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Careers Series – Lead Advisor, Biodiversity and Ecology, Yorkshire Water

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In the ninth article of Inside Ecology’s Careers Series, Ben Aston talks about his role as Lead Advisor – Biodiversity and Ecology  for Yorkshire Water…

How did you get to where you are today?
Pure luck…

I grew up in the countryside on the fringes of the Peak District. For as far back as I can remember, weekends and holidays were spent exploring the woods with friends or going on walks with my parents. My mum is a far better botanist than me, and I think now, despairs that I still can’t retain half the plants and ID features she used to talk me through on our walks.

I studied geography at Durham University focusing on diatoms, foraminfera and sedimentology, before doing a Quaternary Science masters at Royal Holloway and UCL, where I built on this with modules on coleopteran, ostracods, chironomids and limnology. I finished up by undertaking a PhD in Aberystwyth, focused on the diatoms and geochemistry of Mexican lake systems.

I initially joined a consultancy, Arup, as a general environmental graduate, working on air quality modelling, EIA coordination and Environmental Permitting. I soon became envious of the team’s ecologists though, who looked to be doing a far more interesting and creative job, as well as not being stuck in the office. I started off by helping out on general protected species surveys to gain experience, and soon picked up my great crested newt and white-clawed crayfish licenses. My background helped me to move into the growing area of aquatic consultancy and Water Framework Directive (WFD) assessments.

During my time at Arup, I had worked extensively on a number of jobs for Yorkshire Water, and through this, I moved across, partly for the challenge, partly for the opportunity to focus on conservation as much as compliance, and partly for the lack of timesheets!

Swinsty river restoration (Photo credit ©Ben Aston)

What does your job comprise?
I can honestly say that no day or week is the same. As a water company, we own over 70,000 acres of land, have thousands of operational sites, and manage water across the cycle from the farmland we own on the moorland above our reservoirs, through clean and waste treatment works in villages, towns and cities, down to long sea outfalls along the Yorkshire coastline.

At a basic level, my job is to ensure that the company is meeting its requirements under wildlife legislation like the Habitat Regs, WFD and so on. As a statutory undertaker, we also have duties under the Water Industry Act and NERC Act to further conservation through our operations.

Some of this is office based, ensuring the procedures our staff, consultants and capital works partners follow is legal and following good practice. There is a large element of being involved in investment planning, raising schemes and working with regulators to ensure compliance (e.g, identifying that a fish pass is needed on a weir to be WFD compliant, making the business case for budget, and then working with our delivery team to get it built). The majority of the work though is focused on working with others to help ensure we are mitigating or offsetting our impacts on biodiversity. Some recent example projects include working with the Yorkshire Dales Rivers Trust on a project in Upper Wharfdale, helping the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust create new willow tit habitat at a number of our waste water sites along the River Dearne, or working with the Wild Trout Trust to facilitate river restoration training days for local angling clubs.

Other aspects of my work comprise of helping inform how we manage our land, working with our rural surveyors and water quality specialists to ensure the 12,000 ha of SSSI we own, and other rural estate is managed in a way conducive to biodiversity. It’s also working with others to ensure our impacts on the aquatic environment through abstraction or wastewater do not impact on our regional aquatic SAC’s and SSSI’s, as well as being WFD compliant.

At a basic level, work can involve completing Habitat Regulation Assessments or SSSI Assents for our capital and repair works, or providing site specific advice on protected species or local habitat enhancements for operational sites.

My favourite if frustrating area of work is in Invasive Non-Native Species (INNS). As a water company we are particularly concerned about aquatic invasives such as zebra and quagga mussels, crassula, floating pennywort and so on. I sit on the national Check Clean Dry campaign steering group, and locally, am working with groups like the Yorkshire Invasive Species Forum and British Canoeing to coordinate biosecurity and eradication campaigns, provide biosecurity facilities, and take a catchment scale approach to management, starting at the headwaters downwards. Since a lot of the species we are concerned about have no obvious method of control, it has been a great opportunity to work alongside academic researchers at the University of Leeds on biosecurity and behavioural change, and CABI on developing sustainable biocontrol solutions.

Photo credit ©Ben Aston

Are there any ‘must-have’ qualifications and/or experience?
Whilst a degree and/or masters would certainly be useful, having a diverse background blending ecological skills with a good understanding of the regulatory framework in which they fit is key. I have certainly found having varied prior experiences helps when work may bounce from mitigating a burst water pipe in a SSSI, to customer complaints about giant hogweed, through to interpreting macroinvertebrate kick sample results in a day.

Basic transferrable skills like competent use of GIS systems, the ability to manage large budgets, undertake research and BACI trials, and develop policy through to strategy documents is useful. The industry straddles the regulated and private sector so experience in at least one is key.

What are the pro’s?
I get to deal with some really unusual problems (just how do you prevent the spread of INNS in water if you’re transferring 80Ml a day in a pipe…), some really interesting research (just what is the ideal flow profile to release from a reservoir to mimic a natural stream without costing too much in water loss) and go to some really great places (pumping stations in the Yorkshire Dales, reservoirs in the Peak District, Runswick Bay, Bradford sewage works…okay, maybe not the last one).

I get to work with a small but fantastic team of technical specialists who are passionate about improving Yorkshire’s Rivers.

The job is incredibly varied, and I feel lucky that I get to blend the development/capital works side of a consultant ecologist, with the habitat management and creation work often done by NGOs, through to the more strategic planning across a large landscape that might more traditionally be done by government bodies.

What are the cons?
As a water company, we work on 5 year business plan cycles regulated by OFWAT. That means that what I am doing now through till March 2020, was set back in 2012 when our last plan was submitted, and the work I have been doing with regulators and stakeholders now to plan our future investment, won’t kick in until 2020-2025.

Underbank Reservoir (Photo credit ©Ben Aston)

What advice would you give to someone setting out on a similar career path?
Having a solid grounding in ecology is essential, so get whatever experience you can, talk to as many people in the field as you can, and take advantage of the learning gained through groups like CIEEM or free journals like Conservation Evidence.

I suspect most people in Yorkshire Water don’t know what I do, let alone external people, so don’t constrain your thinking that ecologists work in academia, consultancy, NGOs or for the government. Whilst work in private industry may be scarcer, it certainly exists and can be a really fulfilling career.

Most importantly, do what you enjoy. I said at the start that I got to where I am mostly through luck. I found a career that I love, working in a topic I enjoy learning and applying, and to some extent, that luck in finding new opportunities was created by the extra work I was happy to do because I found it so interesting, be that voluntary surveys outside of my day job, organising conferences or doing school talks. Do what you enjoy, work to a good standard and the job will find you.

Header Image: ©Ben Aston

About the Author: Since 2015, Ben Aston has been Yorkshire Water’s Lead Adviser for biodiversity and ecology, being responsible for managing wildlife enhancement projects, invasive species and protected species across their 70,000 acre estate. Prior to this Ben spent 7 years with Arup as a Senior Scientist managing ecological risk on development and infrastructure projects. Ben is a Chartered Geographer and Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society as well as a full Member of CIEEM.