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Wildlife ‘enrolls’ at the University of York’s open spaces
9:52am Friday 6th September 2013 in Features
STANDING motionless at the water’s edge, having found the perfect moment to stab his prey with a dagger-like beak, the grey heron seems oblivious to all the comings and goings at Heslington East.
And he’s not alone. The University of York’s new campus has already become a haven of wetlands, parkland, woodland and trees, even attracting rarer birds such as the little ringed plover.
Indeed the quality of all the university’s landscaped green space, particularly at the new development, recently won a Green Flag award. And the man to thank is Gordon Eastham, the university’s grounds maintenance manager.
“We’re trying to attract species that are identified as desirable; things like water voles and great crested newts to the wetlands on Heslington East,” he says. “We’re already getting skylarks and hedge sparrows which used to be common in this area but aren’t any more.”
This is not a managed project. Gordon calls it tinkering with the margins, doing the groundwork and then letting nature run its course.
One bit of tinkering was to turn the soil. This had been agricultural land, rich in nitrogen from decades of fertilizer, which is great for grass, but hopeless for wild flowers, because the grasses would take over and strangle them.
So the simple solution was to put the nitrate underneath.
However, attracting wildlife is not as straightforward.
“With fauna all we can do is try to create a habitat,” says Gordon. “It will please itself whether to move in or not. When it comes to nature, you always know who’s in control.”
That said, in less than two years water snails and even fish have already made the journey to the new lakes. Sticklebacks and minnows have been recorded and Gordon says they were carried as eggs stuck on the bottom of a bird’s foot.
Then there are the bat nesting boxes, bee gardens, even simple things such as leaving grass verges uncut, to encourage wildlife.
For Gordon, this is about creating an environment and then letting it evolve.
“We just offer a helping hand and it’s interesting to see what comes in of its own accord. For me it’s great to walk the site and see what we’re trying to do actually working.”
Now under a new initiative funded by the Open Air Laboratories (OPAL), the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) at the university has launched a recording website for staff, students and the local community to log the new wildlife residents on the campus.
Sarah West, a research associate with the SEI, came up with the idea because she says while many students carry out projects to record wildlife on campus, the information rarely goes further than their notebook.
So the new website is designed to provide a central repository. All the information gathered will then be sent to the biological record centre in Wallingford, the national custodian of data on the distribution of wildlife.
“That’s really important,” says Sarah. “There is a thing called a rhododendron leaf hopper which is an invasive species and with climate change is moving north, then there is the horse chestnut leaf miner moth, we can help monitor the spread of these things.”
Some areas of the campus are cordoned off as nature reserves, but most is open access and Sarah says she hopes members of the public will join in the project as ‘citizen scientists’ by logging their sightings of butterflies, bugs, beetles and birds.
“You can take pictures of the species, upload them and then let us identify what it is,” she says. “That is really useful because it helps us to see what is out there, which bits are working and which bits are not.”
Quite a lot of them must be judging by a wild flower bed in front of the Roger Kirk building. Once concrete slabs, now it is a riot of colour, alive with bumbling bees and bustling butterflies.
And it’s a similar picture all over the 500-acre site.
The website has just gone live and already there are some interesting revelations, including black rabbits, which Sarah has never seen on the campus, and crested grebes, which, although she was aware of, hadn’t been officially documented. Sarah says the records will also play a key role in documenting changes in species’ ranges, detecting the effects of climate change and the arrival of alien species, as well as allowing researchers to assess rarity and threat.
So if you fancy becoming a budding citizen scientist, York’s whole campus will prove a Mecca. Thanks to its lakes and wetlands, this is a popular visiting place for many species of wild and semi-wild wildfowl such as ducks, geese, swans, grebes, moorhens, coots and herons But Sarah says if you spend time and take a closer look, you will see it is also home to many other types of wildlife, including butterflies, dragonflies and bats.
“There’s an expression that nature abhors a vacuum and it’s so true. It’s all about being patient really.”
• To record sightings on the University of York campus visit opal.sei-international.org
• If you want to log a wildlife sighting which is not on the university campus go to
• The Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) is an international non-profit research organisation that has been engaged in environment and development issues at local, national, regional and global policy levels for more than 20 years.
SEI has seven centres worldwide, including York, and its aim is to bring about change for sustainable development by bridging science and policy. To learn more, visit sei-international.org/york
• Open Air Laboratories (OPAL) is funded by a £14m grant from the Big Lottery Fund and is led by Imperial College London as a nationwide partnership initiative that inspires communities to discover, enjoy and protect their local environments.
For more information, visit OPALexplorenature.org
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