We chat to Pete Etheridge, a woodsman and ecologist who objects to the name of this series because “I don’t really have a career as such; I’m just making it up as I go along!”. Pete talks us through working with the land while learning all that you can about it, along with the inspiration for his business, Wessex Woodland Services.
Name: Pete Etheridge
Organisation: Wessex Woodland Services
How would you describe your job?
Since 2015 I have been running my own small business, now based in the ancient settings of Cranborne Chase, Dorset. In summary, I provide conservation & land management advice/consultancy, alongside practical woodland contracting. I also make a bit of charcoal, lay hedges, sell coppice products & do some tree surgery work. It would appear that I’m fairly odd, in that I enjoy both the cerebral consultancy side of work (like preparing Woodland Management Plans) as well as getting stuck in on the end of a chainsaw/billhook/shovel. For me personally, it is important that I maintain this hands-on connection to the land, not just because I enjoy it, but because I believe it is vital if I am to provide realistic advice to clients. I have recently joined forces with two close friends – Toby Hoad (Dorset Horse Logging) and Harry Toulson (Green Man Conservation Services) – who share my passion for sustainable woodland management. Together we have launched Wessex Woodland Services to provide sustainable & low impact forestry services based on ecological principles.
How did you get in to this industry?
At the age of five I decided that I wanted to be a warden on a nature reserve. It was clear that this was a difficult and competitive sector to get into (despite the low salaries!), so I began volunteering as soon as I could (when I turned 15). My dad is passionate about wildlife (birds in particular), so I already had fairly good bird ID skills and worked hard to improve on plant ID. A degree was considered essential, so I went to university and studied for a BSc in Ecology. From there I landed a job as an Estate Worker and they paid for my first chainsaw course. From there I took on short-term contracts for conservation charities whilst continuing to improve my skills and knowledge through volunteering and paid courses – investing in myself if you like. I moved into consultancy in 2008 and stayed until 2015 when I left to set up my own company. My passion for woodlands began in 2008 when I met coppice worker Alan Waters. I knew instantly that my future lay in the woods & that I wanted to make this part of my livelihood. To learn about sustainable woodland management, I read every book I could come across but, far more importantly, I sought out experienced coppice workers and offered to work alongside them in exchange for some titbits of knowledge (my local Coppice Group was instrumental in this).
Why is your work important?
We only have one Earth, so what could be more important than trying to save it?
The wildlife survey work that I do is important in a number of ways. It helps us to understand the distribution of wildlife around the countryside, it provides an indicator of population trends/changes, as well as ensuring that new developments or changes in land management practices fully consider the potential impacts that they could have on biodiversity.
My practical work in the woodlands is particularly rewarding as this is helping to manage and maintain a habitat that has been shaped by humans for thousands of years, produces a viable product and gives me a sense of fulfilment that I don’t get from working on a laptop keyboard! Working by hand gives me a unique and personal insight into the wildlife of the woodlands, allowing me to make continuous small management decisions ‘on the ground’ which could not be done from the cab of a harvester.
I realise that there are not many people who cross the divide between professional wildlife consultancy work and traditional woodland management and I therefore feel a duty to help where I can. This might be by helping ensure that coppice workers are represented in consultations on things that might affect them (i.e grant schemes, regulation changes, etc) and equally by helping to inform government bodies & conservation organisations that coppicing is not a relic of the past, but that coppice workers & conservation bodies can work together for the benefit of both people and wildlife.
What is the most important thing you have learned during your career?
- Communication is key. Listen and be respectful to others, but don’t be scared to be firm and assertive when needed.
- Base your decisions on evidence and don’t be scared to admit (& learn from) your mistakes.
- Question everything. Just because something has “always been done that way” doesn’t mean it is right or there isn’t a better way.
- Be humble, work hard and don’t be too proud to accept lessons from anyone and everyone.
- Give more than you take & don’t be tempted to compromise on your beliefs or values.
Would you recommend this job? What advice do you have for others interested in this career?
I don’t really have a ‘career’ as such; I’m just making it up as I go along! I have created a business that is moulded to my specific interests and gives me a reasonable balance between financial income and job satisfaction.
I get my kicks from working outside with wildlife and take great joy in observing the passing seasons; seeing wildlife return to a woodland that I have worked in or sharing this joy with others. Ecological consultancy work can be challenging (severe sleep deprivation & pressure from clients with possibly questionable objectives). I would therefore urge caution in pursuing this as a career if your desire is truly to promote wildlife abundance/diversity. I was told 15 years ago by a company that interviewed me that I was ‘too conscientious’ to work in development-based consultancy and it’s taken me this long to learn that they were probably right!
In all seriousness, my advice would be to think about what makes you happy and what lasting legacy do you wish to leave behind? When you find your thing, go after it! Don’t let people tell you it’s not worth aiming for or that it’s too difficult – find that out for yourself. It is better to have tried and failed than to have never even tried in the first place.
Volunteer your time. If people see that you are passionate about wildlife & woodlands, they will help you in your journey. And if wildlife & woodlands really are your passion, the volunteering will be a fun thing in any case! Don’t just go to your local conservation volunteer group either. There may be woodland craftspeople local to you who would relish a little extra help and these people may have rare & declining skills that you won’t learn anywhere else.
If you want to become an ecologist, you will in all likelihood need at least an undergraduate degree. University won’t teach you field ID skills though and it is those skills that will set you apart. So go out today, download a plant ID app (PlantNet is good), buy a bird book and start learning to ID the wildlife around you.
Finally, be adaptable and learn to embrace change. We are living through rapidly changing times and it is unlikely that you will find a career that will last the rest of your life. Don’t beat yourself up if circumstances beyond your control change your path & learn to enjoy the journey. At 39 years old, I don’t own a house, I drive a 15 year old vehicle & have little in the way of actual possessions – but I’m happy. This lifestyle won’t be for everyone, but I wouldn’t swap what I do for the world. To be in the woods at sunset as the nightjars begin to churr is irreplaceable. As the song lyric says: “I’m just a country boy, money have I none. But I have silver in the stars and gold in the morning sun”.
If you would like to hear more about Pete’s work, check out the links below: