August 9, 2013, by Warren Pearce

The little-known secret of “not-doing”

UON campus tour

UON Grounds Maintenance Mgr. Martyn Lloyd points to a 300-year-old tree on “The Downs”, at the north side of campus.

Guest post by our visiting fellow, Jeff Tamblyn, film maker and director of Kansas vs. Darwin.

The campus itself might have been what drew me to the MayFest Grounds Tour at the University of Nottingham – it’s vast, sweeping, and dotted with stately buildings and huge trees, many of which are more than three centuries old. Leading the small but eager group was Grounds Maintenance Manager Martyn Lloyd, who hadn’t planned on staying at UON for 25 years, but initiatives in United Kingdom environmental policy precipitated some unconventional practices which have kept his interest.

For starters, they don’t mow the lawn – at least, not very often. And it’s not really a lawn. The Downs – a patch of several acres on the north side – has been allowed to grow without seeding or herbicides for several years. “For the first two years after we stopped mowing, the grass grew way too long,” said Lloyd, whose looks and manner seem rather more like those of an insurance executive. “But we left it alone. After that, the wildflowers and other plants grew in and now keep the grasses naturally short.” I’d been walking through this field for a week on a paved path and it never occurred to me it was in any way untended. Its texture is lush, dotted with flowers, and far more engaging to the eye than mere grass. Departing from the traditional, prim, English-garden aesthetic, the Downs is a gently rolling meadow upon which wild birds forage and students often relax and play sports. Its upkeep is thousands of pounds less per year than a traditional lawn, and when local farmers mow it twice a year, they use the clippings to feed livestock.

The benefits of ‘not doing’

Although “not-doing” might be at odds with a traditional British work-ethic, it seems to produce quite good results on the UON campus. Fallen dead trees, to cite another example, are seldom removed as long as they’re not blocking a roadway or heavily-trafficked path. Allowing them to rot where they lie creates a habitat for plants and fungi which nurture insects, which in turn feed birds and, most important, bats.

Bat numbers have drastically declined  all over western Europe in recent times because of habitat loss and pollution. Fortunately, scientists have been able to demonstrate that some bats are keystone species, meaning that if you lose them, because of their interdependence with so many other kinds of plants and animals, it would cause significant damage to the ecosystem. (Honeybees are another keystone species, as are African elephants.) The problem and its projected consequences inspired a willingness to provide international protection for all European bats (intentionally killing them can be imprisonable), and this order, combined with a willingness to appropriately manage the campus, now makes it possible for nine species of bats to flit freely through the night skies at UON, and roost in the hollows of its ancient trees and buildings.

Bats and biodiversity

To me, the most interesting part of all this is how UON’s biodiversity action plan ingeniously leverages the bats’ ‘keystone-species’ status. By doing things to the campus which are known to nurture and protect bats – and not doing things which would threaten or compromise them – Lloyd and his department can be certain of making life good for a wide range of other species who benefit directly or indirectly from the bats’ presence, or who share their environmental needs. This centering of an environmental policy around a single, influential group of species provides a way to measure the overall quality of the environment cost-effectively and relatively quickly. Threats are more likely to be detected and dealt with before they do irreparable damage. But how to communicate these benefits effectively to the public in order to build and maintain their support?

The answer to that question came during a conversation with another person whose work involves surveying protected species, including bats: Mark Woods, a Senior Ecologist at BSG Ecology, the company that prepared the Biodiversity Action Plan for UON. According to their website, BSG provides ecological consultancy for a variety of clients such as property developers and government agencies to ensure that they comply with environmental law and local, national and international biodiversity policies.

Woods noted how UON’s policies and campus management help to market its environmental credentials and promote the campus as a sustainable and attractive place to study . The campus has become a showpiece of open space in the City of Nottingham, which is one of Great Britain’s greenest cities, maintaining over 200 wildlife-friendly areas within its boundary. Woods and Lloyd both mentioned that universities are a critical element in scientific outreach to the public, who often respond by raising funds and providing volunteer labor to support new initiatives. In the often-torturous relationship between science and the public, is this one of the less-bumpy places? If so, what can be learned from it?

Science comes later…

During the year, citizens are invited to assist with nighttime bat surveys, sometimes led by Woods, who’s also a part-time lecturer at Nottingham Trent University, and member of the Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust. (Other activities on the UON campus include counts of scarce plant species, wildlife walks and bird surveys usually run by local experts.) The surveying teams use a handheld bat detector to convert the flying mammals’ high-frequency echolocation calls to a sound within range of human hearing. The frequency and type of call enables identification of the species. It’s a relatively risk-free adventure in nature which connects members of the public with science, but Woods says he rarely if ever mentions science during bat surveys. Likewise, Lloyd never mentioned science during the grounds tour, even though we were hip-deep in it the entire time.

As in grounds-keeping, is “not-doing” part of effective science communication? Woods: “Don’t mention science. Let people get interested in what’s in front of them because that’s what gets them hooked. The environmental studies, the evolutionary evidence, the biology and chemistry, can all come later, once they really want to know how nature works.”


Posted in Science Communication