Combe Hill 29/09/15

Chloe Stephenson fills us in on the first MSc trip of the term:

On the 29th of September, our group started the ‘Survey Skills and Species Identification’ MSc at the University of Reading. The MSc consists of a group of people from a range of backgrounds who all have a shared fascination in the natural world. On the second day of university I found myself in a mini bus which took me straight back to my school days, as we set out on the first field trip of the course.

Our destination was Combe Hill. This hill is part of the North Wessex downs and exhibits the chalk down land that is characteristic of the area. Lowland calcareous grassland is one of Europe’s most intricately diverse plant communities and we were not disappointed by the variety of plants we found there, including Silverweed (Panserina), Yarrow (Achilla Millefollum) and Devil’s Bit Scabious (Succisa Protensis).

However, the hill has a darker side. During our walk we passed under Combe Gibbet. Erected in 1676, on a Neolithic burial mound, the gibbet was only used once. It was originally constructed to display the bodies of a philandering husband and his lover. The adulterous couple were executed after they were found guilty of murdering the husband’s wife and child, who discovered them on the downs.

The landmarks grisly past was, perhaps, hinted at by the number of corvids who had come to enjoy the updrafts created by the topography. A parliament of rooks were joined by jackdaws and ravens as they wheeled above the hill. Kites and crows also seemed to be enjoying the strong winds. In the afternoon we continued to Hosehill Lake. This is an abandoned gravel pit which is now the site of a large lake surrounded by wetland and meadow habitats. Here we were confronted by a profusion of nature that had ventured out to enjoy the late summer sun. In addition to the waterfowl on the lake. We cautiously edged our way under hornet’s nests, whose intricate architecture was spilling out of the bird boxes they had been built in earlier in the year. Long tailed tits followed us as they called each other through the trees that surrounded the lake and Emperor Dragonflies skimmed over the water.

After growing up in the countryside, I had previously felt that I had a good knowledge of Britain’s native wildlife. However, our first field trip showed me that although I thought I had been engaging with nature I hadn’t really been looking. How many times have I looked at a black bird and dismissed it as a crow without investigating further to find out if it was really a crow, or a rook or a raven? My previous education had been devoid of teaching which required such practical, first-hand knowledge.

The benefits of field trips and the unique skills that they teach you is an area that is being increasingly investigated as more and more people feel disconnected from nature. Shockingly a recent survey showed 21% of today’s Children regularly played outside, compared to 71% of their parents (Jon Henley, 2010). A review of the research on outdoor learning by Dillon et al. (2006) found that students scored higher in 72% of assessments in schools that included environmentally focused field trips in their curriculum (based on secondary students from 11 Californian schools).

So it seems that learning to tell the wood from the trees is not only enjoyable but could also make you smarter in general. As the term continues I can only hope!

Dillon,J., Rickinson, M., Teamey, K. et al (2006) The value of outdoor learning: evidence from research in the UK and elsewhere, School Science Review, 87, 320.

About Chris Foster

I am a Teaching Associate and PhD student in the School of Biological Sciences. My main interests are in birds and insects, but in the good old-fashioned spirit of natural history I try to keep an open mind and open eyes.
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