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Careers Series – Principal Ecologist and AONB Officer, Northumberland County Council

In the tenth article of Inside Ecology’s Careers Series, David Feige talks about his role as Principal Ecologist and AONB Officer for Northumberland County Council…

David Feige (Photo credit: Amos Menin)

How did you get to where you are today?
I was lucky to grow up in a beautiful part of rural Shropshire. I was always really keen on wildlife and I remember my grandmother telling me the names of plants and teaching me to recognise a few bird songs when I was young. After graduating from the University of East Anglia in the late 1980s, I did some voluntary work for Norfolk Wildlife Trust. I then worked on heathland restoration in Dorset for five years, first for RSPB and then for a small charity that I helped to establish. In the mid-1990s I moved north and started a part-time MPhil at Newcastle University concerning the development of protected area policy, whilst also volunteering for RSPB and Northumberland Wildlife Trust and undertaking contract work. This led to an eight week contract at Northumberland County Council in spring 1997, and 21 years later I’m still there!

What does your job comprise?
I lead a small group of Ecologists who provide all the ecological advice to the Council’s Planning Service, covering both development management (planning applications and requests for pre-application advice) and strategic planning (development of the Northumberland Local Plan and neighbourhood planning). I also manage the Northumberland Coast AONB staff unit and a Marine Project Officer that the Council hosts on behalf of a range of organisations. The work is extremely varied; for example current projects include the establishment of a developer-funded strategic mitigation project to address recreational disturbance within designated sites on the Northumberland coast, undertaking the Habitats Regulations Assessment of the emerging Northumberland Local Plan and reviewing the Northumberland Coast AONB Management Plan, in addition to the day to day responses to planning applications.

Large heath at Muckle Moss (Photo credit: David Feige)

Are there any ‘must-have’ qualifications and/or experience?
A relevant degree is a must have, but also a wide experience of work in the ecology sector and definitely a very broad interest in natural history. It is the nature of the job that one moment you are considering the impacts of a barn conversion on bats, and the next moment you are looking at the impact of a proposed quarry on some important plant communities or the disturbance impacts of new housing on internationally important coastal bird populations. Of course you also have to have a good understanding of the workings of the planning system, so that you are clear about the context in which you work and the opportunities that are available to you to secure the best outcomes for the habitats and species concerned, while still ensuring that your advice is sound in legal and planning policy terms.

What are the pros?
It’s great to work with such a variety of people and see how land use change is managed and negotiated from so many different perspectives – planning officers, developers, consultant ecologists, local records centre staff, ecologists in the statutory agencies and NGOs; it really helps you to understand what the different parties are trying to achieve and where there are common interests and great differences. Being able to influence major land use changes such as the restoration of quarries and surface mines and the development of windfarm mitigation and enhancement areas can be really exciting, because you can make such a significant and long-lasting difference. However, the best thing about being an Ecologist in Northumberland is Northumberland itself; a beautiful and very varied county with really stunning areas, especially in the uplands and on the coast. Although I’ve been living and working here for years I’m constantly finding out new things about the county’s wildlife and discovering new places.

The River South Tyne (Photo credit: David Feige)

What are the cons?
I do find the eccentricities of nature conservation legislation really frustrating – having to focus so much on bats and newts when there are much more important plant and invertebrate communities that we can do no more than ‘have regard’ to is maddening sometimes. Also I spend much more time at a desk than I used to. That’s partly because I’m now managing people and budgets, and partly because there is a lot more pressure to do everything more quickly and with less resources, so site visits get cut down to the most essential ones. Going outside is a bit of a treat these days.

What advice would you give to someone setting out on a similar career path?
Volunteering is a great way of both building your skills and developing your networks – but think carefully about the particular skills and experience that you need to develop and talk to relevant organisations about whether they can offer opportunities that will assist with this. At the same time be open minded about opportunities that might take you in unexpected directions. CIEEM regional groups and events are great ways of building contacts as well as knowledge. If you specifically want to work within the planning system then developing your knowledge of land use planning, nature conservation legislation and how they interact is essential, as is as wide an experience as possible of different habitats and taxonomic groups, because you have to be a good generalist.

Header Image Credit: David Feige.

About the Author: David Feige has been an Ecologist for 28 years and still enjoys it (mostly). In his spare time he is a keen naturalist, pursuing various interests with much enthusiasm and varying degrees of competence, including butterflies and moths, birds, reptiles and amphibians, plants, dragonflies and hoverflies. He is also a keen photographer, and bakes a ginger cake that seems to be highly rated by his colleagues. He is old enough to be easily baffled by anything IT-related, but young enough to be expected to be able to use it.

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