Our environment over a billion years: travel through time into Leicester’s deep past

Environmental experts at the University of Leicester are inviting the people of Leicester to travel back through time and see the environments of the city and county through the past billion years.

Postgraduate students and researchers from the School of Geology, Geography and the Environment are hosting ‘The Time-Travelling Environmentalist’s Guide to Leicester’, which will allow aspiring time-travellers to experience the city and county in a new light, from exploring past environmental change to imagining the potential sustainable future.

It will take place on 23 March 2023 from 6pm – 8pm at the Bennett Building, University of Leicester, and is free and open to the public. Refreshments will also be available. Places can be booked at bit.ly/tte-event

Experts will discuss how the environment of Leicester has changed over deep geological time. In the deep past, fossils from Bradgate park indicate that the rocks that now make up the foundations of Leicestershire were formed around volcanic islands that would have faced South America! As time unfolded over hundreds of millions of years, the seas have come in and out, to leave behind a record of past desert landscapes and ancient seas that teemed with life. In the more recent past, following the end of the last ice-age some 12,000 years ago, records from a wetland bog next to the Narborough and Littlethorpe Cricket Club reveal that the area the city has since been built on was once a biodiverse broadleaf forest. Many of the woodland patches that still exist in the county today have a long history of change and in particular modification by people. Some of these woodlands such as Cloud Wood in the northwest corner of the county were clear felled for timber during WW2 but have since regenerated. 

A series of short talks will take visitors on a trip through time, from Leicester’s deep past through to the potential future environment of the city. They will also be able to view a series of interactive displays on the scientific work that underpins our understanding of past and present environmental change, and chat with the researchers who conduct this work and learn about upcoming projects. 

The event showcases current Anthropocene and palaeoecology work in the School of Geography, Geology and the Environment, including PhD students studying Leicestershire, and will examine our relationship with water, our impacts on landscape change, and our introduction of non-native species. 

Co-organiser Rachael Holmes, PhD Researcher in Palaeoecology, said: “Topics such as the climate and biodiversity crises will be at the forefront of many people’s minds but most of the solutions to these challenges need to be addressed within local contexts, instead of a one-size fits all approach. Ultimately the long-term success of tackling these issues within counties such as Leicestershire and Rutland, and cities like Leicester, will depend upon sound understanding of their ecology and natural processes so that new policies and initiatives take these into account.”

As a county, Leicestershire has some of the lowest levels of biodiversity in the country and this has developed over hundreds and even thousands of years. In 1913, the botanist A.R. Horwood was surveying Leicestershire and Rutland, and noted: “primeval woodlands have been cut down long ago, and artificial planting has obscured the true relation of the soil to the tree association. And no better illustration…. in this country could be given than the present woods of Leicestershire”.

The Leicestershire & Rutland Biodiversity Action Plan 2016-2026 notes that Sites of Special Scientific Interest cover 2.5% of Leicestershire and Rutland, which is one of the lowest percentages in the country (the national average is 6%). Around 80% of Leicestershire and Rutland land is used for farming and only 4% of land covered in woodland, including less than 1% being important ancient semi-natural woodland.

This deficit of biodiversity places Leicester as an area where significant gains could be made in the future through restoration and creation of semi-natural habitats, green urban planning schemes and more sustainable forms of agriculture. Co-organiser Hannah Sellers, PhD Researcher in Landscape Evolution, said: “We feel it is important for local people to be equipped with this understanding to make informed decisions on the future of the city. As a group we have been compiling old and new data on environmental change in Leicestershire and Rutland for several years and wanted to talk to local people about the current scientific understanding about the place that they call home. This information should be free and accessible to all.”

Professor Mark Williams from the School of Geology, Geography and the Environment said: “Leicestershire is a beautiful county but dig a little beneath the surface and you'll find evidence that long ago much of the city and its surrounding landscape were richly diverse woodland ecosystems. Humans have wholly changed this, and so we want to ask the question, how might we - and all the other plants and animals we share the landscape with - thrive into the future?”