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Nature takes the lead on new York campus

3 June 2012

York Environment Forum enjoyed a change of scene for their May 2012 meeting, when the group went on a site visit to the new Heslington East campus of the University of York conducted by Director of Estates and Campus Services Jon Meacock and head groundsman Gordon Eastham, responsible for overseeing the planting on both sites.

They described the three-year planning process that had gone from turning the former greenfield site at Heslington East into the new University of York campus and the commitment to enhancing the bioversity of the area that was at the heart of this.

Central to this is the deep 10-hectare lake, lined with clay, which has a circulation system to ensure good water quality (unlike the lake on the main campus, which has poor water quality and does not support much life).  The nutrient-rich topsoil from the lake excavation has been buried on Kimberlow Hill, which has been raised by 2-3m. This is now the site of one of the Woodland Trust’s 60 Diamond Jubilee Woods; 16,000 trees have been planted there so far and the hope is that it will become a significant ‘destination point’ in York.

A further 50,000 trees have been planted elsewhere on the Heslington East site, many of them to create ‘buffer zones’ around the campus to mitigate the effects of development on the local residents and to produce a parkland setting.  Orchard trees have been planted nearer to the halls of residence so that students can benefit from the fruit. (There are also seven beehives cordoned off behind the pumping station on the far side of the lake, so in time the undergraduates may be able to enjoy local honey, too!)

The University landscaping team is working hard to discourage migrating birds from nesting in areas that are still being developed, employing fake ‘hawks’ to keep them away from building activity. However, elsewhere on the campus there is a great deal of breeding bird activity, and the presence of the bird life was remarked on by YEF members. It is rare that any of us hears skylarks nowadays, so listening to their liquid song tumbling from the overcast sky was one of the highlights of our tour. We were also accompanied by persistant and bold lapwings, whose ‘pee-wit’ shriek was obviously aimed at keeping us off their ‘patch’.

Other features to attract (and protect) bird life include owl boxes, two floating ‘tern rafts’ on the lake and a ‘hotel’ for sandmartins – a solid, wall-like structure on the south side of the lake with 50 holes plugged with sand, though this has yet to find tenants. Overall the bird surveys (conducted fortnightly during the breeding season) have revealed the site is already popular with avian visitors: 60 species, many quite uncommon, have now been logged. ‘It’s becoming quite an exciting site,’ says Gordon Eastham.

A baseline biodivesity survey of the site has been conducted and biologists at the university are studying how the biodiversity develops. The aim, says Eastham, is to let Nature take its course: the lake has not been stocked but sticklebacks are already appearing. Marginal plants have been put in around the lake shore (see left) but the voracious Canada geese that are such a feature (and a problem) on the main site means that many of the plants have been eaten. Ultimately, the team is aiming for 40 per cent semi-submersed vegetation (such as water lilies) on the lake, though the exposed nature of the site creates wave action so this is more likely to occur in sheltered areas.

The public can walk round much of the site (cars are not allowed) but there are no-go areas for dog-walkers, again in order to protect ground-nesting birds. It’s intended the area will become a prime spot for nature study: ponds have been created for this purpose and  a strawbale hut is to be constructed that will be an educational centre for local schools.

One of the fascinating aspects of the Heslington East campus is the surface water drainage system. ‘Swales’ (see picture below) are an integral part of the system, and also produce another species set on their banks. the main source of  surface water is the run-off from Badger Hill, which drains into a ‘detention area’, designed to withstand a 1000-year storm, as well

 to contain any potential pollution incidents. Water is pumped from the pumping       house to  a reed bed of Norfolk reeds and blast-furnace shag, which filters out chemicals such as phosphates.

Clearly, the area is still very much in a state of transition. Woodland block planting (the team is using locally sourced trees suited to the environmental conditions and raising them in a tree nursery on site) is continuing, as is wildflower planting on the impoverished, scraped soils left by the removal of the topsoil (which wildflowers prefer).

Elsewhere, the ethos of letting Nature stake its claim is already starting to have an effect – bullrushes have established naturally and the migrating bird species have already excited bird-watchers. ‘We’ve turned Grade 1 agricultural land into an attractive bio-diversity-rich environment,’ says Jon Meacock.

Members of the York Environment Forum were impressed with the landscaping team’s work and the effort and thought that has gone into it. We are all interested to return to the site in a year’s time and see how the area has developed. We feel the landscaping plan could, and should, be promoted as a case study/guide to developers as an example and an inspiration of what can be achieved by working with Nature and we hope that the University of York will look to do this. We are also interested to see how the landscape will be managed in the future: it is deliberately designed to be low-maintenance, but it will still need some intervention. The hope is that student volunteers can be recruited to help supplement the cost of in-house work, and YEF feels that this could be another valuable area to study and promote.

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