Guest Blog: Biodiversity Enhancement at the University of St Andrews

This week’s blog post comes to you from Nic Wells, one of Transition’s interns, as he introduces you to biodiversity at the University of St Andrews…

Biodiversity MapAs part of its sustainability policy, the University of St Andrews has committed itself to reducing its environmental impact through numerous practices, one of which is fostering and increasing biodiversity on its grounds. Under the Nature Conservation (Scotland) 2004 Act, the University is bound to promote biodiversity, and doing this will raise awareness of environmental issues within the university and the local community.

Why is biodiversity so important?

The biodiversity present on the earth make up ecosystems, and these ecosystems provide us with certain services. Some of these ecosystem perks are intangible like water and air purification, and some are concrete and economically useful, like timber production. Conserving biodiversity makes environmental and economic sense, and doing so can also provide aesthetic benefits to communities.

So, what types of biodiversity is the University working to preserve? How is it doing this?

Birds

bluetit

Birds are key ecological actors. Bird species maintain stable insect populations, increase genetic diversity through plant pollination and ensure forest survival through seed dispersal and plant pollination. Additionally, their migratory patterns and feeding habits have been crucial for environmental monitoring of climate change and pollutant levels (BirdLife International, 2015).

For many bird species that have been affected by habitat loss, nestboxes act as substitutes for the holes found in old trees (RSPB, 2014). Nestbox design – hole width and depth – varies according to the species it is intended to attract; for example, a small nest box could attract coal tits or tree sparrows, while an open-fronted nest box would attract robins or spotted flycatchers (British Trust for Ornithology, 2015). The University is in the process of installing small nest boxes, which are designed mainly to attract blue tits, but they will also provide homes for coal tits and great tits.

The University, with the help of a Postgraduate student, is planning to set up around 100 bird boxes throughout University grounds; these will be located in clusters in the arboretum, in the “secret garden” beside the Bute Building, in a space behind the Observatory, and in the Botanic Gardens. Their installation is part of a study that is designed to investigate the vocal communication patterns between blue tits when warning each other about incoming predators.

Bats

bat

Bats perform important ecological roles. Like birds, they pollinate flowers, disperse plant seeds and control insect populations. However, their contribution to wider ecosystem dynamics is threatened around the world due to losses of suitable habitat.

Bats typically prefer to roost in warm places during the summer and in cooler placers in the winter. During the summer, pregnant female bats form maternity roosts by congregating in a safe place to give birth. If they are disturbed during this period, they may abandon their young (Bat Conservation Trust, 2015). Bat boxes offer additional and alternative resting spaces for bats throughout the year. Like nestboxes, bat box characteristics such as size, location, construction materials and access are crucial to bat inhabitation and survival. For example, placing them close to freshwater, trees and hedgerows provides access to foraging areas (Bat Conservation Trust, 2015).

The University has just recently installed two bat boxes, one at David Russell Apartments and one at the Bute Building.

Wildflowers

flowers

Wildflower species have declined over the decades, mainly due to changes in land-use patterns. Wildflower meadows support higher levels of biodiversity and provide natural services, like pollination, biological pest control and insect conservation, which in turn benefit other fauna such as birds and bees (Haaland et al, 2011). Wildflower strips are relatively easy to establish and maintain. Wildflowers thrive in either seasonally waterlogged soil or areas with low soil fertility (Forestry Commission, 2015). The University is currently running a trial to observe the relationship between greater abundance of wildflowers and insect species levels at Albany Park.

Insects

insecthotel

The primary purpose of insect hotels, also called biodiversity towers, is to provide additional habitat space for small organisms, insects and other invertebrates. Often, the hotels are used during hibernation or breeding periods. They can be built from a variety of natural and/ or repurposed materials. The hotel stacks imitate natural features required by wildlife species like nooks, crannies and rotting tree trunks (Ulster Wildlife Trust). For example, dead wood provides habitat for beetles, centipedes, woodlice and spiders, and materials with holes act as shelter for solitary bees, which are crucial for pollination. The University currently “runs” two hotels: one in the Albany Park garden and one at the BMS (Biomedical Sciences) Building at the North Haugh, and it operates a biodiversity tower in the University Hall garden.

Check out this link to see what nest boxes, bat boxes and insect hotels look like.

Sources
Bat Conservation Trust (2015) ‘Bat roosts’ [online], available: http://www.bats.org.uk/pages/bat_roosts.html
BirdLife International (2015) ‘We value birds for many reasons’ [online], available: http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/sowb/introduction/INTRO4
The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) (2015) ‘Which birds use next boxes?’ [online], available: http://www.bto.org/about-birds/nnbw/nesting-birds
Forestry Commission (2015) ‘Wildflower meadow habitats’ [online], available: http://www.forestry.gov.uk/fr/urgc-7edjrg
Haaland, C., Naisbit, R.E. and Bersier, L. (2011) ‘Sown wildflower strips for insect conservation: a review’, Insect Conservation and Diversity, 4(1), 60-80.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) (2014) ‘Nestboxes for small birds’ [online], available: http://www.rspb.org.uk/makeahomeforwildlife/advice/helpingbirds/nestboxes/smallbirds/index.aspx
Ulster Wildlife Trust (Year unavailable) ‘Building an Insect Hotel Habitat’ [online], available: http://www.bbcwildlife.org.uk/sites/birmingham.live.wt.precedenthost.co.uk/files/Insect%20Hotel.pdf

Big Butterfly Count 2014 – Diversity on your doorstep!

Every year, Butterfly Conservation carry out a nationwide survey – the “Big Butterfly Count” – of British butterfly species to monitor the populations of different species and assess the health of the environment.

Of course, they can’t do this alone, so people are encouraged to get outdoors and take just 15 minutes to look around themselves and note down which butterfly species they see, and to submit their results online.

We decided to do our bit and headed out into Albany Park Community Garden on our lunch break to see what we could spot…

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Thankfully the Big Butterfly Count provides a handy ID guide, so even the most inexperienced butterfly spotters can get involved!

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We counted eight green-veined white butterflies (Pieris napi) (above) and three large white butterflies (Pieris brassicae).

Determined to find more species, our web intern, Elena, carried out another survey at her house near Pittenweem and found an additional three species to those found in Albany Park:

Red Admiral (2)

Red Admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta)

Small Tortoiseshell and Peacock Butterflies

Small tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae) and Peacock (Inachis io) butterflies.

It’s amazing to see how much diversity you can find if you just take a few moments to stop and look for it! The survey is very quick and easy to complete, so why not do your own survey outside your workplace in your lunch break, or in your garden with the kids this weekend?

The Big Butterfly Count is logging sightings until 10th August, so what are you waiting for?! Get out there and discover the diversity waiting for you on your very own doorstep!

 

Spring Biodiversity Surveys

Image

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Spring is one of the best times conduct surveys and is a great excuse to get out and enjoy the new foliage!

Back in our December blog we discussed our plans for launching a new biodiversity surveying project for the Spring. Well, now that Spring’s upon us we have some reporting to do!

Our 5 Transition biodiversity interns have been working hard surveying multiple locations around the University grounds, trialing new Biodiversity Indexing methods for recording habitat diversity. Their reports have been coming in this week with some real gems of insight about the local wildlife that surrounds us right here in St Andrews!

IMG_7534

A giant snail? Fungal growth?… Nope! This is a solitary wasp’s nest discovered by biodiversity intern Alec Christie.

How do the surveys work?

The Biodiversity Index is a relatively new surveying method developed in by the University of Northampton. Intended for non-specialists, the Biodiversity Index provides a simple and straightforward way to measure the diversity if urban and semi-urban areas.

By focusing on habitat structures, areas sizes and leaf counts, the survey establishes a benchmark indexing ‘score’ for target areas. “The score is a snapshot of the natural environment at a specific location (and a specific point in time) and can be used as a benchmark to monitor and manage biodiversity improvement” (biodiversityindex.org).

Most recommendations for improving biodiversity are common-sense solutions to boosting habitat diversity. For example, recommendations from our several of our surveys include:

  • provide bird and bat boxes to encourage roosting, hibernating and breeding
  • when replanting, use native species if possible
  • link hedgerows to create corridors for small mammals, birds and other animals to travel between
  • reducing or eliminate mowing schemes where possible

We’ve found a high level of diversity in areas not usually associated with wild beasts & critters – St Mary’s Quad for example contains a relatively high level of habitat diversity despite being located in the centre of town! Check out the report for yourself here.

Moorhen (image by RSPB)

Moorhens were recorded at the Andrew Melville pond site (image from rspb.org.uk)

One of the best places for observing local biodiversity is at the pond and grassy area to the West of Andrew Melville Hall. A hidden hotspot for wildlife, and especially water fowl, located at the end of town, our volunteers discovered a host of interesting species including the hard-to-miss moorhen with red colouring on its beak and forehead.

If you have a chance why not do some biodiversity investigation yourself? If you find any interesting species, or take some great photos we’d love to hear from you! Email us at environment@st-andrews.ac.uk to get in touch.

For further resources about biodiversity at the University of St Andrews please visit our biodiversity webpages.

Consumer’s Guide to Ethical Food Certifications

It’s the third Sunday of the month: your turn to cook dinner – that’s fine because you’re not in charge of washing the dishes. As you meander through the store aisles, you remember that your flatmates are picky; John only eats “ethical” meat and Michael, organic produce. Fortunately there are certified products galore in the store, so now the only issue remaining is deciding which ones to purchase.

In this time of green consumerism, choosing between certain standards and labels really can be confusing. There are so many issues to consider: your health, the environment, workers’ rights and even animal rights. If you are someone who is interested in conserving biodiversity, hopefully this can shed some light on the labels that we see in Tesco Morrisons or Sainsburys, more specifically, the Rainforest Alliance, the Marine Stewardship Council, the Soil Association, Certified Humane and the Fairtrade Foundation.

rainforest alliance

The Rainforest Alliancehttp://www.rainforest-alliance.org

The Rainforest Alliance works to prevent deforestation and land degradation and to increase conservation around the world by training and educating land managers and entrepreneurs who produce food products such as bananas and tea. They also work with communities to conserve local biodiversity by establishing sustainable eco-tourism businesses (Rainforest Alliance 2014). In order to be certified, producers’ practices must meet certain criteria, some of which are “conserving local wildlife and water resources, minimizing soil erosion” and “protecting forests and reforesting where possible” (McAllister 2004). Rainforest Alliance Certified farms must follow the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) standards, which can be found at the bottom of this paragraph. Some of the criteria call for providing a natural habitat for endangered species, letting land lie fallow to improve soil health and planting vegetation barriers to minimize the impact of agrochemicals. It is important to note that only 80% of the total criteria must be met for certification and that some certified products might have been produced using pesticides (Standard Agriculture Network 2010).  Further, it allows products that have at least 30% of its ingredients Rainforest Alliance Certified to bear its seal, which has caused many consumers to criticize the organization and call for an increase the percentage of certified content (Rainforest Alliance 2014).  The SAN standards can be found here: http://www.sanstandards.org/userfiles/SAN-S-1-1_2%20Sustainable%20Agriculture%20Standard_docx(1).pdf

Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) – http://www.msc.org/
MSC

The MSC encourages sustainable fishing practices to preserve marine life by proposing standards for fisheries to follow if they wish to be certified. Part of the standards require sustainable management of stock populations and that the fishery operations have as little impact as possible on the local environment. This can be done through effective waste management and by ensuring that none of the farmed species escape into the wild. This way, the species diversity and structures of nearby natural ecosystems are preserved. Additionally, the MSC prides itself on its products’ traceability, that is, the chain of custody that can allow consumers to see where their seafood came from and how it ended up on the store shelf. The MSC also encourages fishers to be more aware of bycatch and the effects of their fishing on non-target species. Sometimes, turtles or even dolphins are captured as bycatch when fishers lay out long fishing lines with many hooks, and these hooks can end in places such as albatross nests (Agnew et al 2006). Despite its good intentions, MSC has, at times, been found to act in ways that contradict its principles. In early 2013 National Public Radio published an article detailing that some seafood may be certified by the MSC, despite a lack of accord with MSC certification standards (Zwerdling and Williams 2013). Later in the year, a Nature article included scientist Jenifer Jacquet’s observation that the MSC’s scoring system is subjective and can be understood in ways that would easily allow fisheries to be granted the MSC seal of approval (Cressey 2013).

Soil assoc

Soil Associationhttp://www.soilassociation.org

The Soil Association is a British charity that campaigns for organic production of food, clothes and make-up. Unlike some of the other certification schemes, the Soil Association’s standards and requirements are more concrete and easier to locate. By producing goods organically, the Soil Association believes that the Earth’s health improves, as well as humans’ wellbeing. In order to conserve biodiversity, the Soil Association urges farmers to create wildlife corridors to link habitats by establishing hedgerows or field margins, and it prohibits genetically modified (GM) crops. Further, it maintains that any green waste must be checked for GM contamination. Green waste, along with crop rotations, is encouraged as it promotes nutrient recycling and improves soil health. For aquaculture operations, the Soil Association requires detailed management plans that include an analysis about the fishery’s impact on the local environment and how it will be implemented. Even though the Soil Association produces its goods organically, keep in mind that 5% of ingredients are allowed to be non-organic, probably because they are hard to grow organically (Soil Association 2013). Though some products are not grown organically, that does not necessarily mean that they were grown using pesticides. To further its mission of conserving biodiversity and improving environmental quality the Soil Association has introduced new projects, such as the Duchy Originals Future Farming Programme and Low Carbon Farming, to help farmers improve their productivity in an environmentally responsible manner. For more information on the Soil Association’s organic standards, browse through them here: http://soilassociation.org/organicstandards.

Certified humane

Certified Humanehttp://www.certifiedhumane.org

For people who shop for meat that has been raised ethically, Certified Humane can be their answer. Certified Humane concerns itself with animal welfare; certified farms provide plenty of space in which animals can move, unlike industrial farms where cows, pigs and chickens are crammed tightly into pens. If an animal product is labeled as Certified Humane, farmers have not used antibiotics and have allowed the animals to have access to space, food and water. Some animal activists might take issue with the fact that Certified Humane standards permit beak trimming, but in some cases it is done to prevent hens from violently pecking one another (Certified Humane 2013). Animals products labeled as Certified Humane were not necessarily were raised according to organic standards (Certified Humane 2013). Certified Humane focuses on ethical treatment of animals, while organic programs emphasize environmental health. It is also possible that some meats were raised ethically and/ or organically, but the producers could not afford to be certified. If you want to know more about how your meat is raised, it’s best to do research on the farm on that it came from or you can ask farmers if you buy meat directly from them at local farmers’ markets. Here are the label’s standards: http://www.certifiedhumane.org/index.php?page=standards.

Fairtrade Foundation – http://www.fairtrade.org.ukFT

In a fashion similar to Certified Humane’s, the Fairtrade Foundation chooses not to focus on the environment but rather on farmers and workers in developing countries. It aims to tackle poverty by empowering producers and giving them the opportunity to be more actively involved in the global market. It still, however, has some rules for producers regarding the environment. It prohibits the use of GM crops, but it does not check for them (Fairtrade Foundation 2008). Buffer zones are required around bodies of water to reduce the risk of chemical contamination from pesticides, and farmers must report how they measure soil quality. The Fairtrade Foundation encourages farmers to be aware of local wildlife so that they do not hunt or collect threatened species or introduce invasive species to the area. Though it has taken some measures to protect the environment, the Fairtrade Foundation can do more. For example, with a stricter GM crop policy, local systems can support native species, which in turn can support farming productivity. If you are interested in Fairtrade and want to stay up-to-date on all things Fairtrade-related in St Andrews, like and follow the Fairtrade in St Andrews Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/FairtradeInStAndrews.

So, why is biodiversity important? Biodiversity is the variety of life on earth. Without it, life would be bland, not to mention difficult. Can you imagine living without seeing different types of plants, animals and climates? All organisms – big or small – play a role in a complex network of ecosystem dynamics. While we may not be conscious of it, we are dependent on these ecosystems for the services and resources that they provide. They act as storm buffers, pollution filters, water purifiers and climate regulators. Sand dunes on beaches serve to lessen the impact of storms, which is why there has been a concerted effort to restore West Sands in the past few years. Medicines, cosmetics and some foods come from plant species found in select parts of the world. If biodiversity “hot spots” like the Amazon Rainforest continue to be degraded and destroyed, our favorite foods will disappear from our diets, and we risk losing valuable cultural knowledge that can better inform us about plant and animal species. When it comes to buying food, try to educate yourself about the food’s origin by finding out where and how it was produced. While it may not be immediately obvious, those labels, like the Rainforest Alliance frog on the tea boxes, remind us that our lifestyle choices affect other species and people somewhere else in the world.

Nicholas Wells, Transition biodiversity intern

http://www.transitionsta.org/Volunteers

Sources:
Agnew, D., Grieve, C. , Orr, P., Parkes, G. and Barker, N. (2006) Environmental benefits resulting from certification against MSC’s Principles & Criteria for Sustainable Fishing, London: MRAG UK Ltd and Marine Stewardship Council.
 Certified Humane (2013) ‘Beak Trimming’ [online], available: http://www.certifiedhumane.org/uploads/pdf/Fact%20Sheets/beak_trimming.pdf [accessed 4 Jan 2014].
 Certified Humane (2013) ‘Does Certified Humane mean organic?’ Frequently Asked Questions [online], available: http://www.certifiedhumane.org/uploads/Frequently%20Asked%20Questions%2011.5.13.pdf [accessed 5 Jan 2014].
 Cressey, D. (2013) ‘Eco-label seafood body attempts to convince critics’, Nature, 17 July, available: http://www.nature.com/news/eco-label-seafood-body-attempts-to-convince-critics-1.13409 [accessed 4 Jan 2014].
Fairtrade Foundation (2008) ‘Are Fairtrade Products Guaranteed to be GM Free?’ Q&A: Fairtrade Standards and Genetically Modified Organisms (GM) [online], available: http://www.fairtrade.org.uk/includes/documents/cm_docs/2011/f/fairtrade_gm_q_a_jan_08.pdf [accessed 6 Jan 2014].
McAllister, S. (2004) ‘Who is the fairest of them all?’ The Guardian, 24 Nov, available: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2004/nov/24/foodanddrink.shopping1 [accessed 3 Jan 2014].
Rainforest Alliance (2014) ‘How Does Rainforest Alliance Certified Compare to Fair Trade Certified?’ [online], available: http://www.rainforest-alliance.org/agriculture/faq-fairtrade [accessed 3 Jan 2014].
 Soil Association (2013) ‘Standards’ What is organic? [online], available: http://www.soilassociation.org/organicstandards [accessed 4 Jan 2014].
 Sustainable Agriculture Network. (2010) ‘Farm Standards’ [online], available: http://www.sanstandards.org/userfiles/SAN-S-1-1_2%20Sustainable%20Agriculture%20Standard_docx(1).pdf [accessed 3 Jan 2014].
 Zwerdling, D. and Williams, M. (2013) ‘Is Sustainable-Labeled Seafood Really Sustainable?’ NPR, 11 Feb, available: http://www.npr.org/2013/02/11/171376509/is-sustainable-labeled-seafood-really-sustainable [accessed 4 Jan 2014].

Biodiversity On The Mind

State of Nature

The latest comprehensive report of the status of wildlife in Britain

During my brief lunchbreak today I found myself totally engrossed in the State of Nature Reporta first of it’s kind document detailing the health of the UK’s wildlife populations (available from the RSPB).

It was a beautiful day and I should have been eating outside, away from my computer and enjoying the great outdoors! (that will be my goal for tomorrow)… As it turns out I found some useful insights from this remarkable document, helping remind me that biodiversity loss is not an easy concept to get your head around. The report’s foreword by Sir David Attenborough puts it this way,

“even the most casual of observers may have noticed that all is not well. They may have noticed the loss of butterflies from a favourite walk, the disappearance of sparrows from their garden, or the absence of the colourful wildflower meadows of their youth. To gain a true picture of the balance of our nature, we require a broad and objective assessment of the best available evidence.” (my emphasis)

No easy task. But this recent report does an impressive job at achieving such a broad and objective assessment by integrating species research over the past 50+ years on thousands of species of significance who live in the UK and overseas territories. Everything from the hazel doormouse to the harbour seal is covered in their analysis.

SoN doormouse

(State of Nature, pg 38)

Overall, the numbers and figures are not surprising. Indicator species (particularly of butterfly, moth and bird species) continue to decline significantly. Of total data covering 3,000+ species, 60% have declined and 31% have declined strongly over the past 50 years. I find these numbers difficult to truly grasp. That means 91% of all species highlighted in these studies are in some form of decline?

With a statistic so high, is there room for any good news?

Well, what I would add to Sir David Attenborough’s introductory words is that biodiversity requires science and wonder, reasoning and re-enchantment (something his has always excelled at sharing with audiences). The best surveys in the world will not stop biodiversity attrition alone.

This is partly why we have developed a new internship for students to work towards improving biodiversity right here in St Andrews. In partnership with our local Transition initiative – Transition University of St Andrews – we recruited five “biodiversity interns” to work with us this semester. While we too, like the researchers in this report, will be surveying and accounting for the local biodiversity among the University’s scattered landscape, we hope to also bring as muchring enthusiasm, excitement, and genuine compassion to this topic.

Our first step? To master new survey techniques that allow non-specialists (eg, students, staff and residents) to get outside and map the landscape around their halls of residence, staff departments or academic schools. Our online tool, the Biodiversity Index, guides us novices through the process and includes a concise report at the end that provides a benchmark score from which to improve upon. The report gives suggestions for improving our scores, such as to incorporate less intensive landscaping practises (leaving a wildlife meadow unmown during summer for example) or planting a community orchard in an otherwise unused area. All ideas will be considered which help increase habitat and vegetation diversity – indicators of species richness and the success of specific species of concern such as the common bee.

bio survey

Results from our first pilot survey of the Gateway building and surround area

 Our plan is to “divide and conquer” the University’s landscape in Spring 2014 by leading students and staff on multiple mini survey’s of their own, in places that mean something to them. We have high hopes that when people are given the chance to investigate, record, and reflect on their own local landscapes, more creative ideas will be generated with stronger chances for success. We hope you can join us by participating in these surveys as we work towards turning under-used landscapes into beautiful, resilient and healthy places to work and play.

This can only be done to the backdrop of global biodiversity concerns, such as impressively documented in the State of Nature report. I am eternally grateful to those researchers contributing to this latest report on the health of our living community. Let’s also remember that improving biodiversity begins with attention – where better to start then our own doorsteps?

Interested in joining the biodiversity interns on their mission? Signup for Spring 2014 survey updates by emailing environment@st-andrews.ac.uk