Open eyes to field skills

March 12, 2015

The loss of field skills and, in particular, identification skills, is an issue of deep concern that has been highlighted by select committees and reports by the Natural Environment Research Council, the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management and others.

It is not just an issue that revolves around Bloom’s taxonomy and valuing different skill sets. Fieldwork and, in particular, identification as opposed to recognition is, as John Warren and colleagues point out (“Endangered species”, Opinion, 26 February), an activity that requires high-level skills.

Perhaps the growth of molecular areas of biology and biotech, a history of undervaluing biodiversity and constrained budgets are at the heart of the underdevelopment of field skills. Additionally such skills require patience to develop – spending long periods of time looking through a microscope is not often seen as productive and is contrary to the current culture of instant gratification.

However, the picture painted by Warren and colleagues is not as bleak as they indicate. Fewer than 10 UK graduates per annum, skilled enough in field identification skills to be employed, is far from the truth. At Oxford Brookes, we have maintained and indeed strengthened our provision of high-level field skills in our courses. The number of students on our MSc conservation ecology course and those studying biology, animal biology and conservation degrees who are employed using the field skills we have helped them develop exceeds this figure on an annual basis. And we don’t think that we are alone in the wilderness.

It is right to raise the alarm about field skills but the fundamental issue is about persuading society that these are high-level skills that we need for economic and social well-being.

Tim Shreeve
Director, Centre for Ecology, Environment and Conservation

Bruce Riddoch
Senior lecturer in animal biology and conservation
Oxford Brookes University

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