Boosting Biodiversity on Campus

(Story originally published on Business Green ) Biodiversity is in crisis. The figures are deeply depressing. Globally, wildlife extinction rates are running at about 1,000 times the average historic rate, with somewhere in the region of 150’200 species going extinct every day. In the UK, we have lost 600 million breeding birds since 1980, a staggering decline of 1,712 birds per hour for the last 40 years. Our butterfly populations have halved since 1976. The UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries on Earth, in the bottom 10% of all countries. We have to do better.

Ironically, Britain is a nation of nature lovers, with far higher membership of conservation charities such as Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (1.2 million members) compared to equivalent organisations in other countries. We also have a great tradition of studies in natural history, from Gilbert White and Charles Darwin to the present, while our universities have some of the best ecologists in the world. Our wildlife is also probably the most well described and intensively studied in the world. In large part we know how to halt and reverse the biodiversity crisis, we just need to get on and do it, and it is incumbent on our academic institutions to lead the way.

Sussex University is a case in point. We have an 80 hectare campus surrounded on three sides by the South Downs National park, in a dry chalk valley which, 100 years ago, would have been a peaceful flower-filled landscape, occasionally grazed by sheep, and teaming with wildlife. Although there are now University buildings, there is still plenty of green space and huge potential for wildlife to return.

Since its creation in the late 1960s much of the campus has been managed to keep everything neat, with huge areas of close-mown grass, and exotic non-native plants grown in tidy borders. This was the original vision of the architect, Basil Spence, who designed the University, and envisioned his buildings being framed by neat lawns. Some have argued that the campus must remain just so for ever, but times have changed. When Spence designed the buildings there was no climate emergency or biodiversity crisis. It is surely time that management of university campuses and other urban greenspaces moved in to the 21 century. Neat mown lawns need to make way for wildflower meadows, scrub, and native saplings capturing carbon as they grow, supporting nature and combatting climate change.

After years of deliberation, Sussex University now has an ambitious biodiversity policy. Recently ranked third in the UK for sustainable institutions, and 55 in the world, the Biodiversity Strategy published in 2021 set out Sussex university’s vision of staff and students working together to be the most biodiverse campus in the UK. The university has already committed to 38 percent of the campus being managed primarily for wildlife, or rewilded and not managed at all. But as part of our Big Biodiversity Conversation , debate is now ongoing as to how much further we can go. We hope for 50 percent, which would match the vision of famous American biologist EO Wilson who argued for setting half the Earth aside for nature. In addition to increasing land set aside for nature, the biodiversity strategy also involves implementing various staff and student-led biodiversity projects, such as planting an orchard of old Sussex tree varieties, and installing bee hotels and hoverfly lagoons to provide habitat for pollinators.

The biodiversity strategy also includes good practice principles to guide campus management, including a commitment to go pesticide free and to use water conscious planting. Sussex is committed to achieving biodiversity net gain, and being the most biodiverse campus in the UK and given its location it should be able to achieve this. How fantastic it would be if there were competition for the title, with universities around the country all committed to turning every scrap of land they can over to nature. With our own house in order, academics could then hold our heads up high and ask other land managers to do the same.