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Summer in the city

Published on October 29, 2013, by in News and musings.

The summer of 2013 has been a glorious one. Whilst many in Britain were buying ice creams and fans to cope with the unusually hot conditions, the urban BESS research group (F3UES) embraced the weather. The ‘Cranfield triangle’ – Bedford, Milton Keynes and Luton: the study area of the F3UES project – was alive with urban ecologists collecting insects, catching and releasing birds, and sowing seeds. The diverse history and urban forms of these towns will allow F3UES to examine the relationships between ecosystem services and biodiversity close to home – in our local, urban green spaces.

Fieldwork over summer focussed on three elements of the project: biodiversity-service relationships in green space fragments, bird movements among green spaces, and biodiversity manipulations.

In the first of these, two field teams undertook major surveys of biodiversity and the physical environment. These focused on birds, invertebrates, plants, soils and hydrology. Two bird surveyors from the British Trust for Ornithology worked tirelessly from May through to August repeating surveys at 468 locations across the three towns. The surveys were undertaken in the early morning and in the afternoon to look at how the structure of the urban environment affects bird diversity, as well as how many of the birds that are really found in a given location are actually perceived by the average urban resident or park user.

Working in parallel, a team of five people from Sheffield and Cranfield Universities collected invertebrates, surveyed ground cover plants and trees, sampled soils, and measured water infiltration rates. The surveyed sites were areas of continuous green space, and represented a wide spectrum of size, shape and land use. Sites were selected following an analysis of urban form and green space fragmentation across the study area, carried out at the University of Exeter. Over two months, 78 sites were surveyed, including 234 plots, and we now have over 900 invertebrate samples, 700 soil samples and thousands of plant records.

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Doing ecology in urban areas means we regularly interact with other people in addition to the plants and animals that are more typically our purview. The field team engaged with people from sports club owners to school children, cemetery managers, and innumerable dog walkers and their curious canines. We enjoyed gifts of fruit from people’s allotments and explained water infiltration rates to teenage boys. Many of our interactions came from surveying back gardens. The team surveyed 62 gardens from randomly selected areas across the towns. We met lots of kind people who were curious about the project and we enjoyed many discussions about local wildlife over cold drinks and biscuits. These interactions made for a lively field season and the sense of having engaged a very wide range of people, many of whom may rarely be involved with research or questions of biodiversity in their local areas. During the winter, the field teams will move indoors to process samples and sort out summer’s pile of data. Combined, these data can give us information about regulating and provisioning services across diverse urban forms, and will contribute to understanding the cultural services provided by green spaces.

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While this was happening, Dr Daniel Cox from the University of Exeter was busily catching birds in order to determine how birds, and thus the various ecosystem services they provide, move through different forms of urban landscape. To do this he enlisted the cooperation of sixty garden owners in whose back gardens he set up bird feeding stations with radio-frequency identification tags. To date, he has caught over 300 garden birds and attached tiny PIT tags to their legs, which will record when each bird visits the feeding stations. The project will run until April 2014 and is already bringing in a wealth of data. Daniel has also been running a survey looking at people’s motivations for feeding birds.

Finally, we established the first experimental part of the project, looking at the effects of enhancing biodiversity by sowing perennial meadows in amenity grassland. Through a series of large-scale experimental meadow plots in Bedford and Luton, the influence of vegetation structural complexity and floristic diversity on regulating ecosystem services, biodiversity and aesthetics is being examined. The plots are now established thanks to the efforts of staff at Sheffield and Cranfield Universities and our collaborators at Bedford and Luton Borough Councils, who have been involved in all stages of the work from negotiating space for the experiment right through to helping with weeding. We are also very grateful to Cranfield University’s Estates Department and the many volunteers from the University and the public, who have provided fantastic on-the-ground support. The plots were prepared and sown during spring and, after some exhausting weeding, were looking bright and colourful throughout July to early September, attracting a range of bees, butterflies and other wildlife.

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Overall, the plots have been very well received by the local public which has been reflected in comments from interested people coming to ask questions and from a series of surveys that have been undertaken by the F3UES team. People seem to particularly appreciate the conversion from cut-grass to colourful flower displays. Comments include: “I love the flowers; better than cut grass” and “Nice to see flowers; a bit of colour”. More detailed examinations of people’s responses to the plots will be explored in the coming months through discussion groups, and we look forward to seeing the plots develop their full potential over the next year.

Progress and preliminary results were shared at a gathering of the principal local partners at a stakeholder meeting at Cranfield University in September where there was very positive feedback and productive discussions. The active involvement, interest and enthusiasm brought to the project by partners – in particular the Councils’ involvement with the meadow experiments – has been invaluable, and we look forward to sharing the results with them.

Briony Norton and the 2013 field team

 
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