How I became a Lough Neagh Ranger

22nd February 2021

No two days are ever the same for Lough Neagh Ranger, Ciara Laverty.

Read how she became a Lough Neagh Ranger

Give a brief outline of your career to date.

After graduating from my degree in Wildlife and Media, I volunteered and also worked a number of seasonal and casual jobs to gain as much experience in the environmental sector as I could. This included a job as an Education Guide at Oxford Island, Craigavon; Wildlife Guide for Sea Life Surveys – a whale watching boat on the Isle of Mull and seasonal jobs with National Trust and RSPB. I was also a Project Officer with Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful before becoming Lough Neagh Ranger for Lough Neagh Partnership in 2020.

What was your favourite subject at school?

My favourite subject at school was Irish. Nature is entrenched in the language and I was particularly fascinated in how place-names described what habitats or species could be found in an area and how our landscape has changed over time.

Did you go on to further/ higher education, if so what did you study and where?

I studied BA (Hons) Wildlife and Media at the University of Cumbria 2009-2012 and then went on to get a Master’s degree in Ecological Management and Conservation Biology at Queen’s University Belfast in 2018.

How did you get into your area of work?

After graduating, I volunteered and worked a range of seasonal and casual job contracts in order to build up my experience within the environmental sector. This also enabled me to network with others and gain career advice from those who were working in roles that I aspired to.

Is this what you always wanted to do?

From an early age I was fascinated by the natural world and wildlife and it was always my ambition to have a career in wildlife conservation.

Were there any particular essential qualifications or experience needed?

A third level qualification in conservation, ecology or environmental management, 18 months experience in conservation management or in bird surveying and monitoring and excellent bird ID skills.

Are there alternative routes into the job?

There are alternative routes into a career as a ranger without going to university. Some organisations have traineeships – National Trust has a Ranger Academy, a two year placement from which you can gain the knowledge and practical skills to acquire a job as a ranger. Ulster Wildlife offers a similar Landscape Traineeship.

What are the main personal skills your job requires?

Confidence in my Bird ID skills. These have been tested in my current post as getting a clear view of distant birds in flight through binoculars on a moving boat can be tricky! Health and safety is very important when working on boats and also the ability to work outside – no matter what the weather is like.

What does a typical day entail?

A typical day for me involves going out onto Lough Neagh with a colleague. We prepare the boat, check the engine, ensure there is enough fuel and load it with everything we need to carry out our surveys safely including life jackets, marine radio, flares, binoculars, waterproof notebook and, most importantly, a packed lunch. One of our survey sites is the Torpedo Platform near Antrim, it can take us almost two hours to get there from our base at Ballyronan Marina and another two hours to get home. When we approach a site we carry out what is known as a flush survey. We steer the boat close to the island or platform which flushes the gulls and terns into the air, then we take a quick estimate of numbers. We also photograph the site to cross reference later and leave as quickly as possible to minimise the amount of disturbance to the birds.

What are the best and most challenging aspects of the job?

The best aspect of the job is the wildlife and no two days are the same. You never know what species you will encounter when out on Lough Neagh. One of my favourite memories from last summer was as we were slowly leaving Maghery Slip and an otter casually swam past, looked straight at us then dived under the water. The last thing we saw was the flick of a tail tip and it was gone.

The biggest challenge has been adapting our working patterns to the Covid-19 pandemic, I know that many people can relate to this. Due to restrictions during lockdown we were unable to carry out our vital islands’ surveys during the early part of the breeding season. During the winter months we had planned to carry out habitat management work on some of the islands to create a more suitable habitat for common terns to nest. As we are currently in another lockdown, we may sadly not be able to carry out this work.

Why is what you do important?

Lough Neagh has a number of environmental designations, it is a Ramsar site – a wetland of international importance, a Special Protection Area (SPA), an Area of Special Scientific Interest (ASSI) and Special Area of Conservation (SAC). The presence of breeding Amber listed bird species like the common tern and black headed gull are just one of many factors why Lough Neagh has been awarded these designations. My role is to primarily survey and monitor the numbers of common terns and black headed gulls which breed on some of the small islands on Lough Neagh and carry out habitat management work to provide more suitable nesting habitat which will hopefully help increase the breeding population of these endangered bird species in Northern Ireland.

How has Covid-19 impacted on your business/role?

I was recruited for my role during the Covid-19 pandemic and had my interview via Zoom. The pandemic restrictions meant that we were only able to start our surveys in late June following a comprehensive risk assessment and an overall review of all working procedures, a full month after common terns had returned from migration. Working closely with my colleague Peter Harper, Lough Neagh’s Shoreline Environment Officer, we take care to ensure that we comply with government guidance and that all our risk assessments are fully up to date.

What adjustments have you had to make?

Like many people I work from home on non-survey days. It has been a strange experience adjusting to a new job and becoming a member of a new team during the pandemic. I still haven’t met several members of the team in person yet.

What advice would you give anyone looking to follow a similar career path?

Do a relevant degree if you can. It’s a very competitive field and a lot of jobs specify the need for a degree in conservation, ecology, zoology or environmental management. Try and get as much experience as possible, whether from volunteering or casual/seasonal jobs. But most of all, love what you do; it’s not a field of work that will make you a millionaire, but your life will be enriched by amazing wildlife encounters and total job satisfaction.

If you weren’t doing this what would you like to do?

If I wasn’t doing this job I would love to work as an ecologist or as a nature reserve warden.

What is the one piece of advice you would give to yourself on your first day?

Wear a hat. On my first day out on the boat a caddis fly flew into my ear, they have very long antenna and wriggle around a lot – I had to go to a doctor to get it out!

Describe your ideal day off.

My ideal day off is birding with friends. I love sitting in a bird hide with a scope and a flask of coffee, excitedly whispering if we spot something special. I have still been able to enjoy the natural world and its wildlife during the pandemic and it has helped me cope through difficult times during the past year but I have missed sharing those experiences with friends.

And finally, what’s the key to any successful job search?

Setting up a job email alert really helped me to pinpoint the types of jobs I wanted to apply for as opposed to spending hours searching online. For me, the key to success is to stay positive, keep looking and don’t be disheartened if you don’t get your dream job straight away. Volunteering or temporary jobs help you gain experience in your field, make friends with like-minded people and offer networking opportunities with employers that you may one day work for.

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