Campuses where everyone is a student of nature
Several Irish universities provide the public with maps and audio guides to biodiversity
A brown hairstreak butterfly, one of the rarest in Ireland, on the NUIG biodiversity trail.
A Saturday morning walk around the boundary of the University College Dublin campus in Belfield recently alerted me to the public access to green spaces on third-level campuses across Ireland.
As I walked along the 6km woodland walk, I met walkers and runners, who, like me, were simply using the university campus like a public park.
The Woodland Walk at UCD has been made accessible bit by bit over the last 20 years or so. Shorter internal walks include the Three Lakes Walk and the Millennium Oak Walk. “It’s an open campus. We welcome the community in and in the last few years, the walks are massively used – particularly at lunchtimes – by dog walkers, joggers and nature enthusiasts,” says Ciaran Bennett, the grounds facilities manager at UCD.
The recent addition of biodiversity trails on Irish university campuses is part of the wider celebration of green spaces as more and more city dwellers want to spend time outdoors and engage with the natural world.
Some campuses have a natural advantage over others either having been built on former country house estates – University of Limerick (UL) was built on the grounds of Plassey House – and/or being next to a river – the National University of Ireland at Galway (NUIG) is next to the Corrib and the UL campus includes a section of the Shannon.
Landscaping and tree planting have also been a significant part of most universities historically so it seems fitting that the public can enjoy specimen trees and green areas in places such as Trinity College and Dublin City University campuses as urban areas become more built up.
NUIG offers a map, an audio guide and signage along the biodiversity trail on its campus. The guides to the trails highlight trees, birds and bats in College Park and fish, birds and otters in the Eglinton canal. Walkers are encouraged to look out for yellow irises in summer and observe mute swans and grey herons on the path along the Corrib. Herbicides and pesticides aren’t used along the river banks so that wild flowers can thrive.
Caitríona Carlin, ecologist and post-doctoral researcher at NUIG, says that there has been a great public response to the mapping out of the 6km biodiversity walk with the addition of interpretation boards in early 2019. “Students use it to get away from the stress of classes and the staff and those attending conferences use it too but some local people have told us that they never knew they could walk in the college grounds. Here in college, we’re very clear that it’s a public space,” says Carlin.
As part of her research into the health benefits of green spaces, Carlin has recently led walks along the NUIG biodiversity trail for groups who wouldn’t usually be motivated to walk.
“We brought them on part of the trail with grassland, woodland and along the river. We want to find out if walking in nature would motivate people to walk more so we pointed out butterflies and flowers on our walk. The feedback has been good so far,” says Carlin.
UL operates an open campus policy with many sports clubs and societies using the grounds for running and walking. Various walking routes are mapped out in a network of more than 14 km of interconnecting pathways and trails on the extensive grounds that span counties Limerick and Clare.
“A lot of the walks are along the river bank and it’s a very nice peaceful and safe place to be away from cars. In fact, you can walk right into Limerick City along the river and along a canal,” says John O’Sullivan, grounds manager at UL.
A specific flora and fauna trail includes a guide and map with information on specimen trees, wildflowers, lichens, fungi, birds, animals and insects.
University College Cork has a green tour app. Visitors to the Cork city campus can download the app (and borrow headphones) to follow the one-hour tour of green campus initiatives, including biodiversity projects.
There is also a map of specimen trees on the Cork campus. Maria Kirrane, the sustainability officer at UCC, says the college is currently planning a guided walk along the river Lee with interpretative panels. “We have recently put in a second wildflower meadow on campus and hopefully in the next year there will be a full biodiversity trail along the river,” says Kirrane.
At Maynooth University (MU), work is under way to establish a biodiversity trail with an app and a map. “Currently, we have 10 sites for biodiversity and we take groups on trails to view these sites [which include wildflower meadows, woodlands, bird and bat boxes, insect hotels and planted areas for pollinators] but we plan to establish this trail properly as the Maynooth University Wild Walk,” says Dr Jim Carolan, lecturer in biology at MU and member of the Maynooth Green Campus (MGC) committee.
“Although the campus is always open to the public to explore, we encourage staff, students and community groups to contact the MGC to arrange guided tours and to hear more about our biodiversity sites and the reasons behind them,” he adds.
Dara Dever, green campus manager at the environmental education unit of An Taisce says biodiversity trails are a real opportunity to connect students, staff and the wider community with the natural environment.
“As they expand, it gives more awareness of the importance of protecting what we have and getting students involved means they will care and appreciate the natural environment and make decisions to protect it into the future.”