The original campus of the University of York lies between the south-east edge of the city and the village of Heslington. It is referred to by YOC as “Hes West” (the university itself has a more complex set of names, including Heslington West). The main wildlife feature is the ‘old lake’ which runs west through the middle of the site in an inverted ‘L’ shape from Heslington Hall in the east, before turning south towards Heslington Lane and the university Sports Centre.
A visit to Hes West can be combined with a visit to Hes East to make a good day’s birding.
Whilst the lake is quite large (it is about 1km in length), it is surrounded by buildings for about half its length, with steep (often vertical) banks. The lake itself has a large population of coarse fish (attractive to fish-eating birds) and there are some well-vegetated areas and attractive islands. The southern end is the most natural.
The old campus has free-flying populations of Snow and Barnacle Geese, as well as feral Greylags and Canada Geese. Up to three pairs of Great Crested Grebes breed regularly; Goosanders winter in good numbers; and Grey Herons occur all year round. All three of these species can be very tame and approachable here, and easy to photograph. In winter numerous Alder trees can support Siskins, Lesser and occasionally Mealy Redpolls, but they are all unpredictable. Among the regular flocks of gulls, occasional rarer species turn up, and Common Terns are regular spring passage migrants. Pochards occur in small numbers all year round. The more wooded areas have breeding Blackcaps, Chiffchaffs, Treecreepers and other woodland birds. The university has installed numerous bird- and bat-boxes.
Most of the old campus grounds are tended parkland, but recent university policy has been to allow more natural meadows to develop. Some of these now have colonies of Bee, Pyramidal, and Spotted Orchids. Water Voles are occasionally reported.
Most of the public roads adjacent to the site have no, residents only, or very restricted parking during the week, so if you come by car you are advised to use the pay-and-display university car park on the southern edge of the site. To find it, drive from Heslington Hall towards Fulford, and opposite the university playing fields on your left, turn right immediately after the zebra crossing up Newton Way. The car park is about 200m on the right. It is free at weekends and before 08.00 and after 18.00h during the week. There is a useful map of the site on the pay-and-display machine. Good cycle routes cross the site, which can be accessed from the north on University Road, from the east at Heslington Hall, and from the south along Heslington Lane. The numbers 44 and 66 buses from the station and York city centre stop at Heslington Hall. The whole site is open to the public.
By John Lawton, September 2015