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The New Normal: How a trainee ranger scheme is helping young people's job prospects during lockdown

The pandemic has left many young people anxious about their job prospects. Claire Simpson speaks to two young women working in the environmental sector about how a free training scheme in Belfast helped them.

Trainee rangers carrying out path maintenance. Picture from Belfast Hills Partnership

When Laura Shiels finished her undergraduate degree in geography, she was not sure which career path to follow.

The 26-year-old was working in retail when she began volunteering with the Belfast Hills Partnership.

She later applied for the partnership's free trainee ranger scheme and, just months after completing the 12-week scheme, began a temporary contract as a youth outreach officer with Belfast Hills.

Ms Shiels said the scheme, which is open to anyone aged between 18 and 24, regardless of qualifications, was instrumental in helping her get a job.

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“The scheme had something new every week,” she said.

“We did tree planting, hedge planting, we got to work on environmental education - planning activities for school groups. I ended up loving that part. I’d never done that before.”

The scheme offers trainees the chance to gain a recognised conservation accreditation in the use of strimmers and brush-cutters.

Trainees are also taught map-reading and the use of some mapping software.

Ms Shiels said she would not have considered a career in environmental education before taking part in the scheme.

“I’m getting to plan activities with school groups, taking them out on nature walks and doing wee workshops on things like pollination and littering and getting them more involved in the outdoors,” she said.

“Teachers are seeing how good it can be for kids to get out, especially after lockdown.”

Laura Shiels took part in the trainee ranger scheme in 2019. Picture from Laura Shiels

She has enjoyed seeing children with little interest in nature change their mind once they are taken to Cave Hill or Divis mountain.

“At the end they say ‘that was class’ or ‘the view’s amazing, I want to come back here’,” she said.

“It’s good to see them have a more positive outlook on nature and see that you’ve made a bit of a difference.”

Ms Shiels said the trainee ranger scheme also helped her self-confidence.

“We made a campfire and made s’mores and our own charcoal and did some drawings - stuff I’d never done before,” she said.

“You do get the learning aspect but there’s always something fun during the day too. Me and a lot of the other girls were saying how much your self-confidence grew throughout it. Meeting a whole new group of people and doing the activities for projects every week was a big part of it.”

Seánin Maxwell is now working for an ecological consultancy in Oxfordshire. Picture from Seánin Maxwell

Seánin Maxwell (24), from Beechmount in west Belfast, who also took part in last year’s scheme, is now working for an ecological consultancy in Oxfordshire.

Although she was offered her job before she started the trainee ranger scheme, she said the tools she learned with Belfast Hills were invaluable.

As part of her job, Ms Maxwell carries out surveys for protected species, including bats, badgers and newts.

“The one thing I really liked about the scheme was that it focused on practical conservation skills which is something I hadn’t done a lot of in university,” she said.

“It meant I was able to go out and do things like hedge planting or removing gorse or going up to Colin Glen and putting in a path. I’m from Beechmount, I’m not really a country girl. I didn’t really think I would be able to do those sorts of things…

"It taught me how conservation is actually implemented. It gave me a lot of confidence, knowing that I could go out and do things which made a real difference to the environment.”

She said the scheme allowed her to explore places she had never been before, including Slievenacloy Nature Reserve and Carnmoney Hill.

“It’s given me a real enthusiasm for getting outside and appreciating everything that’s around me," she said.

"We did a day where we went out into a forest and learnt how to identify some plants and trees. That certainly helped in my job because that’s a big part of what I do - going out into sites and seeing what’s actually there.”

Ms Maxwell studied biology at Queen’s University before competing a Masters degree in ecology. She said she was grateful that her job allows her to spend so much time outdoors, particularly in lockdown.

“I actually think my job was a blessing during lockdown because I was going out and doing surveys,” she said. “It meant I was able to spend quite a lot of my days outside, not cooped up.”

Trainee rangers sowing wildflowers. Picture from Belfast Hills Partnership

Patricia Deeney, youth development officer with the Belfast Hills Partnership, said the scheme is ideal for “enthusiastic people who like being outside”.

She said most participants have gone on to secure jobs in the environmental sector or are in further education.

“A couple are working for environmental consultants," she said.

"One or two are in governmental environmental roles, some went on to other training schemes and others went to university. A couple don’t have jobs but are using their skills.”

But she said the scheme also focuses on improving young people’s mental health through nature.

“We do lots of things like campfire sessions where we make our own charcoal and do drawings. Or we do nature crafts too,” she said.

With lockdown prompting more people to get outside and explore their local area, Ms Deeney said Belfast Hills had received many requests during lockdown from people wanting to volunteer.

“Our volunteering scheme is up and running again and people are really keen,” she said.

“This marks the third year of our trainee ranger scheme and I have noticed a lot more interest this year compared to previous years."

- Funded by the National Lottery's community-funded Our Bright Future project, the trainee ranger scheme is free and open to anyone aged between 18 and 24, regardless of their qualifications.

To apply, contact or telephone 028 9060 3466

The deadline for applications is 5pm on Friday, October 2.

The 12-week scheme begins on Tuesday, October 20.

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