Science, Tech & Environment

A British city welcomes glowworms, hedgehogs and birds that sleep while flying

This is a story about an urban community banding together to create room for a natural community to take root.

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In the heart of Exeter — a city with a population of 120,000 — a nature path runs along the outdoor property of the Devon Wildlife Trust. It’s a local charity organization devoted to protecting natural spaces in the southwest corner of England. This trail is something of a natural outpost in a busy city.

Emily Stallworthy works here as a conservation officer, and Paul Martin as an education officer. 

"The only habitat that’s expanding in the world is the urban habitat," Martin says. "I talk about naturalists being the most endangered species that there is, because people are not growing up curious about their world."

It’s this issue — this missing connection between people in the city and things like hoverflies and wildflowers — that Martin and Stallworthy are trying to fix. Their solution is to create a network of green corridors.

"It’s about connecting that outside countryside right into the heart of the city," Stallworthy said.

But they can’t do it on their own. They need families and businesses in Exeter to do their part in helping out. And that can take some convincing, and teaching.

That's why, each year, the Devon Wildlife Trust nominates a different species to serve as a kind of ambassador. Two years ago, the species was the European hedgehog, an animal that just needs a way in and out of people’s gardens to thrive in a city.

"If you’re leaving your garden completely walled in, they can’t go anywhere. So if you’re leaving a space for it, and you’re leaving the grass slightly longer, you might get a hedgehog in your garden," Martin said.

Last year, the Wildlife Trust chose the common swift as its ambassador.

Stallworthy says it's an incredible bird.

"They don’t land on the ground, they don’t land in trees because they’ve got such short legs that they couldn’t actually push themselves back off. So they live in flight their whole life," she said.

They actually sleep, she said, as they fly. They eat while they fly. They drink while they fly.

"They’ll sometimes even mate while they’re flying," she added.

For the record, they manage to sleep in the air by shutting down only half their brain. As for mating in the air, no one’s quite sure how they do that.

One thing swifts don’t do in the air is nest. They've come to rely on holes in the eaves of houses to lay their little eggs - holes that have been getting fixed up and filled in recently by people that don’t know any better.

Stallworthy’s worked with the city council to require new buildings to have a few special nest bricks that come with holes.

This year’s species is Lampyris noctiluca, or the glowworm.

"One schoolteacher said to me, 'Oh, I thought they only existed in fairytales.' And just raising that awareness that beyond our boundaries, just on the edge of the city, there are these really amazing creatures," Martin said. "That if we did things properly, we might find them moving a little more into the city."

That’s where a handful of community partners have come in. A pension company has added green space and nesting boxes for swifts on its property. A volunteer group helps transform dodgy public parks into spaces friendly to both people and wildlife.

Even the local university has worked with schoolchildren to plant a colorful wildflower meadow on one of its lawns. By raising awareness around one species at a time, that species benefits, as do all the organisms it associates with.

Stallworthy and Martin say it doesn’t take that much to encourage wildlife to live amongst the human residents of a city — a bit of planting here, a bit of fence trimming there. And before you know it, something really unexpected turns up.

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