A grave, some ponies, and a troop of conservationists

A group of biologists and social scientists boarded a coach on September 28th. We were all a little nervous, yet still blissfully unaware of what we had just gotten ourselves into. What followed was three days of discerning the course, jaunting through English countryside, and a long game of Never Have I Ever to truly get to know our course mates.

But before we got to know each other on such an intimate level, we took a trip from our new department to a graveyard that is home to a man that without whom, we would not have conservation biogeography: Alfred Russel Wallace. We all gathered around the unexplained petrified wood that marked the grave and pondered why we had been brought here. We recalled that he was a pioneer biogeographer and establisher of the Wallace Line that separates those strange Australian creatures from the rest of the world. Despite Darwin’s name going down in history, we remembered Wallace’s great contribution to how we understand evolution.

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Alfred Russel Wallace’s grave in Broadstone Cemetery Photo by Rodrigo Sedeño Xenofontos

We said our farewells to Wallace and boarded the coach to our lovely home for the following two nights: Chatsworth Centre. Like school children, we clambered up the stairs to claim the best rooms for ourselves. I can think of no better way to force students to get to know each other than by sticking them in small rooms filled with bunkbeds. But the highlight of the night was our show and tell. We each brought an object that represented our passions for conservation. We saw metal straws, photographs, and even an antler. It was not only a great way to learn of the diversity packed into one room, but also a great way to remember each other’s names. Because I brought a California Condor wing tag, I have become known as “Condor Rider” by some, while I will always remember Kat for her devotion to ending ocean plastics.

After a breakfast that alluded to our days at summer camp, we boarded the coach and headed to Studland Bay to meet David Brown, a Purbeck ecologist. We learned of dunes and heathlands and first heard of “rewilding,” a term we would come to understand more and more in each passing week.

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The BCM 2017-18 cohort with David Brown Photo by Alejandro Prescott-Cornejo 

To ensure that all students experienced at least one castle during their year in Britain, we set out to Corfe Castle to enjoy a typically cold English picnic.  We munched on our packed sandwiches and explored the castle ruins. But our day was not over, and we set out for Durlston Country Park. We split into groups and each assumed a different role: a park manager, a local historian, a politician, a director of tourism, a director of social services, and a president of a business association. We set out to understand who this park is for from each of these perspectives. After visiting the educational centre, a photography exhibit, and a fairly inaccurate globe, we determined that Durlston Country Park is for a wide range of people to enjoy, and although we each experienced the park with a different mindset, we realized that parks can have something for everyone.

Having resumed our roles as postgraduate students back at the Chatsworth Centre, we set out to a local pub. No matter what exercises forced us to interact, the pub is where we learned all we needed to know about our cohort. A game that revealed secrets confirmed that we were more than just classmates: we were friends. We went to bed a little worse for wear but awoke in good spirits for our last induction field trip.

Our first stop was the New Forest and Acres Down. We learned that, despite the name, the forest is far from new, as it was first protected in 1070 by William the Conqueror. Although we learned much about the continued resilience of the park through constant public interest and movements like Romanticism, we most fondly remember the ponies that galloped around us.

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Lyla O’Brien with a New Forest pony Photo by Alejandro Prescott-Cornejo 

After a quick rendezvous with some of the more cordial four-legged friends, we headed over to Bolderwood to meet Professor Adrian Newton. The enthusiasm Adrian radiates emboldened our roleplaying characters in our exercise to understand the motivations that different stakeholders have in managing protected areas. We were left with the message that decision-making is always multileveled and these decisions should be made on evaluated evidence from good experiments complete with controls.

The coach trip to Oxford was a mix of students deep in conversation about their paths to reach this course and others just trying to stay awake. Once back to the department, some of us parted ways to get some much-needed shut-eye while others began a tradition that would follow for the remaining year: we headed off to the pub. Over a pint, we reflected on the trip that had just concluded. We wondered, still, about the petrified wood over Wallace’s grave and remembered the ponies that bounded freely across the New Forest. But most of all, we contemplated what was still to come

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New Forest Ponies Photo by Alejandro Prescott-Cornejo 

Charlie Chesney is a BCM student interested in investigating the various causes of population decline from both a social science and natural science perspective. She plans on pursuing a career in academia and science media. 

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