Jobs in ecology are scarce, so using a gap year to make a head start in your chosen field makes sense, writes Amy McLellan

With increasing numbers of green-minded graduates emerging with qualifications in conservation or environmental science, competition for entry-level jobs in the sector has never been fiercer. A gap year can be an ideal opportunity to get a head start on the competition by gaining some invaluable hands-on experience.

"Conservation is the epitome of the no experience/no job catch," says Kate Tycer, of the residential volunteering scheme at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. "Volunteering is a good route into this competitive sector."

Gappers looking to gain hands-on conservation experience during their year out can apply for a residential placement with the RSPB. The self-catering accommodation and training are free but the volunteers have to fund their travel to the reserve, which may be on the Shetland Isles, the south coast of England or anywhere in between. Physical fitness is important and an enthusiasm for bird and wildlife conservation is a must. "In exchange for their time, we give volunteers training in brush cutting, dry-stone walling, chainsaw use or all-terrain vehicle driving," says Tycer. "They get certificates in these areas, which are essential for employment in the sector."

Volunteers can apply to spend a couple of weeks onsite or longer, and their contribution is vital to the work of the RSPB, says Tycer. "We rely on these people throughout the winter to help with estate maintenance, such as mending fences and maintaining footpaths, as well as habitat management, such as cutting scrub or planting reeds. They're a very important part of the organisation and we couldn't manage without them."

Gap year volunteers are also essential to the work of the BTCV (the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers), which advertises volunteer officer vacancies on its website. Volunteer officers may find themselves running a green gym or a wildflower nursery in return for a small daily allowance to cover lunch and travel costs plus extensive training. In a wildflower nursery the day-to-day work may range from seed collection to propagation of plants to creating a living gene bank of indigenous seeds. With no prior experience necessary and full training provided, these unpaid posts provide gappers with the skills and experience to go on and secure work in the sector.

For those seeking more exotic destinations in which to hone their skills, there's a range of projects and schemes with something to suit most budgets and interests. However, it's important to do some research beforehand to check exactly what you'll be doing on the project, where your money goes and what training you'll be receiving. The Year Out Group, which provides an online directory of reputable gap-year organisations that abide by a code of practice, is a good starting point.

One of its members, Frontier, organises conservation projects overseas that include the option of picking up additional qualifications - either a BTEC advanced diploma in tropical habitat conservation (equivalent to an A-level) or an advanced certificate in expedition management (equivalent to an AS-level). A typical expedition might involve appraising the impact of teak planting on the wildlife of the Kilombero flood plains in Tanzania. The projects are not cheap, ranging from £1,200 for four weeks to almost £4,000 for a 20-week programme. An additional £250 ensures enrolment on the BTEC programme, which then involves a series of tests, plus a final report and presentation.

Gappers on projects with Coral Cay Conservation also receive training in conservation skills and must sit a series of tests. "It's important we keep up the standard," a spokesman says, "because we depend on volunteers to collect inform-ation, which is analysed in the UK and used by our partners so that they may manage their habitats better, either by protecting marine areas or setting up rainforest reserves."

Coral Cay's most popular project is a marine conservation project in Fiji, surveying the coral reefs of the Mamanuca Islands. Gappers pay £400 for a week's diving training, followed by £700 for two weeks of skills development. Additional weeks come in at between £100 and £300, depending on the length of the trip. More budget-friendly breaks are available through the BTCV, which organises conservation holidays around the globe. For £475, the volunteer may spend three weeks tree planting, harvesting or forest surveying in Gunjur on the southwest coast of Gambia.

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