Woodcote Correspondent 2009

January 2009

Is there a Woodcote wallaby? They may have come from the other side of the world, but these kangaroo-like creatures are occasionally seen in the Chilterns. There are a number of reports from the Henley area, and now we have been told of a recent sighting on the edge of Woodcote at the junction with the A4074. We also have a report of at least one by the main road near Ipsden, and a further possible sighting near the old Goring Heath post office. Chiltern wallabies are the result of escapes from private collections, but they have adapted quite successfully to the decidedly un-Australian surroundings they find themselves in here: do let us know if you see one in the area!
A much more numerous escapee in our area is the muntjac. These small deer, scarcely larger than a fox, are natives of southern China, and have been very successful at colonising our countryside. So successful, in fact, that the small numbers that escaped from Woburn in the last century have now grown to over 40,000, and the population is expanding at a rate of some ten percent a year. There are plenty of them around Woodcote – even if you haven’t seen one you may well have heard the loud and eerie sound of their sharp repeated bark coming out of the woods at night. And if you walk in the woods in the spring you will have seen the damage they are doing to our bluebells: they just love munching flowers! You may even have had them in your garden – have you ever wondered why that row of tulips mysteriously changed overnight into a row of stalks?
  But it is not just the muntjac that are on the increase. The populations of our native deer species – fallow, roe, and red – are higher than at any time since the last ice age. It is estimated that there are now between 1.2 and 2 million deer in Britain, and all species are spreading into areas where they were not previously found. The fallow deer is the most visible one locally, especially when caught in car headlights at night. There are certain spots in our local woodlands where you are almost guaranteed a sighting, as, for instance, by the road in the dip between Stoke Row and Highmoor. More recently, a small herd has been grazing the open fields between Woodcote and South Stoke in broad daylight: you may see them silhouetted on the top of White Hill and Watch Folly as you pass Ivol Barn. The smaller and more solitary roe deer (the most numerous deer of all in Britain as a whole) is also increasingly present in our local woods: the Conservation Group saw one in the field alongside Birchen Copse (at the bottom of Green Lane) when we did our evening ‘Woodcock Walk’ last May. Even the largest British land mammal, the red deer (that’s the ‘Monarch of the Glen’ one) is spreading out from such southern strongholds as the New Forest, and may well turn up in our area in the near future.
  These growing numbers of deer are having an impact not just on our countryside and gardens, but also – quite literally – on our roads. At least 60,000 deer die as a result of road traffic accidents each year in England alone, and our part of the country is statistically the most at risk. And it’s not just the deer that get hurt: between 2000 and 2005 there were 20 human fatalities in the UK resulting from deer collisions, with over 700 reported injuries and at least 11,000 damaged vehicles. So watch out for those deer, and pay special attention when driving through the woods. The deer warning signs mean what they say, and are becoming increasingly relevant.

February 2009

Twenty years ago, when the Woodcote Correspondent first started appearing, who would have recognised the red kite now featured on its new masthead? Like other Chiltern villages, we have come to regard the kite as our very own emblematic bird, but it’s easy to forget that its first appearances over Woodcote in recent times only began in the mid-1990s. The red kite was once a familiar sight over much of Britain, but, by the middle of the twentieth century, persecution had reduced its population to a handful of pairs in mid-Wales. We owe its return above all to the re-introduction programme carried out by the RSPB and the Nature Conservancy Council, which involved bringing in young birds from the healthy Spanish population and releasing them in the Chilterns on the Oxon/Bucks border. Although this re-introduction only began in 1989, so successful has it been that we now have over four hundred breeding pairs in our area, which in their turn have provided chicks for further introduction programmes in other parts of the country.
  There may be purists who have reservations about the ‘artificial’ background to the kite’s return, but the same could not be said about the return of its bird-of-prey cousin, the buzzard. It’s not so long ago that buzzards were something you might admire in Wales or the West Country, but very rarely expect to see around here. But now they too are back over the fields and woods around Woodcote – and, unlike the kite, they have made it under their own steam, spreading in recent years to more easterly parts of the country that they had been driven out of in the twentieth century.
And now we have another big bird to look out for: the raven. Ravens too used to be confined largely to upland areas of the west and north, but now they are spreading back to lowland parts of England where they were so familiar in earlier centuries. They reached Oxfordshire only a few years ago, when a pair nested in Blenheim Park, and now there are some half a dozen pairs further north in the Chilterns as well. The first Woodcote sightings were made in 2005, and there have been several more in the past few months.
  So how do you recognise a raven? Well, for a start, with their five-foot wing-span, they are a lot bigger than the much commoner local rooks and crows, but the size can be difficult to judge unless you see the species together – which rarely happens. The silhouette of the raven is a better guide, as it has a long wedge-ended tail rather than the fan-tail of the crows and rooks. But the most distinctive thing of all is its voice, and that is what is most likely to catch your attention: it is an abrupt, very deep, almost explosive ‘prruk’, very different from the creaky ‘caw’ of the other two. And you certainly won’t see ravens in flocks (not yet, at least!): Woodcote reports so far have all been of single birds, or, at most, a pair. Ravens are also famously intelligent and playful, and if you’re lucky you may see one roll over in mid-flight for the sheer fun of it. (There are even reports of ravens repeatedly sledging on their backs down snow-covered hillsides in Wales!)
  So keep your ears and eyes open. These are fascinating birds that have throughout human history been at the centre of all kinds of myths and legends. It will be great to have them back again in Woodcote. If you see one, let us know.

March 2009

Now here’s a thought: ‘If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.’ This striking quotation – from the book ‘A World without Bees’, by Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum – has been doing the rounds lately. Certainly some alarming things are happening to our bee populations: a little-understood syndrome called ‘Colony Collapse Disorder’ has been wreaking havoc in North America, and has now spread to Europe; mites and viruses have wiped out numerous hives; pesticides and agricultural chemicals are a constant threat; and there is now speculation that mobile phone signals may be disorientating bees and preventing them from going about their essential work.
  Clearly bees are much more than simply providers of jars of honey. If you would like to learn more about these extraordinary creatures and their role in our lives, why not come along to our first public meeting of the year on Wednesday 11 March? We have invited Kate Malenczuk, from the South Chilterns Beekeepers’ Association, to talk about her work, and the ecology of bees and the current threats to their health. Kate, who teaches beekeeping at the Berkshire College of Agriculture, will also be happy to take questions from the audience, and the evening will be rounded off with an opportunity for general discussion. The talk will be held in the Woodcote Community Centre, and starts at 7.30 p.m. Admission (including refreshments) is free for Conservation Group members and for under-sixteens; for non-members it is £3 (refundable if you join on the evening). 
  Moving on from the bees to the birds: Did you participate in the RSPB’s ‘Big Garden Birdwatch’ over the weekend of 24/25 January? If you are a member of the WCG you will already know that we would like to hear what birds Woodcote residents recorded in their gardens. There are probably non-members too who compiled bird-lists over that weekend, so if you haven’t done so already, please let us have them: bit by bit the Woodcote Environmental Audit is pulling together information about our local wildlife, and any records you can let us have are always welcome.

April 2009

Our ‘Winter Bird Walk’ took place on 7 February, a beautiful sunny morning with snow still crisp on the ground. Making our way down through Dean Wood, past Dean Farm, and out into the open countryside beyond, we managed to notch up a total of 29 species in the course of two hours. (Click here for the full list .) We will be walking the same route again on Saturday 2 May, this time for a ‘Spring Bird Walk’ to look out for the newly-arrived summer migrants.  If you’d like to join us, meet in the Catholic church car-park at 10.00 a.m.
  In the meantime, this month we are having a ‘Woodcote Worm Walk’. Like the Bird Walks, this is all part of the Woodcote Environmental  Audit: earthworms  may be hidden away most of the time, but they are a crucial part of our ecological system, and there are far more species in our soil than you might imagine. With the help of some earthworm identification kits that we have obtained from the Open-Air Laboratory we will be sampling at various points in the village to see what we come up with. The Worm Walk will take place on Saturday 4 April, meeting in the Village Hall car-park at 2.00 p.m.  We have a number of spare kits, so if you would like to try one out in your own garden, let us know: we will distribute them to anyone interested after the walk, and then after that on a first-come, first-served basis.
  On Sunday 19 April we have the return of an old favourite: the springtime guided tour of Withymead Nature Reserve. This delightful location, situated on the Thames between Goring and South Stoke, is home to over a million Loddon Lilies: also known as ‘Summer Snowflake’, this nationally scarce plant is a local speciality that comes into its own in early spring, carpeting the marshy underwood with its brilliant floral display. The Withymead site has also played a fascinating role in local industrial history, having been a major boatyard at the turn of the twentieth century, when it belonged to S.E. Saunders, who later went on – together with A.V. Roe – to produce the first flying boats at their Cowes works on the Isle of Wight (there are photographs on the reserve website). As there is restricted parking at Withymead, we shall be meeting in Woodcote before we set off so that we can share transport: if you would like to join us, please come along to the Village Hall car-park at 1.30 p.m.

May 2009

Have you seen a sparrow or a starling today? Not so long ago you might well have replied ‘Of course’, but the returns from the RSPB’s ‘Big Garden Bird Watch’ suggest your answer now might well be ‘No’. The number of people taking part and recording the birds seen in their garden over a one-hour period in January has now risen to well over half a million – an impressive increase on the 30,000 who participated in the first such event thirty years ago. Unfortunately, the trends in the populations of many of the birds recorded have not been so positive. The figures for the house sparrow have dropped by 63%, and for the starling by 79%. Although both these still feature in the RSPB’s top ten, the house sparrow is now at number five in terms of the number of gardens where it was sighted, and the starling just scrapes in at number ten;  the once-familiar song thrush is now way down at number twenty.
  But there have also been some remarkable increases – not least for the woodpigeon and the collared dove, whose numbers have gone up by 825% and 414% respectively. (The collared dove didn’t even colonise Britain until the early 1950s, after spreading across Europe from Turkey and the Balkans over the preceding decades.) And then there is the long-tailed tit, the bird everyone is talking about: once an unusual sighting that would have made every birdwatcher’s day out, their charming little roving family parties are now familiar visitors to bird-feeders in gardens up and down the country, and this year the species came fourteenth in the number of gardens visited.
  So how do our Woodcote gardens fit into this picture? In addition to the RSPB’s figures, we now have results for our very own ‘Woodcote Garden Bird Watch’.  (Admittedly, it is based on a sample of just seven gardens, so perhaps we should be more modest and call it our ‘Little Garden Bird Watch’, but thank you to those who took the trouble to send us their records!) You can find the full results on our website, and they do suggest that our Woodcote sparrows and starlings may have suffered even greater population drops than they have nationally. In fact, only two Woodcote households reported seeing either of these species. The sightings of sparrows were at opposite ends of the village: on South Stoke Road, and off Grimmer Way. At least these two gardens reported little flocks of sparrows – a total of twenty individuals between them, but the starling gardens – on Wayside Green and Oxford Road – had just one bird each. And we certainly seem to have far fewer collared doves than the national average: again only two Woodcote gardens reported them.
  So what were Woodcote’s most reported birds?  They were the blackbird, the blue tit, and the chaffinch, seen in all seven gardens, followed by the woodpigeon, the robin, the dunnock, and the great tit, seen in six out of the seven. Now that we are getting into summer, the make-up of our bird populations will change, but it would be interesting to focus on those three that used to be so familiar, but now appear to be on the retreat: the house sparrow, the starling, and the collared dove. All three are easy to spot: they are very vocal, and they live on or close to human habitation.  Please let us know if you see any (especially if you know or suspect that they are nesting on your house or in your garden), or if you have any recollections of changes in the frequency with which they have visited your garden over the years.

June 2009

Our summer programme got under way on Sunday 19 April with our annual visit to the Withymead Nature Reserve between Goring and South Stoke. As usual at that time of year, the Loddon Lilies were looking splendid (estimates suggest there are well over a million of them on the reserve). A lot of work has gone into improving the facilities there since our last visit: the network of boardwalks across the marshy ground has been extended, and some new hides for observing the wildlife have been built. And, as always, there was a warm welcome, with tea and cakes on the terrace at the end of our walk. Withymead is only a ten-minute drive from Woodcote, and makes for an ideal outing for the family: have a look at their website at <www.withymead.co.uk> for details.
  Our Spring Bird Walk took place on Saturday 2 May. We followed the same route as with our earlier Winter Bird Walk, setting off from the Catholic church on South Stoke Road, and walking down through Dean Wood and along the hedgerows into the open countryside beyond Dean Farm. Twenty-six species were recorded, including a number of newly-arrived summer visitors such as swallows, house martins, blackcaps, and chiffchaffs (and we even found a chiffchaff nest). The big – and very pleasant – surprise was the discovery of a number of whitethroats along the hedgerows beyond Dean Farm. These attractive little warblers used to be a familiar presence in our countryside, and their scratchy gabbled song, delivered in flight and from the tops of bushes, was a classic sound of the English summer. But in recent decades their numbers have plummeted. As with the decline in the populations of so many of our birds, no-one quite knows why, but – like other migrants – whitethroats have undoubtedly suffered from the expansion of the Sahara, which they have to cross on their seasonal travels. At least three singing males were noted during our short walk, and as there are plenty of other suitable habitats around the village we’ll be looking out for more over the summer.
  We have another walk lined up for Friday 5 June – our annual Woodcote Woodcock Walk. The main aim is to see (and hear) the male woodcock on his ‘roding’ display flight in the local woods. This is a rather special event as it involves visiting the woods in the twilight of a summer evening – indeed, by the time we return it is quite dark. So, if you’ve never had the memorable experience of walking in the woods at night, now is your chance. If you would like to join us, we will be meeting at the Greenmoor Ponds at 8.30 p.m. The walk is about 2 miles in all: the ground is uneven in places, so please wear stout shoes, and bring a torch and some warm clothes. Let me know in advance if you intend to come, so that I can get back to you if the weather makes it necessary to change the arrangements.

July 2009

Did you see lots of butterflies streaming through your garden a few weeks ago? Britain has just experienced the largest ‘invasion’ of painted lady butterflies in recent decades, with literally millions arriving here in May. The peak passage through Woodcote was towards the end of the month, when, over the course of just a few days, many hundreds were seen passing through local gardens. All were heading north, and didn’t waste any time hanging around. In fact, so determined were they to press on with their journey that it was very difficult to catch sight of one at rest (let alone take a photograph). More have passed through since, and some will spend the summer in our area. There are plenty of pictures and reports on the web, but I would recommend in particular the fascinating website that Butterfly Conservation has set up to track their movements across the country: <www.butterfly-conservation.org/migrantwatch>. You’ll see that Woodcote already features there, and you can add your own records too.
 Our badger-watching visit to the Warburg Nature Reserve took place on the evening of 23 May, and participants were able to enjoy good views of the badgers emerging from their sett. Other highlights of the evening included a look at the reserve’s special orchids, and, on the way back, a glow-worm was gleaming away in the grass by the car-park. The Warburg Reserve is tucked away in beautiful Chiltern countryside at Bix Bottom (between Henley and Nettlebed), and is regarded as the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the more than eighty sites that are managed by the Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust. It has something to offer at all seasons, and visitors are very welcome: you can find full details by clicking on ‘Reserves Map’ at <www.bbowt.org uk>.
 Another recent evening event was our annual ‘Woodcote Woodcock Walk’, which took place on 5 June. The weather over the preceding week had been gloriously hot and sunny, but the day we had chosen turned out to be the point at which the summery spell broke. Nonetheless, a group of hardy souls set off into the woods at dusk, and were duly rewarded with a couple of sightings of the male woodcock patrolling his territory. Woodcock are not exactly rare (there are probably several pairs in the woods around the village), but their secretive habits, camouflaged plumage, and nocturnal lifestyle mean that very few people ever see them: we like to think that, thanks to this annual WCG event, the proportion of Woodcote residents who have enjoyed this privilege must by now be well above the national average!
Regular visitors to the Greenmoor Ponds may have noticed that the area has suffered some cases of vandalism and littering lately. Our local Police Community Support Officers are keeping a close eye on the situation, and have requested that anyone who sees anything suspicious at the ponds should call 999 so that an immediate response can be made.
 We are planning another of our ‘Bird Walks’ later in July: WCG members will be sent details, and these will also be posted on our website. Looking further ahead, you might like to note in your diary that our annual ‘Walking Party’ to the Black Horse in Checkendon will take place on Saturday 8 August, and on Thursday 20 August we have a bat detector evening. Further details will appear in next month’s Correspondent; our complete programme for the year can also be found on our website.

August 2009

The footpaths and bridleways around our village are very popular. When asked about them in the Parish Plan questionnaire, eighty percent of adult respondents said they used them. Two-thirds said they enjoyed simply ‘walking’ on the paths, while nearly a quarter used them regularly for dog-walking. Others used them for running, getting to the shops, and – in at least one case – delivering the Woodcote Correspondent!
 So it’s hardly surprising that regular walkers in Dean Wood were very upset to discover that – without any prior warning – one of their favourite routes had been blocked off by tree-trunks and branches in the first week of June. The path in question, which is marked as ‘WD28’ on the local footpath maps, is the one that is accessed from South Stoke Road (just beyond the Catholic church) and runs westward through the wood to the other side, where a view opens up across the Thames valley towards the downs,  Wallingford, and beyond. Local people have walked this route for decades, and in spring have often taken visitors there to enjoy one of the most magical displays of bluebells in our area.
 So what has happened? According to notices put up by the County Council (who are legally responsible for public rights of way), WD28 was being ‘re-established’ onto its ‘correct alignment’. But there is evidenc e to suggest that the ‘correct alignment’ is a legal fiction: the line added to the Definitive Footpath Map in the sixties did not correctly show the route that had probably been walked for centuries, following instead a line through the wood where no actual path existed.  Currently, then, the footpath is in dispute, and the Parish Council, together with the Ramblers Association, the Chiltern Society, and the Woodcote Conservation Group are trying to resolve the issue.
 In the meantime it may be helpful to clarify a few points about footpath law:

  • What are my rights on public footpaths and bridleways? You have a right to ‘pass and repass’ on foot, and to stop to rest. In addition, on a bridleway you may ride a horse or a bicycle. If you encounter an obstruction, you have a right to remove as much as is necessary to get through.
  • What are the landowner’s responsibilities? Rights of way are part of the Queen’s highway, and landowners have a duty to respect the rights of those using them just as much as they would in the case of a main road running across their land. This thus includes a duty not to obstruct the path by, for instance, putting a fence across it or dumping something on it.
  • Can a landowner close or divert a path? The basic principle is ‘once a path, always a path’. Landowners may apply for closure or diversion, but may not carry it out themselves. This can only be done by local authorities or central government, and then only after due consultation with those affected.
  • Can new public rights of way be created? Yes – in particular if a path has been used by the public for 20 years without interference. It is then a legal presumption that the landowner has ‘dedicated’ the path to public use, and the process of formal creation of a public right of way can begin.
  • What about the ‘right to roam’?  There is no general ‘right to roam’ in the countryside in England and Wales (though in Scotland there is something approaching this). The Countryside and Rights of Way Act of 2000 provided for public access to designated areas of open country, but these are nearly all in the upland parts of Wales and northern England. There are very few in Oxfordshire, and none in Woodcote. However, the Act does leave open the possibility of adding further designated areas to the list.

 Returning to some happily unproblematic footpaths: Our annual August ‘walking party’ from Woodcote to the Black Horse at Checkendon will take place on Saturday the 8th, meeting in the Woodcote Village Hall car-park at 11:30 a.m.  And finally, on the evening of Thursday 20 August, we have a bat identification evening: again, please contact Karen Woolley for further details.

September 2009

The Conservation Group understands that the piece of land adjacent to the Black Lion pub known as ‘the old reservoir site’ has been put up for sale by Thames Water. We also understand that their land agents have received a number of enquiries about this site, including some which have expressed an interest in purchasing the surrounding woodland as well. The extensive hydrological investigations that we carried out in the course of the restoration the lower Greenmoor pond showed that this is the catchment area for the aquifers that feed the ponds. Although Thames Water have not yet made a decision regarding the disposal of this land, the Conservation Group is thus extremely concerned that any building in this sensitive area could have a serious and detrimental effect on the flow of water to the Greenmoor Ponds.
 English Heritage have recently visited the ponds, and expressed their concern too at the possibility of the ponds being compromised in any way. They believe that both ponds are of historical significance, and are accordingly currently undertaking some work to ascertain their true age and usage over the centuries. If a reasonable link between adjacent ancient settlements and the Greenmoor Ponds can be established, then English Heritage will designate the ponds as a Scheduled Ancient Monument. This will of course have implications for any building proposals in the catchment area of the water flow to ponds. If the ponds are eventually designated as a Scheduled Ancient Monument, this will be of enormous importance to our community, and will in turn have some major implications regarding the future management of this site. The Conservation Group hopes to have more information on this matter soon, and will of course keep you posted.
 Our Summer Bird Walk took place on a delightful sunny morning on 18 July. As during the Winter and Spring Bird Walks, we recorded all the species noted along a route that starts by the Catholic church on South Stoke Road, and then proceeds via Dean Wood to the fields beyond Dean Farm, thus incorporating our three main local habitats: the village edge, the beechwoods, and the open fields. The summer is normally a quiet period in the bird-watching year, with the birds much less visible or audible than during the busy breeding, migration, and wintering seasons. So we were pleasantly surprised that our tally of species – 32 in all –was actually higher than that of the two previous walks. (The full lists for all three are on our website.) The highlight was undoubtedly the sudden appearance of a pair of ravens that flew past just a few yards away from us: a close encounter that was clearly every bit as much of a surprise for them as it was for us. (See the February Correspondent for further details on local occurrences of this species.)
 In the July Correspondent we reported on the extraordinary migration of Painted Lady butterflies that passed through the country in the spring. Many of these will have stayed in Britain to breed, and there have been estimates that consequently as many as a billion could be on the wing here in the latter part of the summer. If you have seen any in the village, please let us know.
 On Friday 18 September we have another of our popular moth identification evenings. Details of this will be posted on our website and sent to our members shortly.

October 2009

If you have been up to the Greenmoor Ponds lately, you may have noticed the clearing work that we have been doing in the Upper Pond. This has become necessary in order to prevent the pond being taken over by Crassula helmsii (also known as Australian Stonecrop), an invasive weed that was introduced into this country in 1911 from Tasmania, and has subsequently become a widespread problem in water courses and ponds throughout the UK. If it is allowed to take hold, it quickly chokes out native plant species and dominates the pond, forming a dense mat of material that suffocates everything else. It is well-nigh impossible to get rid of it completely, as, like that other infamous invader Japanese Knotweed, crassula propagates itself from the tiniest broken-off fragment. The Parish Council has taken various measures to deal with it in the Upper Pond over more than twenty years now, but every so often the plant returns with a vengeance – as over the last few months, when the mild and wet summer has provided the conditions it really loves.
 Great mats of the weed were hauled out by members of the WCG in mid-August, but more needs to be done if we are to preserve the open water and attractive appearance of our Upper Pond. We shall continue to remove the crassula by hand during our regular working parties, but we have been given professional advice that spraying with an approved herbicide is also going to be necessary if we really want to get on top of the problem. This work will now go ahead in the autumn so as to have minimal impact on the other flora and the fauna of the pond.
 Our ‘Bat Evening’ on 20 August was particularly interesting this year, as we were introduced to some sophisticated equipment that we have not used before. As those who have participated in these events will know, the basic bat detector is a hand-held device that makes it possible to hear the series of rapid calls that bats emit in order to communicate with one another, to navigate their way around, and to locate the flying insects that they feed on. (The bats build up a snapshot of their surroundings by using their extraordinarily sensitive ears to pick up the echoes of their calls as they bounce back off the objects around them, including their insect prey.) As these calls are of too high a frequency to be heard by human ears, the detector reproduces them at a lower, audible, frequency. It also gives a numerical read-out of the frequency, and, as this varies from species to species, the bat in question can then be identified. The equipment we used this year went several steps further: not only does it provide the sound and the numerical read-out, but it also has a screen that gives a graphic image of the bats’ calls, and it even keeps a record of when and where (by means of a built-in GPS) each species is picked up – this information all being downloadable for later analysis. As it happened, our visit to the Greenmoor Ponds area on the night in question revealed only three species (Pipistrelle, Soprano Pipistrelle, and Long-eared bat), but we had great fun playing with the new technology, which more than made up for the rather meagre score!
 Our forthcoming October activities include a working party on the 10th (when we plan to get rid of some more of that crassula), a fungus foray in the local woods on the 18th, and a coffee morning at the Community Centre on the 24th. We shall also be organising an autumn bird-walk (date to be arranged). As always, further details of these and other events will be sent out to our members, and they can also be found on our website.

November 2009

Are you the proud owner of a traditional orchard?
 Surprisingly, quite a few people in Woodcote can say yes to this.  If you have five fruit trees in your garden, then you have an orchard.  If they’re all together in the same area, have grass underneath and are not chemically treated, then you have a traditional orchard, according to the working definition of the People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES), which is currently carrying out a traditional orchard survey.
 English orchards have declined by more than 60% in the last fifty years. The UK Biodiversity Action Plan now includes traditional orchards in its list of priority habitats. Their mosaic of rough grassland, wild plants, bark, blossom, fruit and decaying wood provides food and shelter to birds, insects, fungi, lichens and even mammals. The noble chafer beetle is just one example of a creature almost entirely restricted to traditional orchards.  This handsome little metallic green beetle is one of England’s rarest, confined to Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Worcestershire, parts of the New Forest – and South Oxfordshire. Maybe we have them here in Woodcote. They especially like dead and decaying wood, so – woodman, spare that tree!
 PTES is recording traditional orchards by means of GoogleEarth and aerial photographs. They are currently looking for volunteers to ‘groundtruth’ their findings (yes – that’s the word they use). They provide a local map, and volunteers travel around their patch to find out whether what looks like an orchard from the air is indeed one. It can all be done from the road, though some volunteers do make themselves known to landowners, and one lady in Cumbria is having a wonderful time drinking tea and eating cake with the wives of local farmers. If you’d like to help, email <anita@ptes.org > or call 020 7498 4533. At a more local level, please let Woodcote Conservation Group know if you think you have a traditional orchard. The information will form part of our current environmental audit.
 Did you know: ‘You could make an apple pie every day for 16 or more years and not use the same variety twice’ . . . ? (The Apple Source Book [published in 1991 by Common Ground])
 Friday 18 September was the night of the National Moth Count, and the WCG’s contribution took the form of another of our Moth Identification Evenings. On previous occasions we have set up our mercury vapour lamp in a garden on South Stoke Road; this time we moved the venue to Behoes Lane, and it was interesting to see that the range of species – though smaller – was different in several cases from what we have found before. As a result the total Woodcote tally is now approaching 40 species.
 We had a lovely surprise at the beginning of October when we received a totally unexpected donation from five-year-old Tiegan Mansfield, who had sold biscuits on her stall at the Woodcote Festival, and decided to give the proceeds to the Conservation Group. So, thank you so much, Tiegan, for thinking of us: we’re putting the money towards our new bat detector. We will make sure you and your family are invited along when we do our next bat walk – and we’re making you an Honorary Member of the Group! 
 Finally, a reminder to our members that the Annual General Meeting is being held in the Community Centre at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday 12 November.

December 2009

Our first column this year started by asking, ‘Is there a Woodcote wallaby?’ For this last column of 2009, the question is a bit more dramatic: ‘Is there a Woodcote panther?’ There have been various isolated reports of large felines in our local woods (as elsewhere in southern England), but, as far as we know, there have been no local sightings in recent years. Until a few weeks ago, that is: on the evening of 14 October a local resident caught sight from her car of a large black cat-like animal at the top of Green Lane.  She was particularly struck by the length of its legs, and by the way it appeared to be looking straight at her. So, the question is, have others seen this animal and not reported it? If you have had any similar encounters, either recently or in earlier years, let us know. (As for those Chiltern wallabies, another local resident sent us an October report of one of those too – though not in Woodcote, but by the road between Stokenchurch and Christmas Common.)
 The Annual Report of the Woodcote Conservation Group shows that we have just had one of our busiest years ever, with a programme of no fewer than eighteen public and membership events (four more than last year). These have included visits to local nature reserves, a bat detector evening, a moth identification evening, and our annual ‘Woodcote Woodcock Walk’, which allows people to experience our local woods on a summer night.  And then, most recently, we had another of our autumn fungus forays. Our regular working parties, at the Greenmoor Ponds and elsewhere, have continued throughout the year, and in August we took a break for the annual ‘walking party’ though the local countryside to the Black Horse at Checkendon. We have also started a series of seasonal ‘bird walks’ along a set route through varied countryside on the northern and western edges of the village. And then, in addition to these outdoor activities, we were given a talk by a local bee-keeper, which opened our eyes to the serious threats currently facing these important insects, and inspired some of the audience to look into the possibility of taking up bee-keeping themselves.
 Behind the scenes we have also been busy with the Woodcote Environmental Audit. This was one of the undertakings we made in the Parish Plan a couple of years ago, and we have already made progress in pulling together records past and present of local species and habitats – as in the bat, fungus, and moth events just mentioned. Some of the areas we have been looking at are obvious enough: bird populations, for instance. But others are less obvious – such as our first venture this year into surveying our local earthworms. And we certainly don’t keep the records to ourselves: 2010 will be the World Year of Biodiversity, and our Woodcote records are part of the global jigsaw as we feed them into the databases of other organisations working at regional, national and international levels. (For something at the county level, have a look at the fascinating website of the Oxfordshire Wildlife and Landscape Study (‘OWLS’) at http://owls.oxfordshire.gov.uk/wps/wcm/connect/OWLS/Home.)
 The audit is an area where people who live in the village – whether they are WCG members or not – can play an important role: it has been very gratifying this past year to be getting a growing number of communications from Woodcote residents on a whole range of topics. Please keep them coming in: the more we get, the more valuable they become. And it’s not just the positive reports that count: we also want to know, very importantly, about things that, in your experience, have disappeared from Woodcote. Did your house once provide accommodation for nesting starlings, house martins, or sparrows, for instance – but they’ve long since disappeared? Or have the frogs and newts stopped breeding in your garden pond? Can you remember when these changes happened? Do tell us!
 The Conservation Group sends it seasonal greetings to everyone in the village. 2010 will be a special year for us, as we shall be celebrating the group’s tenth birthday. We hope that what we’ve been doing has contributed to your enjoyment and appreciation of our village environment, and we look forward to welcoming you to join in more of our activities in the year to come.

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