warden of a water mill with riverbanks and woods to manage. "Now that," he says, "would be idyllic".