Gatwick River Wildlife Day

I wouldn’t have thought it was possible to have quite so much fun at Gatwick airport. My usual experience of it is queuing, security, expensive shops and unsustainable travel, but over the weekend we got to enjoy some of the land around the fringes to find out what lives there.

The river Mole flows partially under the runway at the airport, and then the part of it to the north was diverted and landscaped back in the 1970s. As such, it is strictly a manufactured landscape, but one which is well looked after and has a nice range of organisms inhabiting it.

picture of the river Mole at Gatwick

The river Mole at Gatwick

A good portion of the green space around the airport is accessible, some of it within the airport boundaries, and other bits just beyond. It is managed and looked after by a network of people and organisations, including the airport itself as well as the local Wildlife Trusts.

Collectively, then, the Gatwick Greenspace Partnership ran a wildlife recording day over the course of 29-30 August, the objective of which was to see what we could find, as well as to serve as an educational day to people like me. With a wide range of experts present, it was a fantastically interesting event, and it was a delight to spend it with such a lovely group of knowledgeable people.

Base camp was set up at TQ260414 and Friday evening was devoted to bat and moth trapping; I’ve never seen either activities in action, so it was useful to see how it all works. Martyn Cooke of the Surrey Bat Group was there with two harp traps, though disappointingly there weren’t that many bats in evidence; Martyn detected several pipistrelles, though didn’t catch any for us to look at.

Harp trap

Martyn Cooke and Rachel Bicker setting up the harp trap

Moths, on the other hand, were out in force. Jake Everitt of the Sussex Moth Group set up two traps, one in the woods and the other in the open space by the river, and we had plenty of things to look at. It was probably the most wonderful part of the event, and I can well understand how people can get very enthusiastic about moths. Apart from ones I’ve found around the house, or the few day-flying species I have identified, I’m very unfamiliar with moths, so it was lovely to see even the common species as they congregated around us.

Moth trap

A hot drink while waiting for moths is much appreciated

Saturday saw the bulk of the action, including more mammal trapping (the field vole (Microtus agrestis) was new for me…), and then going through the moth trap, when it was a bit easier to take pictures:

Hydraecia micacea

Rosy Rustic (Hydraecia micacea)

Cilix glaucata

Chinese Character (Cilix glaucata)

I was also delighted to meet botanist Arthur Hoare, who recorded well over a hundred different vascular plants on the site, showing me some unusual finds, and explaining the differences between species in several groups. I’d not seen Gypsywort (Lycopus europeaus) before, either, and Arthur noted how the juice of it is a good dye and was previously claimed (possibly apocryphally, or slanderously) used to darken skin.[1]

Lycopus europaeus

Gypsywort (Lycopus europaeus)

And then the day just flowed along like the river Mole beside us; we’d tag along with one of the experts, finding and learning new things, and then pick up a different group. David Chelmick pointed out the dragonflies (not as many as he hoped), but unfortunately didn’t find the hoped-for Willow Emerald Damselfly (Lestes viridis), which could potentially be at the site.

Hoverflies were in abundance, and I learnt several new species before having a short walk with Nick Aplin of the Sussex Fungi Group. We were mostly looking at mildews and other small fungi, which is a world I was hitherto largely unaware of. Nick’s amazing fungus-seeking skills recently resulted in him finding a species previously unrecorded in the UK at Gatwick,[2] so it was a treat to be introduced to this group by him.

Phragmidium violaceum

Bramble rust (Phragmidium violaceum)

Erysiphe alphitoides

Oak mildew (Erysiphe alphitoides)

Colpoma quercinum

Colpoma quercinum, a small fungus on oak twigs

Peniophora laeta

Peniophora laeta, a decorticant fungus of hornbeam

Freshwater survey

Tom Simpson starting the freshwater survey of the river Mole

Back at base camp the next activity was a survey of the freshwater species in the river, though by this stage I was flagging a bit, but did get to see Rachel Bicker pulling in one of the traps containing yet another American Signal Crayfish (Pacifastacus leniusculus), one of the invasive species in the river that it would be good to be shot of.

Pacifastacus leniusculus

American Signal Crayfish (Pacifastacus leniusculus)

Surrounded by so many experts, there weren’t many groups of organisms to which I could usefully contribute, though I did finally notch up a (very) small tally of stupidly common mosses, lichens and a couple of invertebrates which added to the list for the day. And, in all, over the course of the day there must have been sixty or more species which I’d never seen before, plus loads of others that were recorded during the day and which I didn’t catch.

Huge thanks to the team who organised the event, and to everyone who came along to make it such a memorable and inspiring day. I look forward to seeing the full tally for the event.

  1. Mabey, Richard. Flora Britannica. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1996. 318.
  2. Bicker, Rachel. “British fungal firsts at Gatwick!” Biodiversity Gatwick, 7 July 2014. Web. 31 August 2014. <>

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