Ecological consultant: Seeing ecology in the legal framework, that is what it is all about
Job profile: An interview with Dagmar Heidinga about working in an ecological consulting firm
What would best describe you as a professional?
I am a ‘Law and Natural Protection Specialist Flora and Fauna.’
Right. Sounds fancy. What does it mean?
I am an ecologist by training and now work for an ecological consulting firm. We are advising companies, governments, managers of protected areas, and private persons about the legal frameworks of interventions and write action plans for natural protection.
As soon as anyone in the Netherlands wants to do any kind of activity that could potentially damage protected species, they need to get advice from an independent agency in order to get permission to pursue the activity.
Can you give an example?
In the Netherlands bats, sparrows and swifts are protected species in residential areas by the Nature Protection Act. If anyone wants to get permission to renovate a house or demolish an old barn, they need to get permission from the government to do so. My field ecologist colleagues are coming to the area for a ‘quick scan’ to investigate if any of the protected species is nesting in the area. If the ‘quick scan’ is positive, meaning we suspect one of the protected species is in the area, we advise our client to do further research before the renovation or demolition takes place, because otherwise he or she could breach the law. The next step will be to conduct in-depth research during the time of the year that specific species is active; the breeding season. We predict what the effect of the interventions could be on the species. Based on this research, I write an action plan on how to limit the negative impact of the interventions on the species. Action plans can include activities like hanging birdhouses or bat boxes in the area, make roofs accessible for building nests or plant greenery. Those activities must be undertaken by our clients to get permission by the government.
You mention the word ‚research.’ What are the differences between your research and academic research?
Our research is not scientific. We evaluate everything in the legal context. Firstly, we check if a certain protected species is present in the planning area. Secondly, we investigate what the functions of the area or building is for that particular species. And, thirdly, we anticipate what the effects of the planned activities will be on the species and how we can get permission for the activity without breaking the law. We are not trying to better understand the behaviour of the species as such.
With some project we do follow up for two or three years. For example, if we use newly designed breeding houses or bat boxes, we might monitor if the species is actually using them. The knowledge we gather we share with our network. But we do not conduct any statistics on the data, and we do not have control groups. Therefore, our work is fundamentally different from academic research.
Do you spend time outside?
No, not during working hours. I am a desk-ecologist J, mainly working on the legal aspects of our advice reports. But my colleagues (also ecologists) do a lot of field work. Between April and September, they are outside. Every single day. In the winter months there is not much to do outside. The animals aren’t active so we can’t do any research. For them, the winter is the time of the year to write reports and do desk work.
You are dealing with European legislations. Did you study anything in that direction?
Yes and no. The legal aspects, you learn on the job. I studied biology and focused my master’s on policy and business. During my studies, I did do an internship at a province and got my first, hands-on experience working with the European nature protection law.
What do you like most about your job?
Due to our work the net outcome for the existence of species increases; it is better for the species after the interventions than before.
What does a typical working day look like for you?
I run to the coffee machine J, then I spend about an hour on emails and notifications. There is a relatively long time-span of my morning going to colleagues flooding me with questions; it easily takes an hour or two. The afternoon I write offers and discuss with control groups, such as City governments, local municipalities and provinces. On a good day there is enough time left to write on reports and action plans.
How family-friendly is your work?
Most of us work 32 hours* per week. So, one day is off. We have flexible arrangements and can work from home. Having said all that, certain jobs are less family friendly here than others. That has nothing to do with the organisation, but if you are a bat-expert doing field research, you have to adapt to the active hours of a bat. Meaning, you are working evenings and very early mornings. Obviously, that could crush with family life.
Can you develop yourself within the consultancy?
Yes. We have yearly evaluations and if I wish to move to a different position within the organisation this will be made possible. I can pick and propose advanced training courses I would like to attend; most will be granted.
How would you describe your colleagues?
They are all nature-loving people. Not all of us have studied; some field ecologists here schooled themselves. They are so passionate about some species; they professionalised their hobby!
We are team workers. To be honest, if you are a lone wolf, it is not going to be your cup of tea. Every project will be conducted with a team of people and we share offices.
What are you talking about in the coffee breaks?
As one would expect from ecologists, we talk about the animals and plant we have seen. We are all passionate about nature and all my colleagues love spending their weekends outside, so we have plenty to share.
You have been for ten years at an ecological consulting firm. If you were to leave, what could be a next career step for you?
An obvious one would be to transition to the Province and sit on the other side of the table; granting and rejecting permissions for interventions. I could also work for an NGO and help protecting a natural reserve. But, for now, I am blessed with my work and I see no reason to leave.
Dagmar Heidinga studied biology at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. For ten years, she has been working for Buro Bakker, an independent ecological consulting firm, located in Assen, the Netherlands.
*The Netherlands is the first part-time economy of the world, where a very large share of the working population works part-time, even in challenging positions.
Many of our Workshops and talks deal with career options: See for example our workshop PhD, and next? Career options, skills and orientation for scientists or our talk Graduated and now? – A look at career options.