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How do you become a park ranger?

Vikki Austin reveals the path she followed to a job in the countryside

“How do you become a ranger?” – It is a question I am asked often, as I go about the various tasks necessary to keep a country park well-maintained, writes Vikki Austin.

There is no simple answer, and each person’s journey will be different.  Some know what they want to be when they grow up from an early age and can take advantage of the various qualifications available that focus on Countryside Management.  Others, like myself, realise later in life that they want to pursue something in the Great Outdoors.

Some people are in a position to return to education as a mature student; and gaining a relevant qualification would certainly be to your advantage.  However, one thing the job descriptions all have in common is experience, and the best way to start gaining experience is through volunteering. Most country parks, nature reserves and wildlife organisations are always looking for willing volunteers.  Public volunteer days are usually held weekly or monthly, and often include a weekend day to allow ‘office dwellers’ the opportunity to enjoy some natural daylight and fresh air.

Personally, I have two individuals to thank for my career as a Countryside Ranger.  The first was my grandfather, although I didn’t appreciate his influence at the time.  He used to teach me about the different trees as we walked around various country parks.  We would collect the autumn leaves and seeds from the ground and he would tell me what each one was: sycamore, oak, birch, elm.  Then there were the weekends collecting fruit in the late summer and autumn, and the hours in the garden planting seeds and watching them grow.  Then I grew up and forgot most of the knowledge he had given me, but the interest in the natural world started then, thanks to him.

The second person has been very influential.  I started volunteering, over ten years ago, one Saturday a month at a local nature reserve, simply as a way of escaping the office.  I wanted some fresh air, some exercise, and a sense of job satisfaction. The practical nature of the work was a little daunting to begin with, but the other volunteers in the group were very welcoming, and Dave, the ranger leading the day, was very patient and more than happy to explain everything.  

I was used to sitting down all day in front of a computer, playing with spreadsheets, and shuffling paper.  So when faced with practical conservation work I was clumsy and tentative, afraid to do the wrong thing, or cut something back that I wasn’t supposed to.  Also, my wildlife identification skills were appalling. ‘Today, we will be coppicing willow from the reed bed,’ Ranger Dave had said. Everyone picked up loppers and bowsaws and walked boldly into the reed bed, the tall reeds swallowing them up one by one until they were all out of sight.  Just the gentle whisper of the reeds and the sporadic disappearance of a small tree hinted at their locations. It was like being in a horror movie, watching the trees getting picked off one by one, and then the tops of the reeds swaying as something moved through the reed bed, before a volunteer suddenly emerged, grinning, wielding a bowsaw in one hand and a small tree in the other.

We can all identify a small number of tree species, probably at certain times of the year.  Much of the time we will have learned what individual trees are, and identify them more by location than by their unique features.  For example, we know that the large tree in the corner of the playing field is a horse chestnut because that’s where we got all our conkers from when we were children.  

Life is often chaotic, and it doesn’t take much for any of us to become focussed on our own little worlds, for better or worse.  Suddenly, all that exists is a busy home, the commute to work, and work itself. The seasons come and go almost unnoticed, and those little nuggets of knowledge can disappear.  Put the trees in a line-up and many will struggle to identify them.

‘Coppice the willow,’ had been the instruction, and suddenly I was filled with doubt and uncertainty.  What did a willow look like? I could point to a large weeping willow on the banks of a river, but these were all relatively small trees, without the distinctive shape they acquire with age.  Thankfully, Ranger Dave was kind enough to help me to identify the willows and to explain why we were cutting them down. That was key, knowing the why of the task, understanding how our influence was going to help the reed bed, and the wildlife it supported.

It wasn’t just the natural world that presented a steep learning curve for me, there were tools as well.  Quite often I would be awkwardly gripping a drill, or a saw (thankfully by the right end) and someone would approach and say ‘oh, let me do that for you.’  Then they would gently take the tools from my hand and carry out the task with the skills and ease borne of practice and experience. It was very kind of them to offer and I have no doubt that they always had the best of intentions.  It saved time, but it didn’t help me to learn.

It was Ranger Dave who made a difference.  He would watch me clumsily trying to tackle a new and unfamiliar task, but he didn’t take the tools away and do it himself (which would certainly have been a lot quicker).  Instead, he would very patiently go through it all step by step, allowing me to make mistakes, giving me time to correct them, and offering extra guidance when necessary.

I began to learn, and the more I learned the more I wanted to learn.  Ranger Dave became a mentor, and a friend, and gave me confidence in my abilities.  It was his influence that helped me to realise that I could pursue a career as a Countryside Ranger.

It is important to remember that we all have to start as novices at some point.  No-one knows everything (not even teenagers!) and a little patience can go a long way.  It is something I have tried to take forward and put into practice when I lead my own volunteer groups.  How do you become a ranger? The same way you become anything: work at it, believe in yourself, and don’t stop until you get there.

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