Sarah Atkinson

Sarah Atkinson

Squirrel Control & Monitoring Officer – Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels, Scottish Wildlife Trust

Describe a typical day in your job

There isn’t really a typical day with this kind of work! It varies a lot with the weather; we work around doing monitoring of squirrels via feeder boxes, which look a bit like a bird box – the squirrel lifts the lid on the box and puts its head in to get some nuts, and leaves a sample of hair on a sticky pad. We go around collecting samples to determine where the red and grey squirrels are.

I also do a lot of PR work, talking to people about where they’ve seen squirrels and what kind of squirrels they were. So most of my work is monitoring and recording, and based on that we do some trapping of grey squirrels from the area. It varies lots – and I’m working with people as well as animals which is nice!

Tell us a bit about your background – what route did you take to get this job?

I did a BSc(Hons) degree in Conservation Biology at the University of Aberdeen, and did a lot of voluntary work whilst I was at uni, doing all sorts of different things. I started by helping with maintaining paths and nature reserves, and as I’ve gone through my career I’ve ended working on small projects that do non-native species eradication.

It’s not what I thought I would do when I chose conservation, but it’s what I’ve fallen into, and I’ve ended up working all over the world with it, I’ve been really lucky and I love what I do.

What kind of skills do you need to do your job well?

I think the main skill that is often forgotten is good people skills. You’re trying to explain to people why you do what you do, and often they don’t understand why we’re trying to remove grey squirrels; there’s a good reason behind it and we want to protect our native red squirrels.

You need to be quite tactful, so communication skills are also really important; I work a lot with landowners so good communication is key. And also a degree of physical fitness – quite a lot of the time I’m stomping through woodland, up to my neck in bracken!

Non-native species control can be quite a controversial subject, and you’ve said that a large part of your job is communicating with the public, have you found that difficult?

It was something I first came across when I was working on a hedgehog removal project on the Outer Hebrides, which a lot of people didn’t understand! As a conservationist I went to university and did courses which explained the whole idea of invasion biology and animal behaviour; but when you meet a person on the street it’s often quite difficult to communicate in lay language and without getting too technical, the reasons why we do what we do.

It is quite a skill to tone down the science into something which is easier for non-specialists to appreciate and understand. It’s something which I’ve learnt and become better at over the years.

What personal qualities do you need for a career in sector?

Enthusiasm and passion for what you do. Because of the nature of the work, a lot of time you are working from home. When it’s horrendous weather outside and you’re dragging yourself out of bed at 7am, you really need to be able to motivate yourself to get on with your work. Although I’m overseen by my boss, it’s up to me to plan my week and allocate time to get things finished. So time management is really key to it as well as enthusiasm.

Because the work is so contract-based, conservation is probably not a career for someone who wants to stay in one place. It’s very hard to get permanent work, so you need to be willing to move around a bit, at least at first, before hopefully finding yourself something longer-term.

Also, a willingness to do voluntary work is important, because conservation is so competitive: you need to be willing to knock on people’s doors and keep trying until you get somewhere.

There are so many people that graduate in this field; the ones that seem to get ahead are those that keep pressing for opportunities. I’ve been relatively fortunate, moving from contract to contract, but there have been times where I’ve been unemployed for a few months and wondered if anything would ever come along and if I needed to reconsider my career!

Don’t be shy – you really need to put yourself out there, keep plugging away and eventually you’ll get somewhere.