This piece was initially published in the Cambridge Independent.
Being a warden on a nature reserve is tough. It’s even tougher when you’re starting with a blank canvas.
Needingworth Quarry, here in Cambridgeshire is a working site for sand and gravel extraction. Over 28 million tonnes of sand and gravel will be excavated in defined sections until 2030. Once excavated, Hanson – aggregate experts – are progressively restoring these areas ready to make homes for wildlife, which are in turn handed over to the RSPB for future management.
Together, the RSPB and Hanson are working to create an incredible wildlife haven - an expansive mosaic of wildlife-rich wetland habitat which will be over 980 football pitches in size by 2030, including 4.6 square kilometres (or 644 football pitches) of reedbed: Britain’s biggest reedbed.
Wonder Warden, Hannah Bernie, is working hard to make this dream a reality. Working together with the rest of the RSPB Ouse Fen team, she has created a nature reserve that although not yet completed, is already teeming with marsh harriers, bearded tits, booming bitterns, and a wealth of other wildlife.
The work can be gruelling, it doesn’t stop when the weather turns bad, and it can sometimes feel like you’re fighting a never-ending battle against nature. But our wonder warden wouldn’t change her job for the world. We asked Hannah all about her time in conservation, and her ambitions for the future:
How did you get involved with conservation?
Like many other people my career in conservation started with volunteering, as a residential volunteer for the National Trust at Strangford Lough in Northern Ireland. I had a great time learning wildlife identification and practical skills from the wardens.
What was your first conservation job?
My first job in conservation was for the RSPB. I worked as tern warden on Ynys Feurig near Rhosneigr in Anglesey. It was long days and long nights protecting these special seabirds. Looking back now, I still don’t miss the night shifts, where we would make sure foxes didn’t get on to the islands. But it was an amazing opportunity to be amongst a tern colony for the whole season: waiting tentatively to watch the eggs hatch and then, all being well, witnessing the magical moment the chicks fledged.
How do you feel being the warden for such a prestigious project?
It feels brilliant; one of the best things about my job is showing visitors the site. Everyone is always amazed at the size of the project. Showing people how the reserve progresses from a hole in the ground, to a reedbed that supports breeding bitterns, marsh harriers and bearded tits, amazes them. Sometimes, even I forget about the scale of the project! It’s only when I’m reminded with an aerial photo that I appreciate how vast the landscape is.
What does your day-to-day work involve?
This depends on the time of year. From March to July, it’s breeding bird season which means lots of early mornings. Getting up as light breaks to do a bittern survey is probably one of my favourite things, especially when I hear booming for the first time from one of the newest reedbeds, where we planted reed only a few years ago.
From August onwards we start to think about habitat management. At RSPB Ouse Fen this mostly involves reed planting and willow pulling. At the moment, a lot of my time is being spent rewriting our management plan and planning an earthworks project for the autumn.
Where would you like your career to be in five years time?
As RSPB Ouse Fen is such a big and exciting project, there are lots of ways for me to develop in my role here. I would like the reserve to have progressed in terms of the habitat and the species breeding and hope by that point, we will have even more to offer visitors.
What’s the most unusual thing you’ve had to do in a conservation job?
Whilst volunteering for the National Trust in Northern Ireland, I once had to walk through the Game of Thrones set to get to our workshop. We needed to catch a ferry but weren’t allowed out of the workshop until they had finished filming that take. If only I had known how popular the show was going to be.
If you could have a superpower, what would it be and why?
I’d want to be super strong: loads of work would get done on the reserve without machinery and it would also come in pretty handy for CrossFit and climbing.
What advice could you give other women looking to get into conservation as a career?
Always apply for a job even if you think you don’t have all the skills in the job description, it’s worth a try. You might be exactly the type of person they are looking for and it might not matter if you need some extra training. When you do get a job in conservation make sure you put yourself forward for anything you want to get involved in.
Join Hannah Bernie at the Museum and Department of Zoology and Cambridge Conservation Forum’s Women in Conservation Leadership Network’s event this Thursday (8 March). This event celebrates International Women’s Day by ‘Celebrating Women in Science and Conservation’. Hannah will have a ‘Meet the Scientist’ stall between 4-7.30pm based in the Museum of Zoology, University of Cambridge. Pop along to meet Hannah and find out more about her work. To find out more about RSPB Ouse Fen nature reserve and plan your visit, go to rspb.org.uk/ousefen
If you would like to see a short video of Hannah at work on the reserve, please click here.
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