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UEA Ecology Field Course – South West Ireland | Kris Sales et al.

Updated: Mar 6, 2021

The teaching opportunity on UEA’s Field Ecology course to South West Ireland, has attracted many EnvEasters. Here, Kris Sales, EnvEast graduate from the University of East Anglia, compiles his thoughts on the course and its rewarding experience, with help from Seth Thomas, Jessie Gardner, Claire Buchan, Jenny Donelan and Ellie Fairfield.

The course

University of East Anglia's Field Ecology course to the Dingle Peninsula, County Kerry, South West Ireland, has run for decades and originally had the students camped in a barn next to Inch Beach! They now enjoy self-catered cottages and Sammi’s restaurant-pub-shop-surf-shack. Why would ecologists from the most Eastern part of the British Isles go almost as far west as possible? Being on the diverse Wild Atlantic Way, there are enough habitats for every day of the working week! Students visit each of these varying habitats, learning about ecology, evolution, hypothesis formation and experimental design. In week two they apply knowledge to deliver original research linked to ecological questions, presented as posters to the local community at the journey’s end.

It’s unsurprising that the amazing habitats, the social experience, and skills learnt make the course unforgettable. Often undergraduates who continue as post-graduates relish the opportunity to return to the emerald Isle and share knowledge. It’s surreal to think that although there is so much dynamism in the habitats, the feel of Dingle is timeless.

A super brief habitat run-down

Alongside the Inch estuary and the local sand dunes, there are three other main habitats studied by the students. Killarney National Park woods are several hour’s walk away, looping around the Muckross peninsula, just a small section of the 10,000 hectares reserve. It passes through several habitats: an exotic arboretum, Victorian gardens, grazing meadows, wet alder Carr, ancient acidic sessile oakwood (the largest stretch to escape medieval clear felling), and dense alkaline yew woodland (only one of three in Europe!). Students compare the structure, condition and ecological diversity between and within the habitats. We reflect on why they are different and cover conservation issues like invasive Rhododendrons and deer overgrazing which can limit forest renewal. The day is one big tree, invertebrate and ancient plant safari!

Killarney National Park woods

The maritime climate and mountainous West Ireland terrain make for a very wet landscape, totalling over 3000 mm of rain a year (3 out of 4 days see rain). Therefore, it’s unsurprising that Ireland has the third highest proportion of bog relative to country size in the world! The moors day runs on the Slieve Mish slopes; a succession of grazing fields, heather, sphagnum bog, acid grass moor, and bilberry and moss heath. A highlight of nutrient-poor, water-logged soils are the insidious insectivorous plants like butterworts. Other charismatic creatures are the polka dot camouflaged Kerry slug and (almost) indestructible water-bears. Students learn about conservation issues like peat cutting, and get hands-on experience with kick sampling rivers.

Slieve Mish slopes

The rocky shore is as diverse as it is changeable. It encompasses three habitats for the price of one; the upper littoral, the intertidal, and the submerged sub-littoral. We explore factors shaping diversity and adaptation. The slope steepness and substrate determine whether species should stick, sink or swim. The degree of wave exposure shapes, well, the shape of organisms as well as their behaviour. For example, species can persist in pummeling waves with flattened forms or be protected huddling under rocks. As students peer through rock pools they see hardcore organisms adapted to survive temperature, nutrients, pH, air and predation stress!

The experience and benefits of teaching

The Ireland ecology course, being a residential field course, is a special opportunity. Ten PhD students and lecturers work together to plan, deliver, facilitate and assess learning. They transport and set up of equipment supplies while mentoring, entertaining and safeguarding the students. With working hard, comes playing hard. Strong friendships are solidified between the staff during down time through sightseeing, sharing home-cooked meals and sampling stouts in local pubs.

Teaching during the PhD is great for many reasons. Looking inward, it is an opportunity to improve key skills that are transferable to academia and beyond. Preparation enables revising, or perhaps even learning new, fundamental subject knowledge. Delivery improves science communication. Looking outward, it is rewarding to help facilitate student engagement and learning, and contribute to higher education.

The focused, practical and multi-sensory experience of field courses are thought to be one of the most effective teaching methods. The course is designed to facilitate problem-based and experiential learning, rather than spoon-fed instruction. It’s extremely rewarding to see students complete activities quicker, more accurately and with less instruction as the course proceeds! Moreover, it’s satisfying to see other skills develop, like cooking, and to hand down habitat knowledge to new teachers. The last night is a big party where each cottage comes up with entertainment (usually orientated around PhD students), and where PhD students come up with an award ceremony for students!

The Dingle Peninsula


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