In Women’s History Month, Jenny Shelton talks to the RSPB’s Paula Baker about her work and that of the women who founded the charity.
Paula Baker is the Site Manager at RSPB Loch Lomond. After working as a volunteer, she began her career in conservation surveying puffins on Anglesey. Today, she heads up an all-female team of conservationists at Loch Lomond, overseeing everything from building work to counting geese at sunrise. In her spare time, she plays in an all-female drumming group called Sheboom. She is married with three cats and three chickens.
“Loch Lomond is a beautiful place, especially the views,” says Baker. “The hills are under clouds today but it has been snowing, so I’m hoping that, tomorrow, if the clouds lift, it’ll look pretty stunning.”
Against a dramatic mountain backdrop, the reserve – a rugged mix of ancient woodland, far-reaching wetland and windswept fen – supports species like osprey, lapwing and pink-footed geese, which roost on the lochside in their thousands.
Currently, Baker and the team are improving the fenland areas to support a rare, and very shy, water bird – the spotted crake. There are thought to be fewer than 100 in the UK.
“Spotted crakes are incredibly difficult to survey,” says Baker. “They’re what I’d call a ‘skulking’ bird – they like to be well hidden. So we’re ensuring there’s plenty of the dense vegetation they like to hide in.”
Baker came to the post in 2013 with a geography degree and seven years’ experience as the assistant site manager for RSPB Lochwinnich.
“It’s awful to think that, in the business world, if you don’t look and dress a certain way you don’t get anywhere. I’m lucky that, in the job that I do, women don’t face that sort of gender stereotyping.”
“I believe a job should challenge you every day,” she says. “I love being outdoors and I feel that I’m directly contributing to the RSPB’s work. I’m always learning something new and doing something different; the work is complex, interesting and demands lots of skills, from manual work to working with people.”
Baker had to exercise her powers of diplomacy once when an open gate resulted in some AWOL cows.
“We use cattle to keep the grass low and somebody left all the gates open, and the cows went rampaging through the village! After they were rounded up, I had to knock on doors and apologise to people whose lawns and vegetable plots had been trampled. So you’re dealing with people all the time, and you have to be quite adaptable when unusual circumstances crop up.”
Though most RSPB reserves have a fairly even male/female split, Baker’s team of three at Loch Lomond is, unusually, exclusively female.
“When I first started there was still a lot of old-school thinking and women did tend to be in the more people-facing roles rather than management or warden roles,” she says. “But I’ve noticed a dramatic increase in the number of really strong applications from women. All the team here is female, simply because they were the strongest candidates with the best all-round skills and experience.”
Needless to say, heels aren’t a requirement in this workplace – rifle through Baker’s working wardrobe and you’ll find fleeces, jeans and heavy duty boots.
“I don’t think I own any high heels,” she grins. “I wear what I’m comfortable in and allows me to do my job – that includes a lot of warm hats and scarves! It’s awful to think that, in the business world, if you don’t look and dress a certain way you don’t get anywhere. I’m lucky that, in the job that I do, women don’t face that sort of gender stereotyping. It’s becoming a much more equal opportunities sector.”
And so it should. The very existence of the RSPB, founded in 1889, is owed to the strength and vision of two Victorian women who campaigned against the feather trade. In the 1880s, the fashion for wearing plumes (and sometimes whole, taxidermied birds) in hats was threatening many species with extinction.
In response, Emily Williamson founded The Plumage League from her living room in Manchester, joining with Eliza Phillips’ Fur and Feathers League to form the Society for the Protection of Birds in 1891.
While conservation is generally a level playing field in terms of gender, Baker has come up against some prejudice in her role as site manager.
“There have been occasions where I’ve felt like things have been more challenging because I’m female – sometimes you feel you have to work a bit harder to prove yourself. One man we worked with proved very difficult, and it became clear from his behaviour that he just didn’t like taking orders from women. It didn’t matter what I did or said, he was never going to listen.”
Williamson and Phillips faced challenges too, finding their cause ridiculed and belittled by the likes of Punch magazine. But the society – initially a wholly female operation – gained support from influential people, including the Duchess of Portland and Queen Victoria, and was granted a royal charter just 15 years after its formation.
Thanks to their campaigning, by 1921 it was illegal to import plumage to Britain. The RSPB now protects birds, wildlife and habitats around the world and has over a million members.
Wildlife presenter Miranda Krestovnikoff is the current RSPB president. She says: “That the RSPB – the largest wildlife conservation charity in Europe – owes its very existence to the vision of two Victorian women is something we’re immensely proud of.
“It is inspirational to think that these women, who were living very much in a man’s world, were able to make themselves heard in a time when women had very little voice. Despite this, they succeeded in influencing world leaders and changing attitudes towards fashion and wildlife conservation on a global scale.”
Adds Baker: “My advice to anyone interested in a career in conservation is to volunteer as much as you can. Anybody is capable of doing anything they set their mind to.”
Fancy a wild adventure? Check out the RSPB’s volunteering opportunities here.982 Views
Jenny is a writer and displaced northerner who has danced, baked, flown planes and hugged giant seals in the name of journalism. She is also a secret birdwatcher, serial book-buyer and sucker for a Sunday night costume drama.