In our Graduate in Focus series we look at the achievements of our graduates who have excelled in marine and conservation science around the world since studying with us. Today we meet Padraig Cregg, MSc Evolutionary and Behavioural Ecology graduate. Padraig is now a senior ornithologist at MKO, Ireland’s largest planning and environmental consultancy.
Hi Padraig, thanks for joining me. Can you tell us about your time at the University of Exeter?
Yes, I did my primary degree in Ireland in Zoology. Following that, I completed the Masters in Evolutionary and Behavioural Ecology in the biosciences department at the University of Exeter in Penryn. I really enjoyed the course. The faculty were very energetic and had a great open-door policy. Everyone was welcoming and had no issues with us coming in and talking through aspects of the course and making sure we understood the content. We had the taught content in the first half of the year and then the project in the second part. I opted for a lab-based project studying the heritability of a particular trait in a species of moth. I really felt like I learnt a lot.
What did you do after you graduated?
My Masters was in 07/08 and I came out right in the middle of the recession so there weren’t many jobs. I ended up doing a lot of volunteering; I began working as a research assistant with a sparrow project associated with the University of Exeter, based in South Africa. I went out there for six months and helped two PhD students whose projects were based on sparrow-weavers. They had a number of different research assistants over the season and we learnt a lot about experimental design and what was involved with working in the field for an extended period of time. It was a very remote location in the Kalahari Desert in northern South Africa. I love the outdoors, so I really enjoyed it as it was very immersive with lots of wildlife.
After that I did various other bits and pieces of work, picking up whatever I could. I did a similar stint in East Poland at a mammal research institute, where I was working on a wild boar project. This involved radio telemetry. The boar had radio collars on them, and we would follow them around the forest to identify which habitat they were using. Another fun element to the work was catching the boar to put the collars on them – we used drop-down nets and baited traps. It was the middle of winter, so I went in the same calendar year from over 40 degrees in South Africa to minus 30 in Poland. Which was a bit of a shock to the system.
Following that work abroad, I started working with Birdwatch Ireland, which is the Irish equivalent of the RSPB or BTO. This was my first ornithology-based job, which is the industry I am still in now. Birdwatch Ireland as a wildlife charity is reliant on funding, so they often only have the funds to give short-term contracts to their staff. I worked several contracts with them until I emigrated to Scotland, where I lived for two and half years.
In Scotland I worked in environmental consultancies as a field ornithologist, doing surveys and learning the ropes so to speak, which is the foundations of my current career today. I really enjoyed the diverse habitats up in the Highlands of Scotland and across the Cairngorms, the beautiful scenery, and the outdoor nature of the work. We would get assigned our work on a Monday and then would be gone up into the Highlands for a week at a time observing and hiking. Ornithology as a career path is quite solitary doing all the surveys so I think certain personalities are more suited to it than others.
After 2 ½ years there I was contacted by MKO in Ireland, which is where I work today. They rang me up and offered me a job and I’ve been working with them now for about 7 or 8 years. I’m one of the senior ornithologists. There are a number of different departments in the company spanning the environment, planning, ecology and ornithology. We primarily work in the renewable energy industry, undertaking the surveys to inform wind farm planning applications. There is a requirement for a lot of bird surveying associated with these projects. As a senior ornithologist I am tasked with designing the surveys and writing the bird chapters of the environmental impact assessment reports that support the planning application for those wind farms.
Were there any particular skills/experiences you gained from studying at Exeter that you feel you have taken forward in your career?
I would say there are several things. The first thing that comes to mind is the leadership style. Going back to what I said earlier about the open-door policy of the faculty in Exeter, I try to be that way with the staff I manage. I manage 30 people now and I’d like to think I have a similar attitude to the people i work with as I received at the university. I also learnt a great deal about the experimental design side of things from my thesis. Although I studied a very different organism, there were the same requirements for rigour, repetition and following standardized methodologies that hold true in my current position. The same scientific writing style that I was taught in writing my thesis is also useful now as I spend much of my time writing up reports in my role with MKO.
Would you have any advice for current students who are interested in ornithology?
Number one, work on your bird ID skills, there are a lot of resources out there. There’s the Collins bird guidebook and app, which are both great, and the BTO do ID videos on YouTube where they compare similar species and give you tips and tricks to tell them apart. All that being said, there is no replacing getting out with your binoculars and spending time bird watching. In my experience, (presuming an initial level of interest) the more you bird watch the better your bird identification skills get the more interested you become. For those who enjoy the outdoors and bird watching, undertaking bird surveys for a living can be very rewarding.
Are there any opportunities at MKO that our students should keep an eye out for?
There is a lot of work for field ornithologists in Ireland at the moment. This is largely due to the commitment of the Irish government to the acceleration of the delivery of wind energy to combat climate change. Before a wind farm can be built, planning permission must be secured. To apply for planning permission for a wind farm there is a requirement to undertake a large amount, and a diverse range of bird surveys. Undertaking these bird surveys is where companies like MKO come in.
If you’re interested in working as a field ornithologist, why not apply for one of MKO’s positions and try working in Ireland for the summer? Please follow the link for details on how to apply: Field Ornithologist – MKO (mkoireland.ie)