How DofE led Will to a fascinating career researching wildlife

There’s no knowing where your DofE will take you when you begin. One participant has found the skills he learned while doing his programme led to PhD research in biology, helping our understanding of UK species.

Will, who did Bronze, Silver and Gold at Ratcliffe College is now studying for a PhD at Oxford and looking at a recently-discovered colony of wild Rock Doves (the ‘truly wild’ form of the invasive feral pigeon) which are threatened with extinction because of hybridisation with the feral pigeons we see in towns and cities.

Out in the field gathering data, Will has found the things he learned while on his expeditions were vital to his work.

Will says: “I do lots of expeditions to sample birds’ DNA, including Shetland, St Kilda, Vallay Island, Fair Isle and the Highlands, and doing DofE gave me a really good head start over lots of new biologists! The fieldwork, camping and hiking are some of my favourite bits of being a biologist.

“Vallay Island is an uninhabited tidal island off of Uist in the Outer Hebrides, and probably my main study site. It has a few abandoned buildings on it from when people lived there, so I camp next to the ruins to catch the doves as they roost at night. It’s spooky in the dark to climb through a big empty house with ravens overhead, and howling wind and rain outside.

“Wild Rock Doves, which breed in sea caves and are very shy, are threatened with extinction by hybridisation and eventual replacement with feral pigeons. We previously didn’t know if any Rock Dove populations were unaffected by feral pigeon hybridisation, but we have found such a population in the Outer Hebrides. Finding a truly wild population of Rock Doves will present new opportunities to improve our knowledge of the species.

Working with the environment and animals was a common theme throughout all three levels of the Award. During his Gold Award, Will’s sections prepared him well for his future career. For Volunteering, he monitored nesting birds, and for his Skills section, he learned bird ringing. He also had supportive leaders and teachers who nurtured his enthusiasm for wildlife and science.

Will said: “Not only did DofE expeditions give me the ability to work in a variety of different landscapes, but the wider programme also taught me important lessons about teamwork and leadership – which are vital skills to develop as a zoologist working in the field.”

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