You might expect a surveyor to be more preoccupied with the movements of the property market than the migrations of whales and birds off the coast of the Orkneys, but for Cara Gelati, a 25-year-old rural surveyor, keeping one eye on nature is a critical part of working life.
Gelati, an assistant land agent for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), has been visiting Noup Head on Westray. It is one of 28 nature reserves in eastern Scotland for which she has responsibility – an area of about 13,000 hectares that ranges from the Shetland Isle of Fetlar in the north to Vane Farm in Fife in the south.
"Noup Head is a whale-watcher's and bird-watcher's paradise," she says. "The northernmost 3km of cliff are a reserve of the RSPB and hold huge numbers of nesting seabirds in the summer months, including guillemots and kittiwakes, razorbills, fulmars and puffins."
Gelati's estate management role includes valuations and the purchase and sale of land and buildings. She overseas the restoration of habitats, path upgrades, improvements to buildings and helps to run the estates by drawing up leases and contracts and consulting on legal issues.
"I have to be on top of agricultural legislation; I advise on felling licences, that sort of thing," she says. "Even if you remove the fact that I get to go to amazing places – be it watching minke whales from the top of Noup cliffs, or gannets dive off Troup Head near Fraserburgh – I enjoy management discussions and project proposals and using my problem-solving and surveying skills to deliver the RSPB's objectives. My time is divided about 60:40 in the office and out on the reserves, so I get to don my wellies fairly regularly, which is great."
Surveying is the collective name for a group of diverse careers. Chartered surveyors consult on a wide range of issues, not just on valuing people's homes. They also work with construction projects and farm and estate property management, and even on surveying the sea bed and valuating antiques.
Rural surveyors, whose responsibilities include consultancy, planning, environmental management, diversification plans and livestock sales or valuation, have proved recession-proof.
"There are a plethora of reasons why the rural sector is holding its own," says Fiona Mannix, a land specialist at the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. "After an unprecedented surge in UK farmland values during late 2007 and early 2008, they have held up relatively well since, especially at a time when everything else has been falling. Also, we as a nation have an increased interest in food production, and what land is used for. There is now a debate over how much land should be used for food and energy production.
"Then there is the whole renewable energy sector and the ever-expanding area of environmental consultancy. Surveyors work in all those areas and more. Within the land sector alone, there is huge diversification."
Commercial surveyors have begun to look at rural specialisms to add an extra string to their bows, according to Carrie de Silva, a senior lecturer in the Rural Affairs and Environment Department at Harper Adams University College in Shropshire.
"We have seen an increase on our rural postgraduate courses of qualified chartered surveyors from other areas – notably commercial surveyors – who seek to develop their rural interests, having seen how relatively recession-proof the sector is," she says.
The greater demand for rural surveying courses means students are encouraged to get relevant work experience (such as farm work) before applying. "What the current economic climate has brought into focus is the fact there is no slack for the unprepared, unfocused or uncommitted. For those able students who show commitment through gaining relevant work experience, right from school days, and can show employers they are genuinely interested in their chosen route, there are great opportunities in rural practice," says de Silva.
Gelati's first degree was in zoology at Aberdeen University. She was heading for a career in bat conservation before opting to study a Masters in sustainable rural development. Now she gives talks on bats and organises events around the reserves. "Much of my work involves reading legal or strategic documents and interpreting these for application on the ground by others," she says. "The rest of my time is spent travelling across the country to visit my reserves to inspect the practical application of advice I provide."