From scepticism to enthusiasm – biology students are wild about rewilding project at AU

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Just eighteen months after sowing, the ‘Fuld Flor’ strip of wildflowers on Ny Munkegade had become so species-rich that it could be used for teaching in August. Now over 200 biology students are trying to convince the rector to let more spots on campus run wild.

2020.09.15 | Marie Groth Andersen

At first they were sceptical. But then biology students saw for themselves proof of the potential for rewilding on AU’s campus. And now they want more. So they’ve written to the rector. Nicolaj Damgaard, Esben Brandt and Skjold Søndergaard (from left), all of whom are fifth-semester biology students.

Wild campus

Areas, where wild flowers are growing at Aarhus University's campus in Aarhus: 

  • Fuldt Flor near Ny Munkegade
  • An area near the stream behind the Lakeside Theatres
  • An area in Vennelystparken
  • In AU Garden several experiments in favour of biodiversity is carried out

Universities that work on biodiversity on campus on a greater scale: In Denmark Aalborg University is part of the initiative Vild med Vilje. Wild flowers are free to grow at areas the size of 10 football fields.

Cambridge University's iconic King's College Chapel lawn transformed into a meadow . The lawn dates back to 1720. 

To the untrained eye, the ‘Fuld Flor’ (full bloom) mini-meadow on Ny Munkegade might just look like waist-high weeds. In fact, even the flock of biology students who participated in the population ecology summer school course in early August had a hard time understanding why they were being asked to do a week’s fieldwork in this tiny spot on the outskirts of the University Park. 

“We’re used to doing fieldwork in some really fabulous places, like Mols Bjerge for example. So we were kind of like: ‘What?! So we’re just going to stay here in the Unipark?!’, Skjold Søndergaard told me. Skjold is a fifth-semester biology student. 

His fellow students Esben Brandt and Nicolaj Damgaard were also dubious about Fuld Flor: how could there be anything worth studying in this little strip of urban vegetation?

Worth teaching about? 

The summer course in population ecology is part of the biology programme’s ecology module. Students learn about the fundamental concepts in the field of ecology, like the interaction between plants and animals, for example in connection with pollination. And Associate Professor Philip Francis Thomsen, who taught the course this year, wanted to focus on urban nature, which has become a hot topic in recent years: sown wildflower meadows and urban rewilding projects.  

There are a couple such wild areas on AU’s main campus in Aarhus. In addition to Fuld Flor, there’s a wild area in Vennelystparken at the southern end of campus. But before Thomsen let his students loose on campus, he visited both spots a couple of times in the late spring and early summer to make sure there was actually anything worth teaching.  

There most certainly was, he discovered, even though the Fuld Flor meadow had been converted to a wildflower planting just under eighteen months previously.

READ MORE: A walk on the wild side in the University Park

“It’s to be expected that this kind of area will be colonized by different species relatively quickly. You typically see this on meadows and grasslands, but a forest needs several hundred years before it gets really cool from a biodiversity perspective,” explained Thomsen: 

“But it surprised me that the students were able to get such good data out of the class as was the case. That there was such a rich representation of species, and that it gave them a meaningful dataset to work with, not just qualitatively but also quantitatively.”  

Life always finds a way 

The two tiny wildernesses grew on the students quickly. 

“And we could see an interesting angle in relation to the rest of the park, which primarily consists of grass and oak trees, and where there’s not as much species diversity as a result,” Skjold said.

They also gained a clear sense of how quickly rewilding processes can occur: nature takes advantage of the smallest cracks in the cityscape to resprout.  

“On the other side of the lake they’ve put up a fence because some buildings are going to renovated. And that means that the grass hasn’t been mown. We couldn’t resist going behind the fence, and we found some really nice wildflowers that were attracting butterflies. And that fence hasn’t been there for more than two months,” Nicolaj told me.    

“Exactly! Life always finds a way!” Esben added.

Wrote to the rector after the class 

Since their summer of fieldwork in the University Park, the students have become passionate advocates for more nature on campus.  

”For os som biologistuderende er det fedt at kunne gå lige ud i baghaven og finde noget af det, vi ellers skulle køre uden for byen for at finde,” siger Skjold Søndergaard. 

“For us as biology students, it’s cool to be able to just go out in the back yard and find some of the stuff we would normally have to drive outside the city to find,” Skjold explained. 

“Yeah, and we’ve also joked about how absurd it is that there’s just grass all the way around the biology building,” Nicolaj added. 

So after the course, they sat down and wrote a letter to the rector. Their message was clear:  

“Regenerative maintenance is in the interest of the students as well as the university, which has pledged to work for the UN’s sustainable development goals. We hope that you will seriously consider this issue, so that the campus grounds can reflect the efforts to protect and promote nature that AU supports,” they wrote.

They shared the letter in the biology students’ Facebook group, and quickly collected over 260 signatures from their fellow students. 

C. F. Møller’s aesthetic can’t hold a candle to nature’s

The three biology students are aware that the aesthetic of the landscaping in the University Park is far from accidental: it is the work of landscape architect C. Th. Sørensen in collaboration with architect C.F. Møller, who designed the original AU campus. And you don’t need to plow up the entire law in the park, they point out. 

“For us as biology students, there’s no such thing as too wild, but after all, the point isn’t to turn this into Mols Bjerge. I guess I’d say we’re easily excited,” Skjold admitted.

“But I also think that there has to be room for us as students to have the freedom to interact with campus in a different way than the thoughts an old architect had almost a hundred years ago,” he added. 

 “Yes, and not even C.F. Møller’s aesthetic can hold a candle to nature’s,” Esben chimed in.

A harmless proposal

Even though Thomsen didn’t have anything to do with the students’ appeal to the rector, he supports their desire for more wild nature on campus.

“Students have to have a say in what their campus looks like, and what’s more, I agree that wild nature is more inspiring to look at than grass. And this harmonizes nicely with the university’s desire to be more sustainable and the seventeen SDGs, two of which are directly focused on biodiversity, and considering that we - both globally and in Denmark - are in the midst of a biodiversity crisis.”

And like his students, Thomsen isn’t interested in digging the entire park up. 

“There has to be room for sports and games and grass to lounge around on. But there’s a lot of room between the buildings that could easily be used for more mini-meadows that could also be used in biology classes. And if you change your mind, it’s easy to get the grass back, after all. In this sense, it’s also a harmless proposal,” he said.  

The rector’s response

Rector Brian Bech Nielsen has replied to the biology students’ letter:

“I completely agree that biodiversity is an important issue and a very large challenge nationally and globally, and a challenge we need to take seriously and deal with, also at Aarhus University. On this background, I will investigate the issue further, and will ensure that it is considered at a meeting of the senior management team,” the rector wrote in his reply to the biology students, which they published on Facebook. 

“We’re glad that the rector is worried about the quality of the natural environment in Denmark too, and we hope that he will take this further and that he’ll let even more of the park’s lawns be converted to natural plantings,” the three biology students said.

Translated by Lenore Messick

   

Wild campus

Areas, where wild flowers are growing at Aarhus University's campus in Aarhus: 

  • Fuldt Flor near Ny Munkegade
  • An area near the stream behind the Lakeside Theatres
  • An area in Vennelystparken
  • In AU Garden several experiments in favour of biodiversity is carried out

Universities that work on biodiversity on campus on a greater scale: In Denmark Aalborg University is part of the initiative Vild med Vilje. Wild flowers are free to grow at areas the size of 10 football fields.

Cambridge University's iconic King's College Chapel lawn transformed into a meadow . The lawn dates back to 1720. 

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