skip to content

 

Environment and Energy

The University of Cambridge has been working hard behind the scenes over the past few years to make improvements to biodiversity and ecosystems on its estate. Extensive surveys of the University’s land have taken place to determine what species and habitats are there, what state they are in, and how they can be protected and enhanced. This work is leading to the development of a ‘Biodiversity Action Plan’ for the University. However while staff at the University are making strides in this area, there’s plenty of student-driven action too. In this special feature we hear from Stewart Rosell about his efforts to record wildlife at Girton College.

When I arrived in Cambridge in 2017, I was pleased to find a thriving community of natural history enthusiasts through Cambridge University Nature Society and the Cambridge Natural History Society (CNHS). Late in my first year I joined a group studying the moth species present in Cambridge University’s Botanic Garden, which put me in contact with a network of citizen scientists in urban areas in Cambridge. This survey group has been very successful, not only gathering weekly data but also expanding in size and gaining new volunteers. Most have joined the group without previous experience of identifying moths but have learned quickly from more experienced members. In Cambridgeshire there are many gaps in our knowledge of moth species’ distributions due to a lack of recent records. Filling this gap could help us to understand how climate change and habitat loss affect the flight times and distribution of native species. It would also help us to understand the spread of invasive species such as the box-tree moth and horse chestnut leaf miner.

Inspired by the project at the Botanic Gardens, in my second year I set up a similar survey at Girton College. The aim was to find out more about the species occurring on site and teach other students about recording local wildlife. I was initially unsure of how college staff would respond to the idea of the survey, but I have been happily surprised throughout the project by the enthusiastic support from staff and their interest in the results. In addition to helping with site selection, they also provided a report written by two students, Mike Bryan and Chris Sharpe, who carried out a similar survey in the 1980s. I was amazed to be given this glimpse into the species present historically on site, and also an insight into the activities of biology students, like me, in the past with an interest in natural history. I am very fortunate to have this; it has only been available to me because Mike and Chris had the foresight to leave their report for future students with similar interests, and for it to be looked after for over 30 years before reaching me. Recognising how fortunate I have been to access data from a previous survey, I want to ensure that my data are also be available to others in a similar report left with Girton College when I graduate. My data is being added to modern databases such as the National Moth Recording Scheme (NMRS) run by Butterfly Conservation and the National Biodiversity Network (NBN) Database.

Getting started: setting up the survey

The spring and early summer of 2019 were largely taken up by selecting the most suitable sites to survey, mostly through trial and error. College staff identified several sites where I would be allowed to use the electricity supply in the grounds to run the traps. Duncan Mackay, from CNHS, kindly lent me a couple of his handmade traps. By making template recording forms and using knowledge of statistics from first year I was able to design an efficient method of data collection, so that the records could be submitted to the NMRS and NBN databases without taking too much time out of studying. By the end of Easter term I had built up a database of several hundred species’ records, including the blood-vein pictured here, though around exam season coping with catches of around 100 moths per trap per night was a challenge! Whilst I could not survey during the summer break, Thea, a student living in Cambridge, set a trap twice in August and took plenty of photographs to help identify species during a season when most moth species in Britain are in flight.

In addition to being out on site, I wanted to get in contact with Mike and Chris to find out more about their project in the ‘80s. Thanks to networks of local wildlife recorders on social media, I was also able to track down the former students despite them both having spent considerable time outside Britain since graduating. They were pleased to find that their report was being put to good use and Mike generously provided me with his field notes. I began to digitise the records from both the report and Mike’s notes to incorporate them into modern databases. Verifying the accuracy of identification in records this old is difficult, and I am grateful for the help provided by Bill Mansfield, the county moth recorder, in helping me to understand how to do this. Mike’s sketches have proved invaluable for giving me an idea of their skill in identification, which is important to ensure records are likely to be correct. Some sketches were even good enough for me to identify species which they were unable to identify during the original survey. In total these records have provided an additional 350 species’ records from the site, an irreplaceable insight into the history of how the fauna has changed over time. 

What did we find?

With the exception of the summer and Christmas break, I have data from at least two traps a week since December 2018. There are around 400 recent observations of moth species on site split by species, date, location and survey method. This totals around 150 species since last November. Thea’s records will add more species to this as she was trapping at a different time of year. There are roughly 350 records processed from the 1986 survey field notes, with over 100 species. Again there is little overlap with the species found. Given this, I can make a conservative estimate of almost 800 records and well over 200 species recorded at Girton College when my survey over the past year is combined with the 1986 data. The volume of data from this survey, in addition to data from other surveys I am helping with in Cambridge, is a challenge. However, using knowledge of basic statistical programming I have learnt in natural sciences I have been able to write code to process the data into the standard format for submitting to national databases quickly. I aim to teach the county recorder how to do this before I graduate at the end of this academic year, so that the method can continue to be used to streamline the addition of data from local recorders into the NMRS database.

 

Still here! Poplar kitten moth was a less common species found in 1986 and described in the students’
report. I was very pleased to find one in May 2019 showing that the species is still present. These
parallels between the two projects are a constant reminder of the links between generations of naturalists.

What next? Passing the legacy on

Until now, just setting up the survey has taken up most of my free time outside of studying but as this year will be my last year at Girton, I’m looking to involve other students in the survey to ensure it has a useful future. At the start of the academic term I spoke at a sustainability event for new students at Girton College about wildlife recording in the College grounds, on the importance of biodiversity recording schemes for studying environmental change and the opportunities to get involved in College. I was pleased to hear students found this an interesting topic, and I now have six students interested in helping with the Girton moth survey. I am currently teaching the group, who come from both arts and science backgrounds, about identification and how to carry out the survey. It is encouraging to see that they are learning quickly and are already comfortable identifying species independently. It is my hope that with the aid of Duncan, who lent the traps, these students will continue the survey after I have left Girton.

There have been some changes to the survey this year to enable more students to be involved. The survey takes place on a set day of the week which may prove problematic in poor weather, but it will make the data a less biased indicator of the number of species present in different seasons. Greater student involvement has already dramatically improved the survey, allowing it to be carried out in an area managed for wildlife where it takes more time to set the survey up. This site has proved useful for maintaining interest from other students as more species are caught, especially during winter.  The greater diversity of species found is also important to allow the survey to be used to teach other students how to identify moths.

I am often asked by other students why I am so interested in moths. Given the amount of time I spend on this it an understandable perception of this project. My main aims have always been to gather data allowing future generations to study environmental change, and teach others about our native fauna and how to record it. This could involve a survey based on any group of wildlife, and choosing moths was a decision based mostly on my previous experience and the opportunity to collect data about an under-recorded group. I would encourage other students to consider setting up similar projects and would be happy to provide advice based on projects I have been involved in during my time here.

What else has been happening at Girton?

Other citizen science surveys have also taken place over the past year at Girton, including the Big Garden Birdwatch, organised by the RSPB, in January. I gathered a small group of students to join me in our orchard for this event and we recorded 12 species. It was interesting to see the variation in results between the different Colleges in Cambridge which took part in the event. For instance fieldfares, a member of the thrush family which migrate from mainland Europe to overwinter in Britain, were not recorded at any other Colleges where students took part. Churchill, Homerton, St. John’s, King’s, Pembroke and Magdelene Colleges all took part in this event. Duncan Mackay, who I have spoken of earlier, also ran two surveys involving Girton College grounds. The NatHistCam survey distributed questionnaires to grounds staff to look at how College grounds are managed for wildlife and what vertebrate species are present. Duncan’s second survey studied the dragonfly and damselfly species around Cambridge, and included Girton College’s pond as one of the survey sites. These surveys are ongoing and more can be found out about the survey on the NatHistCam website, including regular blog posts about recent wildlife sightings in Cambridge.

This year I also put together a display about wildlife on the college grounds for the college garden party in June, and it was rewarding to both staff and students engaging with the display. Publicity activities like this are vital for citizen science projects to be successful and are a great opportunity for students to gain engagement experience which they may not learn through their academic studies.

I couldn’t have done it alone!

I am grateful for the help provided to make this a successful project from:

  • Duncan Mackay, who has lent the moth traps.
  • Mike Bryan and Chris Sharpe, for writing up the 1986 survey and making it available for future students to use, and also for providing their field notes for extra data.
  • Bill Mansfield, the county moth recorder, for teaching me how to verify biodiversity records.
  • College staff for allowing me to use the grounds for this survey and lending electrical equipment.
  • The many students who have shown an interest in this project, especially those who wake up early on a Sunday morning each week to join the survey.

If anyone is interested in getting involved with existing biodiversity surveys or would like advice on how to set up similar surveys of their own, feel free to contact me (Stewart Rosell) via email: sr818@cam.ac.uk