Britain has been baking in a long, hot, dry period over the past few weeks, ending spectacularly in thunderstorms and torrential rain last Tuesday; the very day chosen for a walk-over of the University of Northampton’s proposed new campus site at Nunn Mills by the ad hoc ecology group that is discussing the wildlife potential of the project. To say that we got wet would be an understatement: the only way I could have got wetter would have been to jump into the nearby River Nene. But it was a useful day for us that generated lots of ideas on how the biodiversity of the site might be conserved and enhanced. The group included my colleague Duncan McCollin and myself from the University, officers from the Wildlife Trust, a team from Betts Ecology who have been formally assessing the site, plus other building and landscape consultants.
In an earlier post I mentioned the eastern half of this site and its interesting “urban tundra” plant community. The purpose of last Tuesday’s visit was to also assess the western half which is the former factory of the Avon cosmetics company. If you want to take a look at the area for yourself, go to Google Earth and search “Northampton Nunn Mills” and it will take you straight there. The imagery is from 2009 but it hasn’t changed much in that time, except that what looks like a small lake on the north side of the river is now a marina for canal boats. The roughly oblong site has the company headquarters for Avon right in the middle, with the redundant factory to the west and south. To the east is the former power station. In terms of wildlife and biodiversity more broadly, the mix of standing buildings, bare concrete and piles of rubble look unpromising. But there’s lots of wildlife already on the site (including common lizards, peregrine falcons and various bats) and great potential because of its proximity to other areas.
The River Nene forms the northern boundary of the proposed Waterside Campus and is rich in fish, insect and (especially) bird life, though it has potential to be richer, particuarly if the river banks can be reprofiled in places to remove the concrete walls and create more river edge habitat. On this brief visit we saw a range of bird species, including grey herons, common terns, black headed gulls, swans, mallards, coots, and an LBJ (possibly reed warbler), all directly reliant on the river. None of these birds is especially uncommon but they hint at a much richer diversity along the river valley as a whole, including internationally important sites for over-wintering migrant species. There’s also otters along this part of the river and one of the plans for the campus is to have a quiet, secluded stretch that includes an otter holt.
The southern border of the site is delimited by both the Hardingstone Dyke (a drainage channel) and a disused railway track, both good habitats for a range of species, especially ground nesting solitary bees and wasps on the dry soils of the railway line. To the east, beyond the large electricity substation, these features link with the Barnes Meadow Local Nature Reserve. This all provides a local context for nature to colonise the Waterside Campus if opportunities are provided. The broader geographical context for the Waterside Campus is provided by the Nene Valley Nature Improvement Area project that I’ve discussed before. The feeling amongst the group on the day was that there is great potential to enhance and create wildlife areas and it’s our desire to see these through to completion. This will include ongoing collaboration between academics, consultants, NGOs and developers, as well as the University’s senior management team. As an academic I’m also excited by the educational opportunities it will provide for our students as they monitor and assess the biodiversity of the development. The next few years will be interesting ones for us! But we’re also interested in hearing from local people who know the area well and may have ideas about how biodiversity can be supported on the site; feel free to comment.