A spring walk on campus
It’s been a long winter, but it’s over. Spring arrived this week, and on the first day of the vernal equinox the sun shone on campus.
Will Glasson, a member of Sussex Students' Union’s Wildlife and Conservation Society, was ready for the society’s weekly walk to see how nature was faring, and invited me along.
There were, however, just the two of us. Other members had already gone to warmer climes, or had assignments to complete, or were possibly still in bed. So we started from Northfield, passing a friendly pied wagtail by the residences, and briskly strode up the hill above campus.
Three large birds were circling the sky above the field to the right of us. Will thought one of them was probably a buzzard. “Hard to tell at this distance, though. Buzzards are white underneath.”
Will, a first-year zoology student, joined the society when it was formed last year. He said they were mostly zoology students, keen to learn about what’s on their doorstep.
One of their current projects is a “mammal challenge” to see how many different species live in the environs of the University. Last week a camera situated at ground level in woodland above Lewes Court captured footage of wood mice at night.
That’s where we were headed, although Will suspected the camera had been removed temporarily for safe-keeping. As soon as we were through the gate, he spotted a rotting log with blobs of jelly ear fungus. “It’s edible,” he said, poking the unappetising growth that looked like dismembered human body parts.
A few steps further along he spied a small flower – a lone violet – among the green shoots of dog’s mercury. Unfortunately, we also came across discarded bottles and cans … and several, filled dog poo bags.
Is he tempted to pick up litter on his walk? “We have thought about doing a clean-up in the woods, but the problem is that although it’s cleaning, it’s not really changing people’s attitudes towards it. They’ll go, oh if we drop our litter here it will be cleared up. It’s annoying that people can’t be bothered.”
Will has always been interested in nature. His parents are both environmental scientists, and he was brought up to appreciate the countryside. “When I was young my best mate and I would always be going out, looking for things and building wigwams in woods. I found it fun. I would cut up a dead log and see what was inside.”
Studying zoology was a natural progression. “A lot of the issues facing nature are ones that face society. If you look at the decline of bees, it’s tied in with global warming and the invasion of new diseases and pests.”
For his degree course he is currently observing changes to lichen. “They are a very good indicator species. They require very specific conditions. If sulphur levels are too high, they won’t grow.”
We stopped to admire some creamy white blackthorn blossom – one of the earliest spring blossoms – and then headed out across Stanmer Park to the woods on the other side. Will alerted me to a robin, and then a thrush. We paused to listen to birdsong in the woods. Finches? The robin? It was hard to see the birds among some of the evergreen foliage.
While the woodland provided plenty of diversity, Will pointed out that campus, for all its pleasant greenery, was quite a sterile environment. “There’s nature and then there’s what’s aesthetically pleasing – what looks like nature. So doing things like removing dead logs may look nice, but actually in terms of nature, it’s not great.”
One of the many conservation activities of the society is to start a nest box project to encourage house sparrows back to campus, said Will. The population has dwindled in recent years across the country, and particularly so around the campus residences.
As we traversed the park again, stepping over fresh daisies and lesser celandine, and returned to the hill above Northfield, we disturbed more wildlife. A chittering in bushes turned out to be a tiny wren, which flew across our path, while to the left of us a speckled bird suddenly rose vertically out of the grass, twittering angrily.
“A skylark, or possibly a meadow pipit,” said Will, consulting his bird identification book. “Yes, it’s a meadow pipit. Brilliant.”
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