Notable activities in ecology and conservation have been our now well-established Summer term study tours, developing students’ field identification skills (first year students) and investigating land use problems and fixes (second year students).

The first years headed to Dartmoor, including Wistman’s Wood National Nature Reserve (something of a pilgrimage site for ecologists) as it represents the upper limit of tree growth in the south-west of England and should be the first place to show symptoms of global warming.

The second years’ East of England study tour ranged through habitat creation projects in Essex, Wickham Fen and Lakenheath Fen in Cambridgeshire and Norfolk, to Ashtead Common on the London fringe. Discussion with site managers included re-creation of larger nature reserves as the fens may well re-flood in the near future, to managing coastal retreat in the face of rising sea-level. At Ashtead Common, site manager Allan Cameron (formerly a lecturer at Sparsholt), explained how to manage ancient oaks, some already 600 years old, and highly biodiverse in terms of lichens and invertebrates, to keep them going for a few hundred more.

Next year we plan to resurrect the west coast of Scotland tour for year 3, an exploration of Caledonian Pine Forests, eagles, otters and controversial reintroduction of the beaver and lynx.

The autumn term is now truly rolling and arrangements are well underway for forthcoming work placements in 2015. These usually range from the very local, such as Crab Wood Nature Reserve, to the more far-flung, with one student planning to spend his placement in game management in Uruguay, working largely on horseback.

Final year students are now consumed in thesis work, testing their hypotheses and running up multiple theoretical blind alleys – the truth is out there, and they’ll find it by the hand-in deadline! Dissertation subjects in Ecology and Conservation range from ‘Can birds at garden feeders tell organic bird seed from conventionally produced seed – so far they prefer the organic’ and ‘What type of tropical rain forest provides the best habitat for hornbills’ to ‘How much grazing of bankside vegetation is best for water voles’.