Life as a national park ranger: an interview with an Exmoor ranger

Rural, Educational, Nature

Posted by Ed Roberts on 13th July 2022

Life as a national park ranger - an interview with an Exmoor ranger

What do rangers do in national parks?

Imagine swapping out your desk job for the great outdoors on a daily basis. Working in the countryside in one of the UK’s 15 national parks is, understandably, a much sought-after job. After all, we are being constantly encouraged to embrace nature and spend more time away from our homes, so spending time out in the national parks and being able to sustain an enjoyable career is the dream for many of us.

Quite simply, no two rangers’ roles are the same because no two territories are the same, but there are broad similarities in the role. A ranger’s remit varies from park to park; the majority carry out practical tasks on a very regular basis to ensure their ‘patch’ is accessible for all users by keeping public footpaths and bridleways clear. They are also a knowledgeable custodian on-site to assist emergency services including the fire service, ambulances, mountain rescue and the coastguard (depending on the property).

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Introducing Charlotte Wray, Ranger, Exmoor National Park Authority

Introducing Charlotte Wray, Ranger, Exmoor National Park Authority - courtesy Exmoor NPA

Charlotte is a ranger for the National Park Authority on Exmoor, and has been kind enough to answer some questions for us about her role and the positive impact she and others like her have had on the environment and local habitats.

What time do you begin in the morning and what is your first task after you’ve settled in? - image courtesy Exmoor NPA

What time do you begin in the morning and what is your first task after you’ve settled in?

The majority of the time I start at 9 am; it is only when I have a one-off task that needs to be done in the early hours – like a breeding bird survey – that I would begin my day earlier. I work 3.5 days a week, so I have to be organised; I make sure that my working week is planned out clearly so I know which days I am doing site visits or out patrolling, and which days I’m in my home office. 

Contractors often like to meet up first or last thing, so if I need to be on-site, for example, on a bridleway that has erosion issues, or on the South West Coast Path where we had a recent landslip, I’ll meet the contractor out there to discuss works. If I’m working from my computer then the first task is to read the deluge of emails that I’m sure many of us can relate to.

day of life of a ranger 1

How much of your day is spent on the education programme?

Like most organisations which work to protect nature and people’s enjoyment of it, Exmoor National Park believes that the best way to do this is by inspiring people, especially children that attend various schools on the moor. We are very proud of our education offering; we have an excellent team that cares about helping the next generation. From climate change workshops to week-long residential courses at our dedicated education centre on the moor, we help children understand natural spaces, and why they need to be protected. 

Us rangers assist whenever we can: teaching children bushcraft, leading group activities for our ‘young ranger’ programme as well as visiting other groups such as the local Beaver Scouts groups. I dedicate around three days a month to helping our education team.

How much of your day is spent with volunteers on maintenance work / surveys / conservation exercises?

How much of your day is spent with volunteers on maintenance work, surveys or conservation exercises?

As rangers we help our volunteer engagement team wherever we can; this week I will be helping a joint volunteer group work part cutting back birch on Haddon Hill to allow for better growing conditions for the food plant of the heath fritillary butterfly caterpillar – it’s a collaboration between Butterfly Conservation, South West Water and Exmoor National Park.

I will be wearing a second hat as I volunteer as the reserve warden at nearby Haddon Moor BC reserve. By helping to improve habitat for the heath fritillary butterfly which is nationally scarce, we support the species’ population spread.

What makes your ‘patch’ on Exmoor National Park unique or different from anywhere else you may have worked? - image courtesy of Exmoor NPA

What makes your ‘patch’ on Exmoor National Park unique or different from anywhere else you may have worked?

My previous role was as an assistant ranger in the South Downs National Park. Every national park is unique and that is what makes them so special. Many national parks authorities do not own any of the land within them, so many of the broad visions for the landscape and nature of the park rely solely on landowners.

Here on Exmoor, 7% of the land is owned by the National Park Authority (NPA), we work closely with landowners to achieve our aims. This really helps to change the conversations we have with our neighbours because we can lead by example and really contribute to prioritising the work needed to achieve national targets for climate change. We do this via the peat restoration project on our land near Simonsbath or by increasing our planting density at Bye Wood near Winsford. 

We all know that change is needed to tackle some of the major issues of our time, and it feels productive to be able to apply some of that change to our own estate.

How long have you been in post?  - image courtesy Exmoor NPA

How long have you been in post?

I have been on Exmoor since 2018. I moved from the South Downs National Park where I had been an assistant ranger for 18 months, releasing water voles, managing chalk downland and counting many a butterfly. 

I am 35 now and at 27, I realised I was no longer happy in my current role as a Publishing Editor of scientific journals. I longed to be outside but had no idea how to do it. I quit my job with nothing to go to, found volunteer work at a local ancient woodland through the London Wildlife Trust. It was here that I met some really inspiring people and found unique happiness and peace at identifying birds correctly, coppicing trees and helping to maintain the tools. 

I realised that I had a lot of the passion and knowledge needed to get a job in the conservation sector from my studies in biology and taxonomy, but I would never get anywhere if I couldn’t use a drill or a saw, especially as a woman; you need to do all you can to challenge the gender stereotypes.

day of life of a ranger 2

After stints in various conservation roles in France and Iceland, and for the Forestry Commission, the South Downs NP took me on as an assistant ranger. I haven’t looked back since – these jobs are not well paid but the last couple of years have shown me that real pay and wealth is in the freedom you have and the support you are given.

Which park guidelines for visitors would you like to talk about in particular?  - image courtesy Exmoor NPA

Which park guidelines for visitors would you like to talk about in particular?

Spring will be here soon, and I am thinking ahead to the start of bird nesting season as well as lambing. I often think that a lot of the issues around bird disturbance by dogs could be solved with some simple education. The majority of dog owners are interested in wildlife and enjoy being in the outdoors but some simply do not realise the impact that their dog can have on a nest.

Dogs love to sniff all around, it is part of their nature, but unfortunately their curiosity can cause a parent bird to abandon their nest and fly up into the sky to make alarm calls for help. This will alert nearby predators to the presence of eggs or young and the nest can then be a sure target. Meanwhile the dog has lost interest and trotted back to its owner. 

Dogs off leads can also chase ewes causing them to abort lambs which is devastating to the farmer. Please keep your dogs on a lead on access land during bird nesting season 1 March – 31 July and under close control on rights of way.

day of life of a ranger 3

Could you talk about any conservation projects on Exmoor?

We have got some really exciting projects in the pipeline which help to deliver our vision for nature recovery in the national park.

A project we are all very proud of which is being run by our woodlands and volunteering team is the tree nursery at Exford. Community involvement is key with local volunteers collecting tree seeds (this winter they collected beech, alder, crab apple and oak) and planting on to rear in the nursery. These local provenance trees will then help to add to nursery stock from elsewhere in the South West so we are using trees which will grow well on Exmoor. Many of our most devastating tree diseases have been brought over on imported nursery stock so we all know the importance of using locally adapted species to help expand our current tree planting efforts at Timberscombe, Bye Wood and other sites. 

This, in tandem with natural regeneration, will help achieve our tree planting targets with the right tree in the right place.

What aspects of the park do you like the most? And why do you love your job?  - image courtesy Exmoor NPA

What aspects of the park do you like the most? And why do you love your job?

I’m really lucky to be able to run the Seashore Safari programme which has been taking place for many years thanks to a previous ranger. The parents of the children coming along now were in turn inspired by the same event over 20 years ago which shows just how important it is to engage people with a love of nature. 

The events run over the summer holidays and are based at Lynmouth seafront. At low tide we walk down and carefully investigate all the exposed rock pools searching for the many different species of crabs, the neon snakeslock and the strawberry anemone as well as the plentiful dog whelks and limpets. It’s a whole other world in miniature and is such a fun way to engage with visitors of all ages as well as locals.

How do people feel about national parks? Have your say in the current government consultation.

FAQs about life as a national park ranger

Rangers can be found anywhere on the national park site. During the summer, they are usually more visible as they have to take on additional duties to assist the public like litter management or assisting with parking requirements (no job is too small or big). Otherwise, they could be off into the wilds doing surveys, strimming, coppicing or felling trees, clearing pathways, or one of many interesting jobs. Be sure to stop in at the visitor centre to find out about any ranger-led walks and events that may be upcoming on the calendar so that you can see first-hand what it is like to be a ranger.

  • Remember that when you are exploring places such as rock pools and streams, you are in the wildlife’s habitat – it is their home, and any creatures you encounter should be treated kindly and gently.
  • Keep your eyes open and tread quietly, and you stand a better chance of seeing some of our amazing native species.
  • Take advantage of the information on offer from visitor centres and local museums.
  • Get involved with these wonderful initiatives: volunteer nature surveys, #2minutebeachclean, tree planting, scrub clearance, and Surfers Against Sewage initiatives.
  • Support wildlife charities and take inspiration from the landscape, and grow native wildflowers at home.
  • Where relevant, always respect the farmers who make their living from the land and are the stewards of much of the British countryside – close all gates that you’ve opened behind you, keep your dogs on the lead when requested, and please obey signs.
  • Don’t skimp on parking fees as funding is getting increasingly hard to find; a fiver here and there isn’t a lot to ask for all this beauty!

It’s important to play your part so the ranger spend their time on the critical land management and conservational aspects of their jobs. Every national park will have laws or rules put in place to make sure that the national parks remain pristine and safe for everybody’s enjoyment. These rules differ from place to place but some are universal like where you can camp, where fires can be lit, litter and dog mess considerations, and sheep/cattle worrying offences.

Try to remember that the rules haven't been put in place to ruin your holiday, so please bear this in mind as the human impact on these habitats has to be managed responsibly. Be sure to familiarise yourself with the local rules and the country code and read our beginner’s guide to the national parks before you go on your holidays. 

You can also check out the events programme whenever you visit the visitor centre to see what talks and events are coming up. The visitor centre (if there is one) may have a board where you can report sightings of interesting plants, birds or wildlife during your day trip.

Stay at a self-catering holiday cottage in a national park

We hope that this blog has inspired you and that you understand a bit more about a national park ranger’s role. For further reading about the UK’s national parks, check out our activities guide, and our guide to how to make the most of your holidays in the parks.

Our collection of exciting self-catering holiday cottages includes accommodation in and near to the UK's 15 national parks. So if you are planning a romantic break, a family escape, or searching for a dog-friendly holiday in the countryside, don't look any further.

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All photos courtesy of Exmoor NP

Thanks to Charlotte Wray of Exmoor NP and Rose Roberts of Torridge DC (Northam Burrows Country Park) for their generous time and valuable input.

Disclaimer: Whilst every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information at the time of writing, please ensure you check carefully before making any decisions based on the contents within this article.