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Campus Critters: The welfare of York's wildlife

Catherine Woolley takes a look at the ecology of the campus lake.

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Image Credit: Matt Cornock via Flickr

Back in February, when temperatures plummeted overnight and the UK was dusted in a thin veil of snow, I decided to take my daily walk around Campus West. Crossing the bridge in the shadow of Derwent while on the phone to a friend, catching up on the nothingness of our lockdown lives, something caught my eye.

Below me, in the water, I could see something shiny – a fish – about the size of my palm, silver, and struggling to swim. Now, I can’t say I know much about aquatic life, but my friend on the phone with her Zoology degree did. She confirmed my suspicion that a fish, when floating at the surface and moving its tail only once every few seconds – is having a pretty bad day. And so, like David Attenbourgh’s film crew, I stood there and proceeded not to intervene – because really, what was I to do? This was campus on a cold day, not a fairytale.

The death of the one and only fish that I, a fourth-year student, had seen in the lake, was unfortunate. It did, however, raise the question of what else is in the lake. And for that matter, what else is there to know about campus? Hence, I set out to find the most campus-informed person I could.

Gordon Eastham BEM is the University’s Grounds Maintenance Manager, heading up a team of about two dozen people who tend to both Campus East and West. Eastham is a modest man who is undeniably devoted to promoting biodiversity in our surroundings and acknowledges that “we’re probably ahead of the curve” when it comes to sustainability. Having spent 26 years working at the University and being a part of the development of Campus East, he believes that ‘there’s still work to do’.

Students of the University have always felt a strong sense of allegiance to the campus wildlife, anyone who remembers the Yorfess egg-gate scandal of 2019 can vouch for that. We have a long tradition of naming the lake dwellers, from Trevor (also known as Fit Duck) back in 2007, to Limpy Goose, who hung around Greg’s Place throughout 2018, and now Long Boi, the international sensation. Not to mention the delightful Fancy Boi and the late Chonky Boi. What it is about our feathered friends that captivates us is hard to define, but it would be fair to say the obsession isn’t unreasonable.

But what about the rest of our animal kingdom? As Mr Eastham pointed out, one of the lesser spotted visitors to the lake is a set of otters who get picked up by the trail cameras. With only a handful of sightings each year you’ll be doing well to find one, but if you do they will most likely be making a dent in the lake’s fish stocks. Fish are a bit of a campus mystery – we simply don’t have the data to say for sure what is and isn’t present within the murky waters but certain staples such as carp and bream are sure to be picked up by anglers. What is a cause for concern, however, is the presence of litter in the water.

With the forthcoming establishment of Anne Lister College and its as yet unnamed peer, Mr Eastham predicts we will see an increase in litter appearing on Campus East that will be “bad for the ecology of the lake”, as this is where it will predominantly end up. When the two new colleges were proposed, concerns were aired over the possible impact this could have on wildlife. As for what can be done to prevent harm, since the work is already underway and these new buildings on the waterfront are set to open soon, Mr Eastham says his intention is “to try and keep that barrier between the buildings and the lake” in order to reduce the risk of pollution.

The expansion of the University and the impending arrival of our biggest cohort of Freshers to date can be seen in one of two ways: either this is an increase in the threat to campus ecology, or this is the chance to share with more individuals the benefits of engaging with and embracing green spaces. As Mr Eastham explains, in comparison to other UK universities, the campuses of York are a truly exceptional environment, “it’s a great teaching and learning resource – and that’s what we’re about at the end of the day”.

The trials and tribulations faced by those who work to protect our wildlife are varied, from the management of invasive species’ such as Himalayan Balsam and New Zealand Pigmyweed, to the regulation of dogs running off-lead, the care it takes to enable the campuses to thrive is second to none. In order to catalogue and continue their good work, Mr Eastham and many others are “keen as mustard” to undertake a broad-spectrum ecological survey of the campuses, and at this rate who knows what they might find.

Now, with a series of new outdoor venues on campus and what appears to be a warm summer ahead, it is more important than ever to watch out for our wildlife. Springtime in York is spectacular, and if it wasn’t for exam season it would be utterly idyllic. However, this is the time of year when students are under the most pressure and access to green spaces becomes essential – sometimes we all need a break to enjoy the blooming fields on East and the absurd hedges of the Quiet Place.

So, when you’re out and about and looking for Long Boi, keep an eye out for the wonders of campus – and keep your distance: we all know what the geese are like.

Featured image courtesy of Matt Cornock via Flickr. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

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