Going solo – what’s it really like to work as a freelance ecologist?

Within the world of ecology consultancy, there are a significant number of ecologists going it alone. Kate Priestman was keen to find out more about what motivates ecologists to take the leap and the reality of working independently in this highly competitive sector…

There is no doubt that working for an established ecology consultancy can be both challenging and exciting, and is somewhat essential when learning the ropes. However, the downside to this is the relatively low level of control that an employee has regarding the projects that are taken on by the company and the volume of work.

Spending a lot of time outdoors surveying in all types of weather conditions is standard for an ecologist, whilst surveys for protected species such as bats and great crested newts, means plenty of evening work and early mornings during the main spring and summer survey season. Consequently, the hours of an ecologist are often long, unsociable and pressured between the months of March and September, which can make life outside of the job difficult to juggle. Not only are there surveys to complete within a seasonal time frame, the results of these surveys need to be interpreted in the form of reports and, as an ecologist is usually operating as part of a wider project team, there are meetings to attend and a plethora of phone calls and emails to make, write and respond to.

It is therefore unsurprising that somewhere along the ecological career-path, an individual begins to wonder what it would be like to have more of a say in their day-to-day activities. In fact, having more control over workload and hours is frequently cited as the impetus for ecologists to leave an established consultancy and work independently.

After fourteen years of working within consultancies, “Work-life balance and flexibility to fit in with family life,” was the primary reason behind Paul Howden-Leach’s decision to set up his own business, Skyline Ecology.

Ecologist, Fiona Sharpe agrees: “The most important reason for setting up Sharpe Ecology was the flexibility to work around my two young children,” she says.

The ability to pick and choose clients – within reason – and the type and location of projects that are accepted are definite advantages of running an ecology business. Long commutes for site visits and overnight stays may be part of the draw to the job at entry-level, but the novelty can wear off after a few years of travelling around the country, staying in a variety of weird and wonderful accommodation.

Working from home can be a plus point of working independently, particularly when managing family-life around the job; furthermore, cutting out an office commute and its associated carbon footprint must certainly sit more comfortably with the eco-conscious sensibilities of an ecologist.

Another plus point of running an ecology business appears to be the satisfaction in the work that is produced: “Feeling proud of what I do is definitely one of the pros of working for myself,” says Sharpe. “Along with being able to deal directly with my clients.”

Considerations

There are, however, a number of considerations to take into account before deciding to go solo and it is important to remember that setting up independently isn’t just about the ecology work itself: “It’s more than just ecology – you have all the other trappings of running a business such as accounting, marketing, invoicing and sorting out the general day-to-day running of a company,” says Howden-Leach.

Cash flow is another consideration, especially in the early days. There can be a significant time-lag between undertaking the work, invoicing for it and then being paid, which all have to be taken into account along with the irregular nature of payments throughout the year – ecology work can be particularly seasonal. There may even be a small number of clients that are reluctant to pay on time or even at all, meaning a headache for the business owner pursuing the overdue payment.

There are also issues of resourcing projects to think about, as many of the ecology surveys involving protected species require more than one surveyor to be present.

“Develop a good relationship with companies about the same size and in the same geographical area,” advises Howden-Leach. “It’s likely you might need them as an extra body on site as much as they might need you.”

However, this approach still has its challenges: “Arranging additional surveyors when needed can be problematic in terms of availability and you can also be let down at the last minute,” says Sharpe.

In addition to their assistance as sub-contractors, acquiring a strong network of fellow ecologists is helpful for bouncing ideas off and also from a social perspective: “Working from home and running your own business can be isolating,” says Sharpe, “and there is a risk of falling into a rut”; being able to talk to others and share experiences is often a good solution.

Deciding how much work to take on to ensure that there is neither too little nor too much appears to be an art form in itself. A preliminary site visit can lead onto the requirement for multiple follow-up surveys, all needing to be resourced and balanced against existing projects and clients. This is where prior experience can really come into its own – knowing exactly what is likely to be involved in a scheme at an early stage is clearly important when planning workload.

It is considered equally important to know when to decline work on the basis that a particular project is not something that an individual feels comfortable delivering alone. Again, this decision-making process is usually based on having the experience to understand what a project is likely to involve.

Let’s also not forget the ‘responsibility’ that is upon the individual in terms of the ecological competence required to carry out the role and run an ecology business. As a one-person-band the buck stops with the ecologist in terms of correctly identifying the baseline ecology of a site and its key features, interpreting the results of surveys appropriately, along with providing sound advice and recommendations, and implementation; all of which requires robust skills in field-work, reporting and interpretation, and the ability to explain and guide clients through the findings and implications of the survey. As a result, many ecologists working for themselves have learnt their trade through employment with a larger consultancy before taking the leap – thereby reaching a level of competency to do so effectively.

Howden-Leach suggests that for those contemplating working for themselves but feeling unsure of where to start, “it may be worth considering setting up with somebody else,” in order to ease the burden of responsibility, alternatively “begin by sub-contracting for larger companies” – this may provide the ecologist with a readier source of income in the early stages and more time to figure out the type of clients and the type of work that they wish to focus on.

Despite all of the ups and downs that accompany any job, the general consensus seems to be that whilst setting up independently may not be right for everybody and should be approached in an enlightened fashion, if the reasons for doing so are aligned with the reality, it can be a great route to go down.

A big thank you to those who assisted with the research for this article.  Particular thanks go to Paul Howden-Leach (Skyline Ecology) and Fiona Sharpe (Sharpe Ecology).

About the Author:  Kate Priestman (CEnv, MCIEEM) has over sixteen years’ experience as an ecologist.  Prior to setting up her own consultancy business in 2012, Kate worked in London for over a decade, providing the lead ecology role for a number of high-profile projects.  Kate works as an artistauthorwriter and editor.


A version of this article was published in Inside Ecology, 5 October 2017.