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Environment and Energy

Cambridge has long been a world-leading centre for conservation science – perhaps epitomised by the David Attenborough Building next to the Museum of Zoology – and in recent years the University of Cambridge has turned its attention to the biodiversity on its own estate. There is increasing recognition of the global biodiversity crisis, and the University is committed to doing its part to preserve and enhance the habitats and wildlife on its land, for the benefit of both wildlife and people. Crucial to this aim is understanding what biodiversity already exists.

Accordingly, in 2017-18 the University carried out its first baseline survey of the state of biodiversity across its estate under the guidance of its Ecological Advisory Panel (the findings are summarised here). Information about habitats and species was drawn together from many different sources, including ecological surveys carried out in 2018, historical data from the local environmental records centre and Wildlife Trust, and species records from local naturalist groups. The University has a large estate, including not only department buildings and other urban sites within Cambridge, but also extensive tracts of farmland and other habitats in more rural settings outside the city. Not least because of the sheer size of the estate, this baseline represents a major undertaking that it is hoped will set an inspiring precedent for other institutions, and encourage them to address their biodiversity with a similar level of comprehensiveness, detail and ambition.

The baseline survey revealed there to be many sites and habitats of important biodiversity value on the University’s estate. Many sites have been well-known to naturalists for decades or even centuries, such as Madingley Wood (a Site of Special Scientific Interest), whereas others have only recently become havens for wildlife, such as the West Cambridge Site, where wildlife has been successfully woven in to building developments. Especially precious habitats on the estate, which are rare or threatened in the UK, include lowland meadows, wood pasture and traditional orchards.

Many notable species have also been recorded on the estate. These include species prioritised in national or county biodiversity action plans, such as great crested newt, barbastelle bat and the farmland birds yellowhammer and skylark. Numerous other species which are rare or threatened nationally have been recorded here too, such as the arable weed spreading hedge-parsley and the yellow loosestrife bee. It will be important to monitor populations of these species to ensure our estate continues to give them a home.

Though there is much to celebrate, threats to biodiversity have also been recognised on the University estate, including invasive non-native species such as Himalayan balsam and elm zigzag sawfly. As well as tackling these challenges, we will also need to plan for wider-scale issues such as climate change.

Thankfully, much of the University estate is already managed in a wildlife-friendly way. Much of our farmland is under environmental stewardship agreements, for instance, but there is still a lot we can do to boost biodiversity. The baseline survey is helping to inform a Biodiversity Action Plan and critically, the baseline will provide a foundation from which we can quantify future biodiversity changes and check that we’re on track to meet our targets. Now begins an exciting process of further discovery and enhancement of the University’s wild places and their denizens.

Written by Sam Buckton