How to work with wildlife

Farne Islands head ranger David Steel "I wanted to go and work in a bank," says David Steel, now head ranger at the Farne Islands

Northumberland's Farne Islands head ranger David Steel spends nine months a year living and working on the reserve, helping to conserve and monitor its huge seabird and seal populations.

Summer is the busiest period for Mr Steel's team of rangers, and this year they are carrying out a "puffin census" - counting each and every one of the islands' colourful inhabitants - to gather important information about the birds' welfare.

He talked to BBC Nature about why he loves working - and living - on a small group of islands surrounded by seabirds, and gave his tips on building a career in wildlife conservation.

Have you always wanted to work with wildlife?
Puffin The Farne Islands, off the coast of Northumberland, are home to around 37,000 pairs of puffins

Yes. I started getting into wildlife and birds at an early age - nine and ten years old - and then I sort of followed it through.

Actually I was studying for my A-levels, I wanted to go and work in a bank, and I was sitting doing my business and finance A-levels, and thought to myself "No, I want to do something with birds". So I got a degree in ornithology and the rest's history.

I got a job on the Farne Islands in 2001 and it's been my career path ever since.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to work in conservation in the UK?

It's quite difficult. The main one, certainly at an early age, is to get lots of experience.

Start Quote

A few years ago we saw a humpback whale breaching; it was coming clean out of the water. Just the other day we had dolphins while we were riding the boat, and then all these migrant birds coming in from Scandinavia, Russia and beyond. ”

End Quote David Steel Head ranger, Farne Islands, Northumberland

You'll find when you go for jobs, you'll be hit with the "you've got the qualifications but you haven't got the experience," so I'd recommend people get good, varied experience at places like the National Trust and the RSPB.

You can go to their reserves and help out. These reserves rely on volunteering, but also you get something back from them as well by getting the experience of it all, and then hopefully eventually breaking into contracts and seasonal contracts in the field.

What makes working on the Farne Islands so unique?

Blimey that's a tough question. I think the pure variation. You know, here we are in the 21st Century, and we're living on an island that has no running water, it has no mains electricity.

So we're living in these very basic conditions but we're surrounded by spectacular wildlife which throughout the nine months, changes so much.

At the height of the season we've got 81,000 pairs of seabirds including 37,000 puffins. We're jack of all trades. One minute I'm fixing toilets and then the next minute I'm ringing a puffin.

A few years ago we saw a humpback whale breaching; it was coming clean out of the water. Just the other day we had dolphins while we were riding the boat, and then all these migrant birds coming in from Scandinavia, Russia and beyond.

And come the autumn months we're living with 5,000 grey seals which are giving birth. You see everything then. You see the mums giving birth to little white-coated pups. Last July we saw the northern lights really well.

This footage from 2011 shows David Steel explaining how seal tagging is done

So it's just the variety, the spice of it all, and working and living on one of Britain's best nature reserves.

You seem to spend a lot of long days out on the islands. Is it difficult to get a good work/life balance sometimes?

It is, absolutely. This is the height of the bird breeding season, so from about May time to sort of early August the team will be putting long hours in.

This is nothing to be a martyr about but I haven't had a day off in about three weeks now and I'm starting to feel mentally tired. There's a lot of effort going in with all the visitors - we get 45,000 visitors per year on the Farnes - so we've got to look after them.

We've got to look after all the wildlife and manage the habitat, and that's what we're doing at the moment.

Farne Islands The team put in long hours during the height of the breeding season, from May to early August

So we're doing a lot of counting, everything from puffins to all the other seabirds, so yeah some long hours. It's definitely a drawback to the job. It becomes your life; it's not just a job really it also sort of encompasses your life at this time of year.

What's one of the most memorable moments of your career so far?

One of the strangest moments - and it's away from wildlife - it was 2002 and it was myself and two colleagues. [One] was my head ranger, we took him into Seahouses [the nearest mainland town to the Farne Islands] at night-time, and we said "we'll see you tomorrow".

We got back to the island and in those days we didn't have mobile phones and internet and stuff. So we got back and switched on the shipping forecast and there it was telling us there was going to be a south-easterly gale imminent. And we weren't ready for this gale. Normally we'd be well-prepared, we'd have lots of food and water ready.

But anyway this gale started blowing. And after a couple of days it kept on going.

So alcohol went after day one. The fresh food, bread, went after the fourth day. Milk was gone after five days and [the gale] kept going. We ran out of fuel on day ten, and the storm was still going. And we went on to break the record, we went on to do seventeen days.

The seventeenth day I remember opening this tin of peaches and saying to Rob "This is it, this is my last bit of breakfast I've got" so yeah it was a big relief when the boat eventually did come.

If you had to have a favourite inhabitant of the islands what would it be?

Sea clowns


Find out what a 'puffling' looks like

How do puffin pairs rekindle their relationships?

Take a tour around the Farne Islands

I've got to say I actually do like puffins. I think they're great characters. They wander into the house and things.

When the chicks come to leave, they come out of their holes at night to avoid being eaten by predators. They come out and they walk down to the sea. And that's the first time that ever they've seen the sea.

But of course they've never seen outside their puffin burrow before. So they waddle down. And we've got a chapel, we've got toilets, we've got an information centre, and so some of them end up in there.

So the next day when you're cleaning, you've suddenly got all these little puffin chicks running around.

There's a small percentage of puffins on the Farne Islands, believe me, start life by walking down, being picked up by a human in a building, chucked in a box, and released out at sea.

Has this inspired you to help our wildlife or do you already work with wildlife? Tell us about your experiences and join the big Summer of Wildlife conversation with BBC Nature on Facebook and Twitter @BBCNature - #summerofwildlife #seeitsnapitshareit.

You can also share your wildlife photographs on our Summer of Wildlife Flickr group.

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