Basildon Natural History Society
History

A small group of dedicated amateur naturalists formed Basildon Natural History Society in 1968. Concerned about the rapid expansion of the new town and loss of wildlife habits they decided that the best way to help protect local wildlife would be by:

  • Raising the awareness of the local community by means of illustrated talks, field trips and a regular newsletter 'BNHS Bulletin', that would keep members of the Society updated on local wildlife sightings and conservation issues.
  • Recording the status of wildlife species, especially those that were most sensitive and vulnerable to loss of habitat.
  • Becoming involved in practical conservation work by undertaking habitat management, such as controlling encroaching scrub in meadows, clearing rubbish from ponds and by installing bird and bat boxes in established wildlife sites.

And as huge oaks from little acorns grow, so the society began a journey that would lead it to become involved in many exciting and important wildlife conservation projects.

Listed below are some of the milestones in its history:

  • 1968 – Peter Baldwin initiated the formation of the Society. He was acting secretary to the steering committee.
  • 1968 – The society was founded on 10th July, with Vic Wiseman as Chairman and Peter Baldwin as Secretary. The annual subscription was 7/6d (37.5p). An early report minuted that membership was low, at 14.
  • 1968 – The first recorded outdoor meeting was on 27th October.
  • 1968 – Regular consultations with Basildon Development Corporation started and continued until it was wound up in 1987. This enabled the Society to express its views on the effect of the development of the town on wildlife with some success in the most sensitive areas as well as permitting the rescue and relocation of some scarce plants such as the common spotted orchid.
  • 1968 – The possibility of hosting an RSPB film show was minuted, resulting in a happy liaison for a number of years. The film shows were held at the original Towngate Theatre that was located in Fodderwick, attendances were usually very good and attracted bird watchers and wildlife enthusiasts from all over Essex. However, the increase in the availability of good quality wildlife documentaries on television eventually led to falling attendances at the film shows and the RSPB ceased this operation.
  • 1969 – The first programme card listing indoor and outdoor meetings was issued covering the year 1969 -70. Indoor meetings were held at the Arts Centre studios which were part of the original TownGate Theatre complex.
  • 1970 – “Basildon Wildlife” was published, it contained records and reports of what had been observed and discovered by that early stage in the Society’s existence. It includes sections on birds, Pitsea Marshes, flora, trees, animals, badger survey, butterflies, Hawkesbury Bush Conservation Area, pond life.
  • 1970 – Conservation work parties cleared out the pond at Hawksbury Bush (the current Chairman fell in) Work parties continued on various sites until Marks Hill became the centre of attention in 1976, these include Shotgate Thicket, Woodham Fen, Brock Hill, Crowsheath Wood and Vange Hall Pond.
  • 1974 – August saw the beginning of the Society’s association with Essex Naturalists Trust (now Essex Wildlife Trust) providing planning information and delivering magazines.
  • 1974 – “The Natural History of Basildon” was published, an impressive 104 page volume, which was an important update on the 1971 publication, with several new sections: geology and soils, fungi, lichens, moths; it had contributions from ten specialists.
  • 1975 – The Society presented evidence in two major planning enquiries, namely Norsey Wood and the South West Area of Basildon (Langdon Hills)
  • 1976 – The Society negotiated with Basildon Development Corporation and obtained a licence to run Marks Hill as a nature reserve. We bought our first chainsaw and re-established a ‘coppice with standard’ woodland management programme in the neglected areas of hornbeam and ash woodland.
  • 1976 – 2012 Conservation work parties are held on a regular basis during the autumn and winter months. The task of returning woodland and grassland areas to a form of management that enhanced its wildlife value began and still continues to this day. 
  • 1981 –Marks Hill Nature Reserve was officially opened by the wildlife artist Gordon Beningfield on 21st May. The ceremony took place at the Triangle Community Centre because of continuous heavy rainfall. To commemorate the event the Society issued a special First Day Cover featuring four beautiful butterfly stamps designed by Gordon Beningfield, who generously signed every one of the limited edition of 200 covers. 
  • 1982 – Twelve members of the Society attended a week-long “outdoor meeting” in Catania Sicily (We had a member who lived there.)
  • 1982 – The Society bought a second hand dumper to transport tools and logs to and from Marks Hill nature reserve. This venerable piece of equipment is still in active use some 30 years later, thanks to the dedication and skills of a small band of mechanically minded BNHS members.
  • 1983 – The Society became a Registered Charity.
  • 1986 – The Society successfully negotiated a 50-year lease of Marks Hill to the EWT at a cost of £10 per annum, to be met by the Society.
  • 1989 – EWT purchased the freehold of 460 acres of the Langdon Hills, including Marks Hill.
  • 1992 – Langdon Hills Conservation Society joined BNHS. One of the founder members of this small society was Stan Hollands who played an important part in protecting Langdon Hills and the Dunton Ridge from excessive development during the South West Area Plan public enquiry.
  • 1996 – The Society published “Natives and Aliens” by Rodney Cole.
  • 1998 – “Natives and Aliens” received an Essex Book Award and the Society received a special award as the publisher.
  • 2008 – The society celebrated its 40th anniversary.
  • 2010 – The Society published “Roadside Verges in Basildon”: Preliminary Report into the Effectiveness of Roadside Verge Management for Wildlife Conservation Purposes in Parts of Basildon New Town, by Dr. R. L. Cole. Published by the BNHS in 2010 and distributed to all members, plus all members of Basildon Council.
  • 2011 – The Society is represented on the Langdon Hills and Dunton Ridge “Living Landscape Committee

 

The Society Emblem

Basildon Natural History Society’s emblem is based on the leaf of the Wild Service Tree (Sorbus torminalis) and has been adopted to illustrate the close ties the Society has with the areas of ancient woodland within the Basildon area. One of the best sites in Basildon for this nationally rare species is within Marks Hill Nature Reserve; here they thrive on the heavy clay soil that underlies areas of ancient and secondary woodland. Within this 45 acre site are pockets of oak, ash and hornbeam woodland interspersed with overgrown gardens, some dating back to the time of the plotland settlement during the early 1900’s.

The leaf of Sorbus torminalis in typical autumn colourThe leaf of Sorbus torminalis in typical autumn colour

Many of the Wild Service Trees in Marks Hill grow along the nature trails that were once the unmade roads that gave residents access to their plotland homes. The picture below shows a Wild Service Tree alongside a disused telegraph pole in Gladstone Road.

Wild Service Tree

In autumn, the leaves of the tree change colour before they fall, their colour ranging from green to yellow, orange and red. All the leaves shown in the picture below were collected from beneath a single tree.

Wild Service Leaves

Fruit of Wild Service Tree

The fruit of the Wild Service Tree are called ‘chequers’ and are edible when left to reach a state of partial decay, a process known as ‘bletting’. However, it is reported that the seeds themselves contain traces of cyanide so should not be consumed.
There is evidence that chequers were once used as a remedy for digestive ailments. The Latin name ‘torminalis’ means ‘good for colic’

Chequers were used to flavour beer before the use of hops and it is thought that pubs and inns bearing the name Chequers or Checkers may have derived their name from the chequered pattern on the fruit or bark of Wild Service Trees. Of course there are equally valid claims that the name is rooted in heraldry or from the fact that inns in ancient Rome displayed a chequered sign to indicate that they provided banking facilities. We will never know for certain but it is nice to think that in days of old, beer flavoured with chequers from trees growing in our ancient woodland was served at an inn somewhere in our district.

Sadly, the strongest brew that you will be offered in Marks Hill Reserve today is a cup of tea or coffee during the work party mid-morning break.



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