Micscape readers sharing aspects of where they live.
Title and series idea by Dan Holloway.

Enjoying Field Studies Council Courses (UK)

Part 1: 'Life in Ponds and Streams' weekend course at Juniper Hall, Surrey.

by David Walker, UK


Series Introduction: The Field Studies Council (FSC) have residential field centres around Britain where courses of various lengths on a wide range of topics are offered. The author attended a number of their natural history related courses in the 1980s - 1990s and thoroughly enjoyed them. Other courses include painting, photography, writing, history etc. Overseas courses are also offered. Course tutors are experts in their field. See article foot for links to further information.

My personal experiences may be of interest to Micscape readers unfamiliar with these courses and may also interest overseas readers considering a visit to the UK and seeking an educational but enjoyable visit to some of Britain's most beautiful areas.

Course summary. 'Life in ponds and streams' weekend course. Tutor Richard Orton. Next course August 1st-3rd 2008. Held at Juniper Hall field centre, Surrey. The centre is ca. 20 miles SW of central London in a beautiful setting at the foot of Box Hill in the North Downs. Good road and train access.



I've had a casual interest in freshwater life since I was about ten (now the other side of fifty) and prompted my lifelong interest in microscopy. I attended this weekend course as it provided a gentle introduction to topics such as freshwater ecology of ponds and rivers/streams, sampling techniques and invertebrate identification for assessing water quality using biotic indices.

I didn't plan to take a comprehensive photographic record of the course (we were kept busy!), so the article is illustrated with 'snaps' I did happen to take. Aspects such as working in the well equipped labs with the centre's stereo microscopes to ID the fauna found aren't shown.

Friday evening: The fellow members (ca. 10) on the course after our introductions were a blend of enthusiasts like myself and those with a more professional interest. The course readily catered for both. The course aims were outlined by the tutor Richard Orton, a freshwater biologist. We were to visit and sample two different ponds on the Saturday and two different rivers on the Sunday. In the field some physical / chemical measurements were also taken. Back at the centre's labs we would identify the type of invertebrates found using published guides and try different biotic indices to assess the quality of the habitats.

During the course, practical studies were supplemented by talks, slide shows and printed handouts complemented the studies.

The habitats visited were all within a few miles of the centre so little travelling in the centre's minibus was required.


Saturday. Two contrasting ponds studied.


'Top pond' Nower wood. The wood is a large reserve owned by the Surrey Wildlife Trust and its varied habitats are widely used as an educational resource. Pond dipping platforms have been installed at the 'top pond' and there is also bird watching facilities. It's a large pond and is surrounded by trees which can affect its ecology.

Pond surveys require different techniques to those for flowing water. Selected procedures recommended by the UK National Pond Survey were used.


Church pond in the village of Headley. This was a very different pond to that in Nower wood. It was smaller with a healthy growth of pond side and extensive aquatic vegetation. It's one of the most attractive ponds I've seen; in June at time of visiting the flowers were in bloom and the site was complemented by its ecclesiastical setting.


Church pond with local parish church in the background. The church and graveyard wall are faced with large flints, a common feature in the local buildings because 'clay with flints' occurs in the area.


Church pond. Examining a catch. Two newts are in the tray. Note the professional pond net with reinforced edges to prevent net damage and the flat base to aid kick sampling in streams, see below.


Pond, Headley Heath. Although not sampled we visited this attractive pond on the heath just east of Nower wood to compare its features with that at Nower Wood and the church pond.



Sunday. Two contrasting flowing water courses studied.


Rive Mole at Burford Meadows. As the picture shows this is a large river and a major one in Surrey. The course tutor is taking measurements of key river parameters—flow rate and oxygen level. Nitrate levels were also determined with test trips. Note the tutor's devotion to the task, the water is over the tops of his wellington boots ('wellies'). The tutor remarked that the level was higher than usual due to recent rain so needed care.

If travelling to the centre by public transport, as the author did, there's no need to bring bulky waterproof boots and clothes, these are available to borrow at a centre.


River Tillingbourne near Cross Ways Farm. A very different water course to the River Mole. A narrow stream gently meandering through lush meadows. What an idyllic way to study freshwater life—sunny weather, a beautiful, peaceful setting and examining a superb water course under expert tutorship with like minded course members.


River Tillingbourne. A fellow course member Steven taking a so-called kick sample from the stream. The bottom is agitated for a fixed time (we used 30 seconds) with the boots while holding a net immediately downstream to collect all fauna dislodged.


River Tillingbourne. One of the samples collected, showing a native freshwater crayfish in the centre and what may be the claw of a larger specimen to the right. This was first time the author had seen a live native crayfish which is apparently being threatened in the UK by an invasion of the American signal crayfish.

The lab studies were very instructive and enjoyable. The FSC's own excellent 'Freshwater Invertebrates' guide was used (available from their online bookshop). The biotic indices tried only required identification of fauna to family so was well within the capabilities of course attendees at all levels. The indices were carefully explained and printed data sheets allowed them to be readily worked out.

The BMWP index was mainly used which essentially gives a score for each organism family found depending on its tolerance to pollution, so an oligochaete worm scores 1 whereas pollution intolerant species such as mayflies score 10. A total for all the organisms found gives the water body its overall score. See Wikipedia for BMWP score table. I won't do a 'spoiler' of the course and remark on the fauna found and each habitat's scores as comparable site visits may still be part of the course.


General comments

I can thoroughly recommend this course which is still current and led by the same course tutor who was excellent. Since attending the course I've had a stab at assessing the water quality using biotic indices of small local streams (rather than larger water courses), both in London where I lived then and now in Huddersfield, where there are plenty of upland streams safe to study. The author's own stream dipping outfit made from suitable accessible materials is shown below. Studies can be supplemented by simple measurements of water chemistry, using the kits sold to aquarists and/or the increasingly portable meters now available. See links below.


Comments to the author David Walker are welcomed.


Resources on the Field Studies Council website. Homepage. Juniper Hall overview. 'Life in ponds and streams' course; still current, next course August 1st - 3rd, 2008.

A longer course on a similar topic 'Identifying Freshwater Invertebrates for Biological Surveying and Recording' (tutor Adrian Chalkley) is being held at the Flatford Mill Field Centre, Suffolk in September. The FSC also publish a range of superb identification guides on many groups of fauna and flora for the youngster, beginner and expert.

Accommodation can vary between centres, from shared rooms to single rooms. Juniper Hall has a modern additional single room residency block in addition to the splendid main house which is 18th century. The centre is well equipped with labs which include stereo microscopes, ID guides and a well stocked library. Many centres have a bar, the courses are educational but are meant to be enjoyed in all senses! The courses are very good value.

Selection of County of Surrey resources: Wikipedia: North Downs,  Rivers of Surrey (entry on both the Mole and the Tillingbourne). Juniper Hall: www.boxhill.org. Headley village and church www.headleysurrey.org.

Micscape resources:
Stream dipping. An introduction. The author's stab at a Micscape resource, by a beginner, for beginners!
Topical Tips 15: Using aquarist's kits for simple water analyses. (Also mentions cheap pH and conductivity meters.)


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