The secret world of urban wildlife – and how to help protect it

Article by Rose Bull Wood, Wildlife Ecology and Conservation Science student at the University of the West of England (UWE). The Natural History Consortium developed this piece with Rose about her experience wildlife recording across Bristol. Thank you to Consortium partners Avon Wildlife Trust and UWE for their contributions.

About Rose

I lived in London for the first 18 years of my life, and it may surprise some that it was where I first found my love of wildlife. From my garden, I could see parakeets, bluetits, jays and robins, along with foxes and their cubs, all using the pocket of tranquillity as their escape from city living. For me, being diagnosed with a processing disorder as a young teen, I felt similar; the garden was one of the only places I felt relaxed, away from the sounds of cars, people, sirens and the general bustle of the city. This love of nature led to me studying Wildlife Ecology and Conservation Science at the University of the West of England in Bristol.

Previously I worked as a research intern in Costa Rica, where I first became aware of trail cameras giving us the ability to see the otherwise secretive world of wildlife. When I started university in Bristol, I wanted to use the skills I had learnt to see exactly how many species there are in our cities and urban areas. I started by setting trail cameras up less than 200 metres away from my front door on the UWE campus in a small strip of woodland that divides a student field and an unused green space. I chose this area as it was sheltered, had minimal human disruption, and had a pond. All fantastic features for attracting urban wildlife. I also placed cameras on Avon Wildlife Trust’s Grow Wilder site, just off Frenchay Park Road.

To work out the exact locations to put the cameras, I looked for patterns of disrupted leaves and vegetation indicating wildlife corridors, faeces, prints and den holes. On the cameras at Frenchay Campus alone, I’ve captured footage of 11 species of mammals so far (10 of them being wild). The species captured include:

As well as 9 species of bird:

Finding such a high biodiversity level along a 20m stretch of cameras was just incredible and exceeded my expectations. I captured some interesting behaviours. Squirrels appearing agitated by something, causing them to flip around acrobatically. Badgers trying to pull down the cameras, and on a separate occasion being chased by a fox. Some of the best things I saw were gorgeous fox cubs playing and suckling on their mother, and a badger family including a younger teenager with lots of energy!

Watch Rose’s exciting trail camera footage here

Creating spaces for wildlife in the city

Grow Wilder – an oasis for wildlife

We spoke to Bethan Smith, Wildpaths Placement student with Avon Wildlife Trust, about the wildlife often found on site and the ways in which biodiversity is encouraged.

“Grow Wilder is an oasis for all sorts of critters in the city. Surveys in 2022 uncovered some amazing fungi such as fluted and common nest fungi, blewits, and bleeding and colbat crust. An evening of surveys discovered common pipistrelle, soprano pipistrelle, noctule and serotine. Frog spawn counts are always high. Torch light surveys found smooth and palmate newts covering the pond surfaces in the breeding season.

The new pond at Grow Wilder will hopefully add new species of bats as it will be an amazing foraging habit. Mammal trapping and surveys have shown foxes, badgers, shrews, bank voles and rats on the site. Bees, butterflies and moths thrive due to the wildflowers on site. Day flying moths recorded include the cinnabar, hummingbird hawk moth and lunar hornet moth. Night time visitors recorded by our moth trap include elephant hawk moths, buff ermine and ghost moth.”

UWE – conservation efforts for wildlife

The University of the West of England (UWE) is another organisation that has a focus on creating and nurturing habitats and spaces for wildlife. In February 2022, UWE was one of the 12 universities across the UK that received the Gold Hedgehog Friendly Campus Award. UWE also uses a number of conservation methods to encourage wildlife onto campus, such as:

  • UWE Beeline Project: planting flowers that are on a core planting list of pollinators to bring insect biodiversity into less accessible areas of campus.
  • Installing artificial habitats to make up for the loss of habitat: Multihabitat “Wildpods”, Bird feeders, Nesting boxes, Bat boxes, Log piles, Sand bank for solitary bees.
  • Tree population growth and management: by using a loss gains register, UWE ensures that the tree population is ever expanding, as well as being managed for maximum biodiversity.
  • Grass areas are cut with biodiversity as a main priority: grass areas are managed by creating a meadowscape, where areas are managed for either Biodiversity, Habitat or Amenity use.

As well as these efforts, a new system is being implemented to manage the estates projects using Building with Nature standards in new developments as well as maintenance projects on old developments. This ensures there is limited or mitigated impact upon existing biodiversity and green infrastructures.

What can people do at home to encourage wildlife in urban areas?

Within the next two years, it’s predicted that 68% of the world’s population will be living in urban areas, so utilising our urban space to help wildlife is essential. There are many ways that we can all do our part to encourage wildlife to exist and thrive in urban areas.

Quick and easy:

  • Scattering native wildflower seeds: this can be done in your garden and/or local areas – native wildflowers thrive in conditions with poor soils / without fertilisers so no need for hours of gardening!
  • Cut your grass less: if you have grass in your garden, resist regularly cutting it or leave out part of it when you do so, to produce a new habitat for insects and other small creatures to use
  • Providing water: leave out a container with water in it for all the thirsty animals, especially in hot, dry weather.
  • Cut out insecticides: It may seem like an obvious fix, but insecticides are made to kill bugs so try not to use them at all, especially on flowering plants! Organic pellets and nematodes can be used instead to reduce damage from slugs and snails, and as for aphids, most of the time, simply washing them off the infected plant can do the job. Learn more.

Slightly more time and effort, but not by much:

  • Plant a variety of flowers: planting a mixture of flowering plants, also known as angiosperms, in your garden will encourage a wider range of wildlife, as different species of plant will entice specific species of animals such as birds, bats and some of the 27,000 or so insects we have in the UK.
  • Think seasonally when planting: It is good to consider the seasons in which the plants flower in when selecting plants for your garden, as well as ones that flower all year round (perennial flowers), as having at least one flowering species per season will not only look good, but also encourage insects to your garden year round. Learn more.
  • Plant trees: not all trees need lots of space even when fully grown, so especially in urban gardens try and find ones that won’t grow so big they need to be removed. Gardens with trees are more likely to see birds, as well as it helping with noise pollution and flooding.
  • No garden, no worries! Try and use any space such as patios, balconies and window ledges to grow a variety of plants. Vertical gardens can be really useful to make the most of minimal space. Learn more.
  • Create an insect hotel: this will provide shelter for bugs to live, hibernate, and lay their eggs in. Bug hotels can be made out of almost any materials you might have lying around, but ideally use natural things e.g., old bark and wood, leaves, stones. Learn more.
  • Feed the birds: having a bird feeder which you regularly top up is the best way of attracting birds into urban areas. Different seeds and grains attract different birds, so have a think about what birds you’re likely to see and buy ones which cater for their needs. It’s important to clean your bird feeder regularly to help prevent the spread of diseases. The RSPB has great advice on doing this effectively.

Writer and researcher: Rose Bull Wood @wildrose_photoss on Instagram

Editor: Izzy Pulletz, Natural History Consortium

Contributors: Avon Wildlife Trust and the University of the West of England