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“I suppose working for a larger company helped in terms of experience, but more importantly, it made me realize that this was something I could do well. At least, I hope I do it well.”

Howard Fearn is the joint founder of Avian Ecology, an environmental consulting firm based in the northwest of England.  The company offers specialist consultancy services to help both development and nature conservation exist in compliance with government planning policies and legislation. The company’s remit is ”meeting the challenge of integrating business development, the environment and conservation.” 

A thriving company perhaps didn’t initially seem in the cards for Howard, who wasn’t enjoying school and left it at sixteen to join the rat race at an early age.  After eight soul-destroying years working in jobs that he didn’t find remotely satisfying, he reached a breaking point and went traveling, which he continued to do for six years, until he was thirty. At that point Howard decided a new career challenge was required, and that it had to be related to his passion for the environment and particularly for birds.  Since the age of eight Howard has been a devoted birder, and he has spent his adult life traveling the world in pursuit of them, thinking nothing of driving 500 miles at the drop of a hat to see a species he hasn’t seen before.

It was this avid interest in nature that drove him to begin a career as an environmental consultant. He enrolled in university in Liverpool to read an MSc in Ecology and Environmental Management, whilst simultaneously gaining valuable hands-on experience working for an established multi-national engineering consultancy. In early 2007 he left to form Avian Ecology, which has grown from a fledgling consultancy firm into a leader in the field, specializing in resolving conflicts between wind farm developments and wildlife.  Avian Ecology’s success has been so great and so rapid that they have already outgrown offices that they secured less than a year ago.

MO:
You left school at an early age.  Did you ever see yourself going back and getting a degree?  What was the catalyst that pushed you to go back to school and then start your own business? 

Howard:
I never really planned to return to school, but once I decided on going into ecology, then I suppose it was inevitable. You can’t really expect to be taken seriously in a science and research-based industry without qualifications. Schooling wasn’t the catalyst, but it helped. I worked as an ecologist for a large multi-disciplined engineering consultancy and quite quickly realized that I could do it for myself. I suppose working for a larger company helped in terms of experience, but more importantly, it made me realize that this was something I could do well.  At least, I hope I do it well.

Howard Fearn is the Joint Founder of Avian Ecology

MO:
Was school harder or easier than you anticipated? 

Howard:
Schooling as a mature student was tough, particularly as my wife had our first child in the midst of my degree course. However it was very different from schooling as a teenager, and not as scary as I first feared. The hardest part was probably learning how to learn again, if you know what I mean. It had been a long time since I’d researched properly or written essays, but in the end, I was probably one of the most vocal and participatory students in the class. I’m pleased I did it, not only from a career perspective but for my own sense of worth.

MO:
What service do you offer that’s most in demand?  Is there anything about the clients’ needs that have surprised you, or that you didn’t anticipate, or that have evolved since you started in the business seven years ago?

Howard:
Most of our work relates to assisting wind turbine developers in complying with the legislation that protects our wildlife and wild places. I under-anticipated the size and scale of the developments we now work on, and we’re probably punching above our weight (is that a phrase in the US?)  I think that happened because not only did we understand the wildlife side of things, but because both company directors had worked for long periods in other roles, and so had developed a good sense of both customer relations and business-to-business needs.

MO:
With everyone’s desire to get greener, and all of the incentives available, are you seeing a large increase in the work you do regarding renewable energy, specifically wind power?

Howard:
It’s true that there are green energy incentives and that we are currently benefiting from them. Wind turbines are portrayed in the UK as part of the solution for moving away from oil-based wealth, but I understand that it’s different in the US. It was never really our plan to specialize in renewable (wind) energy; we just happened to establish ourselves in that area, as it was where we had the highest level of experience. We were actually very keen to expand into other types of development, but just as we were getting started, the global economy crashed, and the renewable sector was the only one that kept going strong. We still intend to diversify, but to be honest we simply haven’t had the time yet. Our expansion plans include investing in marketing in other areas.

MO:
I would imagine that you prefer field-based work over report-writing and being in the office.  What specific jobs or aspects do you enjoy about being in the field?  Are there any species or locations that you most like dealing with or being in?  For instance, do you like documenting badger sets on a nice summer evening, or counting birds on a crisp autumn morning?

Howard:
I’m very rarely in the field these days. It’s standard for the role – the higher you climb the ladder, the less time you spend doing the job that enticed you into the career. No complaints, though; last winter was harsh here, so the office isn’t so bad. Most of our surveys end up proving that there is little or nothing there, which is exactly what developers want, and is good for wildlife as well, because it means there isn’t a conflict. Every so often, though, you find yourself in a fantastic moment, and I always remind myself to savor them when they come along. On one of my first-ever surveys in this role, I watched a juvenile golden eagle make its maiden flight from a spectacular nest up on a remote Scottish mountain – a real privilege. Any morning doing a breeding bird survey is a pleasure. The hard bit is getting out of bed at 4 am, but when you’re out, and the sun is shining and the birds are in full song, it’s always magical. It always amazes me that most people will go their whole lives without witnessing the miracle on the doorstep.

MO:
Avian Ecology is growing rapidly.  You’re obviously doing something right.  Is there anything specific that makes you stand out from your competitors?

Howard:
I’m staggered it’s taken off as it has – we must be doing something right. I suspect managing workloads is one of the biggest challenges for any small business. It’s impossible to say no to work, but being too busy and doing a poor job is suicide, so it’s a constant dilemma.

We know our wildlife, and we know the needs of developers, so we can give practical and pragmatic advice. Because we come from a wildlife background, we kind of see nature as our ‘other customer’; that attitude, plus our level of background knowledge, give us credibility with government regulators and conservation bodies, which I think helps a lot. Ultimately, though, we are consultants, and our business can only be built on good relationships.

MO:
What the total number of birds you’ve seen? The rarest and the one you’re still most keen to see?

Howard:
We birders have all sorts of lists, such as how many species have we seen in our country, or the world, or our yards!  Most of all though, we just love birds and birding, the listing thing is very much secondary. I’ve seen just over 500 species in the UK, which puts me in the top 50 or so I suppose, but I’m not interested in the competition side of it. Globally I’ve seen perhaps 3000 species, small potatoes compared to many. As for the rarest, that has to be slender-billed curlew, which I saw in Morocco in 1993. Sadly it is probably extinct now as there are no confirmed records in over a decade, but people are still looking so hope isn’t lost yet. Most wanted? That’s a very long list. If I had to choose one it would have to be Satyr Tragopan in the Himalaya’s. It’s beautiful and elusive and is found in a stunning location – the perfect combination!

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