Woodcote Correspondent 2010
Another year, and another twelve months of Conservation Group activities ahead of us. In addition to the old favourites mentioned in last month’s Correspondent, our outline plan for 2010 includes some new ventures. For instance, we have a butterfly talk lined up, followed by a butterfly walk on Streatley Hill. We’re also planning a talk on birds of prey in the Chilterns. And then there is our new toy, the bat-detector, which we shall be using throughout the year once the weather gets warmer, to get some idea of what species we have at various spots around the village. All of our local activities will contribute to the Woodcote Environmental Audit, which we shall be building on month-by-month.
It’s sometimes difficult on early January mornings to realise that the days are at last getting longer again (especially as it happens lop-sidedly at first, with the sun still rising later and later, but lingering longer and longer in the afternoons). But the birds will certainly have noticed. In fact, they are remarkably sensitive to the turn of the year around December 22nd, and will soon start to sing and mark out their breeding territories for the coming spring. So if you’re thinking of putting up any nestboxes, this is the time to do it – potential occupants do prefer a ‘des res’ that they’ve had a chance to familiarise themselves with rather than something that’s appeared at the last minute.
That doesn’t apply, of course, to the summer visitors who aren’t here yet, and this is an area where the Conservation Group is planning a new project this year. It’s not so long ago that the summer skies above Woodcote used to be alive with groups of swifts hurtling around in madcap gangs and filling the air with their screaming calls. Sadly, that is no more the case: these unique birds – which feed, drink, sleep, and mate on the wing, and can remain airborne non-stop for two years or more at the start of their lives – have suffered a huge population drop over much of England. A major reason for the swifts’ decline is the loss of suitable nesting sites – the crevices in buildings that they have always used are increasingly blocked up today in the cause of renovation, insulation, or vermin-proofing. But there is now a programme to try and reverse the swifts’ decline by installing special nest-boxes on suitable buildings. This has met with success at various locations around the country, including other Oxfordshire villages, so we are going to see if we can get it to work in Woodcote. The summer may seem a long way off still, but we need to get started on this project, and you can help us now by letting us know of any former swift nesting sites around the village that you are aware of: they will be priority locations for our nest-box experiment.
Another innovation for 2010 will be a recommendation in this column each month of a local conservation website. We’re starting with the Oxfordshire Nature Conservation Forum, which you will find at www.oncf.org.uk. Based near Wittenham Clumps, this splendid organisation provides an invaluable coordinating umbrella and information exchange for groups like ours. They also have a free weekly email bulletin that you can subscribe to to find out what’s going on around the county.
Thank you to those who let us know that they had a ‘traditional orchard’ in their garden. We’ll be taking this survey further this month: remember, all you need is five fruit trees, and you qualify! Please let us know of your ‘orchard’, if you haven’t done so already.
Finally, two events for your new 2010 diary: on Saturday 16 January we’ll be doing our second ‘Winter Bird Walk’. This will follow the usual route from South Stoke Road down through Dean Wood into the fields beyond, and then back again: it will be interesting to see how the tally of species compares with what we saw on the first such walk a year ago. If you want to join us, we shall be starting from the Catholic church car-park at 10.00 a.m. And then, on the weekend of 30-31 January, it’s the annual RSPB ‘Big Garden Birdwatch’ again. Last year we asked for local residents to copy their returns to us for Woodcote’s very own ‘Little Garden Birdwatch’: we’d love to hear from even more of you this year. For details of what to do, visit the RSPB website at www.rspb.org.uk/birdwatch/getready, and then, once you have made your list for the RSPB, let us know what you saw.
The recent wintry weather has presented a real challenge to our local birds. Many of them will have succumbed to the cold, and their populations for the coming breeding season could be seriously depleted. Yet you may at the moment have the impression that the numbers of familiar species visiting your garden have actually increased. In fact, several of the individuals out there may not be ‘our local birds’ at all, but visitors from central and northern Europe, where the winters are traditionally even more severe than what we’ve been having here.
But how could you tell whether that blackbird in your garden was hatched in a remote Swedish forest rather than in a hedge by Reading Road? Well, according to some ornithologists, the real give-away is their demeanour: winter visitors from the wilder parts of Europe simply lack ‘garden etiquette’. In other words, unlike our home-bred birds, they don’t know how to behave around human beings and habitations. They don’t know about bird-feeders, and tend either to skulk warily under the hedge when they see you, or to do quite the opposite and ignore you completely. Either way – over-timid or over-tame – they won’t be behaving ‘normally’. We’ve recently had a female blackbird in our garden, for instance, who allows you to walk right up to her, but at the same time remains totally oblivious to any titbits that are offered: she simply carries on flicking up the leaves around your feet, looking for insects and worms. Have you noticed any birds behaving in similar odd ways in your garden this winter? Maybe they have indeed come from some distant corner of northern Europe where they haven’t encountered humans, let alone picked up on ‘garden etiquette’. (Here’s a picture of our tame blackbird in the snow.)
There can be no question about the origin of some other birds that turn up in Woodcote at this time of year, though: flocks of fieldfares and redwings, for instance. Relatives of the blackbird, these northern thrushes arrive in Britain every winter, their numbers increasing with the severity of the weather. Fieldfares are the larger and bolder of the two, and their ‘chacker-chack-chack’ flight call is very distinctive, as is their habit of all facing the same way when they land in trees. Redwings are flocking birds too, but their call is much less assertive: just a thin, high-pitched ‘seee’. Once you have become aware of it, you can be amazed how widespread this sound is in the winter landscape. In fact, you are as likely as not to hear it at night: a reedy little voice coming out of the sky, whether in the countryside or in the centres of towns and cities, as unseen bands of roaming redwings pass overhead in the dark.
The Conservation Group’s December working party took place a couple of weeks before Christmas. This time, we were busy with our stand of hazels in the corner of the village allotments. These have come on very nicely over the past three years, and are now approaching the stage where we can start to coppice them. For the moment we have thinned out the stems, leaving the more sturdy ones to provide bean poles for the other allotment holders – a harvest which we hope to begin in a year’s time. For the moment, our labours have produced a large quantity of pea sticks: if you are an allotment holder, do help yourself to these if you think you can make use of them. They are currently piled up behind our plot, and we will be clearing them away in a couple of months.
This number of the Correspondent should reach you just before the end of the month, so if you read this in time, don’t forget the RSPB’s ‘Big Garden Birdwatch’ on the weekend of 30-31 January. All you have to do is to note the species of birds you see in your garden over any one-hour period during those two days (details and assistance on the RSPB website: www.rspb.og.uk) – and please don’t forget to send your list to us too for the Woodcote ‘Little Garden Birdwatch’.
This month’s local website recommendation is www.walkinginoxfordshire.co.uk – which offers just what it says on the box: details of dozens of walks, long and short, all around the county, as well as local walking groups, books, and links to further walking-related sites.
And finally: we’ve had the Woodcote wallaby and the Woodcote panther, but did you see the Woodcote penguin? He turned up in Behoes Lane during the snowy weather: here’s a picture of him, standing between our committee members Helen and Phil, who took him under their wings.
The Woodcote Penguin
The Red Kite is now such a familiar sight (and sound) over Woodcote that it is easy to forget that it only began to be seen over the village little more than a dozen years ago. The local population has become too big to count accurately, but it is estimated that by last year there were between four and five hundred breeding pairs in the Chilterns. The first young Kites to be re-introduced here were brought from Spain in the early nineties, and the success of the scheme has meant that since then it has been possible to use home-bred chicks from Chilterns nests for further re-introduction programmes in other parts of the UK. Indeed, since 1997 some three hundred young Chiltern Kites have been ‘re-located’ to establish flourishing new populations in areas as far afield as Yorkshire, Aberdeen, and Gateshead (where they have been adopted so enthusiastically that two of the local bus lines have been named ‘The Red Kite’). Already the separate populations are beginning to link up, and it may not be long before the Red Kite becomes a familiar sight across the whole country.
If you would like to find out more about our local Red Kites, why not come along to our illustrated public talk in the Pavilion at the Village Hall on Tuesday 23 March? Entitled ‘The Red Kite: Soaring to Success’, the talk starts at 7.30 p.m., and will be given by Jill Carey on behalf of the Chilterns Conservation Board, the principal coordinators of the local Red Kite re-introduction programme. All are welcome, and there will be plenty of opportunities for questions and discussion. Admission, including refreshments, is £3 (free to WCG members and under-16s).
Continuing on the bird theme: thank you to everyone who sent in their species list for their ‘Garden Birdwatch’. An analysis of the results will be appearing shortly on our website, but initial impressions confirm the decline of once-common species such as House Sparrows and Starlings – the former are clearly very local in the village, and only two gardens reported Starlings (a total of just three individual birds for this once extremely numerous species). On the positive side, it was good to see several reports of little flocks of Long-tailed Tits, as there had been fears that the bitter snowy weather would have devastated the population of this vulnerable tiny bird, which weighs scarcely a quarter of an ounce. No doubt, this good news is a result of the thoughtfulness of all those who put out food for the birds in those wintry weeks. (The roaming parties of Long-tailed Tits are known to consist typically of family groups made up of parents and offspring accompanied by the father’s ‘bachelor’ brother, who often helps rear the young!) It is also interesting to see that a number of gardens are reporting Bullfinches – not a particularly rare bird, but one that turns up only very sporadically (and then usually in pairs) in most locations. If you haven’t let us have your list yet, it is not too late to do so.
This month’s website recommendation has to be about Red Kites. There are in fact plenty of sites devoted to this bird, but a particularly good one with a strong local angle is www.redkites.net. It is hosted by Helen Olive, who has been responsible for looking after Kite chicks for the re-introduction programmes, and it contains lots of regularly updated information about the history and present status of the Chiltern Kites, including some splendid photographs, details of their legal status, and links to other relevant sites.
During the snowy weather, lots of people were out and about round the village with their cameras. If you were one of them, why not let us have some of your pictures for the website gallery? We are planning a new set of pictures of ‘Woodcote through the Seasons’, and have already started with the winter ones. We’ll be expanding the gallery over the coming months, and are always happy to receive pictures for inclusion. Categories thus far include ‘Old Woodcote’ and ‘The Village on the Hill’, and more will be added shortly. Also on the website, you’ll find details of our programme for 2010, which is now more or less finalised: events and activities cover butterflies, birds, bats, moths and fungi, and much more.
We have now completed the first stage of our local orchard survey, which has involved checking out locations where orchards are thought to have existed previously, as well as locations reported to us in response to the request made in this column last November. Thank you to those who let us know that they have a ‘traditional orchard’ in their garden (just five trees qualify for that status): as a result, we have been able to add some promising new sites to the map. On the negative side, we also found that lots of orchards have disappeared, either through neglect, or because they have been grubbed up or built over. Street-names and house-names are often a give-away when looking for orchards: the most familiar example in Woodcote itself must be Folly Orchard Road, still lined with a few remnants of the many apple trees that once existed in the grounds of the Folly before the land was given over to housing developments.
This corner of the Chilterns was once a major producer of tree-fruit, but only one commercial orchard remains now – at Cross Lanes, on the Goring Heath road to Reading. However, the really iconic local fruit tree was undoubtedly the cherry. We still have plenty of wild cherries, of course (or ‘geans’ as they are also known – the word is pronounced like ‘jeans’). April is the cherry-blossom month in the Chilterns: they positively flourish in our local hedgerows and woods, and this is the time of year when they explode into the scene with their mountains of blossom. But for earlier generations the cherry was not just a pretty sight: it’s not for nothing that there is a pub in Stoke Row called ‘The Cherry Tree’ (and there is still a cherry orchard by the Maharajah’s Well there), or that there was a ‘Cherry Common’ at Goring Heath. Some eighty years ago the local historian J.H. Baker referred repeatedly to the role that cherry orchards played in the lives of local people. At one point he talks of ‘“Cherry Feast” days’, which saw ‘parties of merry cherry-pickers from Reading and district’ gathering in the countryside. We may have lost the cherry-picking habit, but the wild trees are still there today, reminding us how congenial they find the local soil and climate. And the same goes for the wild apples that are dotted around our area. They are not as numerous as the cherries, but they too clearly like the local conditions. There is, for instance, a huge ancient crab-apple tree by the bottom footpath beyond Dean Farm, and another can be found in the hedge on South Stoke Road by Upper Cadleys.
J.H. Baker’s delightful books (which you can find in the Village Library) contain descriptions of what now feels like a lost world. He was for many years headmaster at the then Goring Heath Primary School (by the Alnutt’s Almshouses), and spent much time exploring the local countryside and talking with local people. One of his books is called The Story of the Chiltern Heathlands – the title alone is a reminder of just how much our local landscape has changed, given that there is so little heathland left now in our area. He identifies, for instance, more or less continuous ‘heathland’ running all the way up from Whitchurch Hill to Greenmoor. The term as he uses it undoubtedly refers as much to open common-land as to heather-clad ‘heaths’ in the narrower sense, and there is plenty of evidence of what was once there in the names on modern maps. Between Checkendon and Nuffield, for instance, there are several ‘commons’ marked which are now woods, and by the junction for Homer Farm there is a wood called ‘Ipsden Heath’ (which is open to public access under the ‘right to roam’ legislation).
The largest patches of remaining ‘heathland’ (and public-access land) around here are in the Peppard-Nettlebed area, and that provides the cue for this month’s website recommendation: www.nettlebed-commons.org, the website of the Nettlebed Commons Project. This provides masses of information about the history and status of the local heaths and commons, and the work that is currently being done to reinstate them around Nettlebed and Peppard.
Our next Conservation Group event is the Spring Bird Walk, which is being held on Saturday 1st May. When we did this walk last May we came up with 26 species, including such summer visitors as swallows, house martins, and chiffchaffs. It will be interesting to see if we can match that tally this year. All are welcome, birders and non-birders alike: we shall be setting off for the two-mile walk from the Catholic church car-park on South Stoke Road at 10.00 a.m. (You can find out more about our Bird Walks in the ‘Articles and Reports’ section of our website.)
There has been a lot of concern about the effect that the cold winter may have had on our bird populations. But what about the creatures that live in our ponds? As we know from the 2008 Woodcote Parish Plan, about one in five gardens in the village has a pond (the national average is estimated to be only one in seven). And since the Plan also discovered that 98 percent of households in Woodcote have a garden, that means there must have been a lot of anxious pond-owners in the village wondering what was going on beneath the ice and snow. Well, we do now have some answers, thanks to the ‘Big Pond Thaw Survey’ conducted by Pond Conservation.
For many people, the most obvious – and distressing – sign that something was amiss was the presence of dead frogs floating in their ponds after the ice had thawed. A number of respondents also reported that their fish had died. It was, of course, not the cold itself that had killed them but the lack of oxygen in the water, and possibly also the build-up of toxic gases, as the ponds remained sealed beneath the ice. So would it have helped to make a hole in the ice? Many people will have tried this, but the results of the survey suggest that this doesn’t help much: in ponds where the ice had been holed, the number of amphibian deaths was no different from in those where it hadn’t. Surprising maybe, but, according to Pond Conservation, surface oxygen diffuses into still water at the rate of only 2 millimetres a day, which means it takes over 6 months for it to reach the bottom of a 50 cm deep pond. Another surprising outcome of the survey is the advice about the ideal shape for garden ponds. Received wisdom has long been ‘the deeper the better’, but Pond Conservation questions this, pointing out that ponds with a depth of less than about 30 cm will have a higher ratio of surface area to volume, and hence more oxygen in the water.
It would be interesting to hear from some of the many Woodcote pond-owners what their experiences were during the cold spell. And also what the spring has brought to your pond: some people have said they haven’t had any frog-spawn this year, for instance. For what it’s worth, our garden pond suddenly filled with frogs on 19 March – two days after we heard an early Chiffchaff singing, invariably the first summer visitor to announce the end of winter. The frogs duly produced masses of spawn, and the tadpoles hatched – somewhat belatedly – over the Easter weekend. (There’s a photograph of two of our frogs below – apparently kissing, would you believe it! Or is one of them really a princess?)
You can find all kinds of information about ponds (including the full results of the ‘Big Pond Thaw Survey’) on this month’s recommended website: www.pondconservation.org.uk. And if you don’t already have a pond in your garden, why not have a go at installing one? Countryside and farmland ponds have disappeared at an alarming rate, and garden ponds have been invaluable in making up for some of the loss. Garden ponds, whatever their shape or size, very quickly become amazingly rich habitats, and Pond Conservation’s website will tell you what to do; the Woodcote Conservation Group too will be very happy to offer advice.
You may have seen the splendid picture in the March Correspondent of Tim Corbishley’s great-grandparents outside Three Bears Cottage. Tim has now kindly made the rest of his family album available to the Conservation Group for the ‘Old Woodcote’ section of our website gallery. They include more old pictures of Three Bears Cottage, old school photographs from Woodcote and Goring Heath, and such delights as the Goring Heath Ladies’ Cricket Team of 1907. There is also a picture – from about 1910, we think – of a ladies’ cricket team (together with their ‘HaBs’, if that is the male equivalent of ‘WaGs’) outside a very distinctive cottage which we have so far failed to identify: please let us know if you recognise it! And if you yourself have any pictures of ‘Old Woodcote’ that you think might be of interest to a wider public, do please get in touch: we are very keen to build up this section of the website as a publicly-available record of the village’s past. Your valuable photographs will, of course, come to no harm: they would simply be scanned and then immediately returned to you (with a complimentary CD copy of the scanned results, if you like).
Our Red Kite evening on 23rd March was one of the most successful events we have ever organised, with nearly 50 people turning up to hear the talk, join in the questions and discussion, and to meet Rusty, the Chilterns’ very own life-sized Red Kite doll. Full details of our forthcoming May events can be found on our website: they include the Spring Bird Walk on the 1st, a Bat Evening on the 7th, and a Moth Evening on the 15th.
Woodcote Frogs caught kissing + a jealous bystander
Have you noticed the footpath signs in the village indicating the ‘Chiltern Way Extension’? Originally conceived as a 133-mile circular walking route through the Chilterns from Bedfordshire down as far as Ewelme, the Chiltern Way is one of those Millennium projects that are celebrating their tenth anniversary this year. The route was subsequently extended at each end into its present 172-mile length, and the southern ‘Chiltern Way Extension’, which passes through Woodcote, now takes walkers right down to the end of the Chilterns at Goring and Mapledurham.
The Chiltern Society, who created the route, are marking its tenth birthday with a ‘Chiltern Way Walking Festival’ this summer. This involves two categories of guided walks: one is a succession of fourteen linear walks on Sundays between May and September, which will enable participants to complete the whole route in fourteen stages (and get a well-deserved certificate at the end!). The other set consists of round walks that all parishes along the route have been invited to organise, and this is where Woodcote’s contribution comes in. On Saturday 5th June, the Conservation Group is leading a five-mile circular walk that includes three miles of our stretch of the Chiltern Way Extension. We shall be meeting in the Village Hall car park at 9.30 a.m. for a 9.45 start, and walking down to Dean Farm and then up round the edge of Dean Wood; we will cross South Stoke Road to pass through High Wood and then down Beech Lane to circle Wroxhills Wood, and finally return to the village via Beech Lane again in time for an optional pub lunch. Whether you know the route or not, this is an opportunity to experience some of our most beautiful local countryside in congenial company. All – including accompanied children – are welcome on this walk: please make sure you are wearing stout footwear and clothing suitable for the weather, and bring some water to drink. (The Festival includes plenty of other guided walks in neighbouring parishes: full details can be found on the Chiltern Society’s website at www.chilternsociety.org.uk.)
A regular summer-evening item on our programme in recent years has been the annual ‘Woodcote Woodcock Walk’. This year for a change we are venturing into Berkshire in search of another nocturnal bird, the Nightjar. This is a bird that was once found in our area, and hopefully it may return one day as some of the local habitats are restored. But for the moment the nearest populations are on Bucklebury Common, and that is where we will be heading for a guided visit on the evening of Friday June 25th. Like so many birds of the night and the twilight hours, the Nightjar has long been regarded as a creature of some mystery, and has attracted various myths and legends. Its common English name refers to its strange ‘churring’ song, which was once a familiar sound on summer nights. But its scientific name is ‘caprimulgus’, or ‘goatsucker’ – a term that was until recently widely used, and still survives in North America (where the ‘Whip-Poor-Will’ of musical fame is one of a number of American ‘Goatsucker’ species). Of course, the Nightjar, which is an insect-eating bird, doesn’t suckle goats at all, but this habit was attributed to it by country-folk and shepherds who would see the birds associating with their flocks in the dusk. If you would like to join our Nightjar evening, come along to the Village Hall car-park at 7.30 p.m. on the 25th: we will arrange car-sharing there, and then set off for Bucklebury. The event will be led by Tim Culley, who oversees the restoration of the Bucklebury commons, and to start the evening off he will be showing us some of the work that is being done there.
Our Spring Bird Walk took place in very pleasant weather on May 1st. Thirteen people came along, and we identified 29 species (for the full list, see the WCG website). Highlights included Lapwings on the fields beyond Dean Farm, and an amazing view of a Roe Deer just a few yards away from us in Dean Wood. Now that our seasonal Bird Walks are into their second year, we are getting a clearer picture of just what birdlife we have in our local countryside. The RSPB’s ‘Big Garden Birdwatch’ has also contributed to the overall picture, but it is, of course, just a snapshot of the winter bird population. For a much bigger picture of our birdlife throughout the year, have a look at this month’s website recommendation: www.bto.org/gbw. This is the site of the British Trust for Ornithology’s ‘GardenBirdwatch’ – a massive project that has been compiling weekly records from around the country for some fifteen years. You can check species lists there at any level – from the national down to county or even by postcode – and unlike the RSPB one, they cover every day of the year.
Finally, a plea for observance of what it says on the noticeboard at the Greenmoor Ponds: please do not remove anything – whether it be plants or creatures – from the ponds, or put anything in them. We were looking forward to seeing lots of tadpoles in the ponds this year, but then someone walked off with nearly all the spawn. Please respect this area as our village nature reserve: it is there for the enjoyment of all – and that includes the amphibians who have chosen to live there.
(The following text appeared on the front cover of the July Correspondent under the heading ‘The Woodcote Environmental Audit’)
2010 is the ‘International Year of Biodiversity’. In other words, this is a year when we’re being asked to think about why it is that so many plants and animals are disappearing, and what we can do about it. On the surface, this may not seem like something that we need to be getting too worried about in South Oxfordshire. At this time of year especially, our local ‘biodiversity’ can look pretty healthy: after all, the hedgerows and woods seem to be full of birds and their young, and gardeners might well lament that their vegetable plots have become a bit too ‘biodiverse’ as they survey the latest crop of weeds.
But are you old enough to remember Woodcote summers just twenty years ago? Evenings then were full of the sound of screaming Swifts as they hurtled harum-scarum across the playing fields; there were rows of House Martin nests under the eaves of houses on Wayside Green, and nearly every garden seemed to have its resident Song Thrush. On sunny days there were flocks of butterflies dancing round the shrubbery, and in the twilight you could pick out ten times more bats than you’ll spot today.
So what has happened and why? One of the aims of the ‘Year of Biodiversity’ is to try and find out, and that’s where the ‘Woodcote Environmental Audit’ comes in – our own little contribution to the big global jigsaw. Remember the Parish Plan questionnaires? Over ninety-eight percent of us said ‘Yes’ when asked if we wanted to protect the countryside around the village and the natural features within it. Inspired by such a positive response, the Woodcote Conservation Group set up the Audit to try and find out just what we have in the way of plants and creatures in our area. We already have lots of records: of birds, plants, fungi, bats, moths, amphibians (even of worms!), and we have done some very detailed surveys of everything that lives in and around the Greenmoor Ponds. But now we want to pull it all together, and are appealing for help from the 1,311 village residents who said our natural environment was important to them (or from any others, including the 12 who said it wasn’t . . .).
Would you be willing to join a steering group to help finalise the Audit? No specialist knowledge is needed, and any commitment would be time-limited, as we want get this wrapped up within a year, dividing the activities into four distinct seasons. If you think you might be able to help in any way, or are just curious to know more, please contact us.
(The following is the text of the WCG July column inside the Correspondent.)
Woodcote certainly isn’t alone among local villages in working on an ‘Environmental Audit’. Apart from the simple curiosity value of these records, there are now legal requirements for local authorities (including parish councils) to consider wildlife in every decision they take – or, as the 2006 Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act puts it, to ‘have regard to the purpose of conserving biodiversity’. Yes – that word again: at its simplest, ‘biodiversity’ means ‘the variety of life on earth’, and as far as our local patch is concerned, that variety is being measured little by little in all these parish surveys.
The information obtained doesn’t end up in some dusty filing-cabinet or on someone’s last-but-one computer: it gets fed through to the numerous organisations at local, regional, national, and eventually international level that are working to do something about the threats to ‘biodiversity’. And that’s the cue for this month’s website recommendation: www.tverc.org is the address for the Thames Valley Environmental Record Centre. Based in Woodstock, this is the first port of call for our local records. TVERC’s aim is ‘to help people make sound decisions about our natural environment in Oxfordshire and Berkshire’, the ‘people’ in question including local authorities, landowners, and developers. (TVERC has, incidentally, already classified no fewer than seventeen locations in Woodcote and adjacent areas as ‘Local Wildlife Sites’, a status that local authorities may take into consideration when planning applications are assessed.)
As for the WCG’s Audit-related activities in May: our fifth ‘Moth Evening’ duly took place on the 15th (the date of the ‘National Moth Night’), and eleven species were recorded. This was fewer than on previous occasions (the weather was cold and not exactly moth-friendly), but seven of the eleven were new for our list, bringing our overall Woodcote total to 64 species. The total number of species recorded at our ‘Bat Evening’ at the Greenmoor Ponds on 7 May was very small indeed: just one, to be precise (a Pipistrelle). But although the cold damp weather clearly put the bats off (not least because their insect prey was in short supply), it was good to see such a splendid turn-out, and in particular so many children enjoying the fun of being out in the dark and operating the bat detectors.
Our next event is the ‘Summer Bird Walk’ on Saturday 3 July. As usual, all are welcome: we shall be setting off for the two-mile walk from the Catholic church car-park on South Stoke Road at 10.00 a.m.
Last month’s column was something of an elegy for the disappearance of so many species from our natural environment. But it’s not all doom and gloom, and here are some more cheering reports of what has been seen in our area over the past weeks. Let’s start with the Starlings. We may not be seeing the magnificent aerial displays of the huge flocks we once had, but, over a number of days at the end of May, more Starlings were suddenly to be seen in Woodcote than for many a year. That was the brief rainy interlude between the May heat-wave and the June one, and the Starlings loved it. Small noisy flocks appeared on people’s lawns, bustling around and poking their beaks into the soil – feeding no doubt on crane-fly larvae (those subterranean ‘leather-jackets’ that damage plants by nibbling at their roots). The really encouraging thing was the sight of so many young birds among them: juveniles in their brown plumage pestering the iridescent adults to feed them (even though they were quite clearly capable of feeding themselves).
And then there are the Yellowhammers: their numbers too have plummeted in recent decades, but suddenly people are reporting seeing and hearing them again. They are pleasingly easy to spot, as the males sing from prominent locations by the roadside, on telegraph wires and isolated trees in the hedgerows. Their song is often rendered as ‘A little piece of bread and no cheese’, and the long drawn-out wheeze on the final ‘word’ is very distinctive. The open countryside that we have to the west of the village is perfect for them, and they really do seem to have returned there this summer. (A good spot to look out for them has been down South Stoke Road on the telegraph wires near Broad Street Farm.)
The other bird that has been seen and heard a little more this summer is the Swift. As with the Starlings, the large and noisy gatherings of earlier years are very much a thing of the past, but it has been possible on most days to see and hear at least a few Swifts above the village. They are still quite plentiful in Reading and in smaller local towns like Wallingford and Henley, but as far as we know, the only remaining nests in Woodcote are on the Community Centre. Swifts are very conservative in their choice of nesting sites, and rarely return once they have abandoned a building – which can easily happen when human beings have carried out ‘improvements’ to the eaves. Let’s hope our Community Centre – a fine example of traditional red Woodcote brickwork – retains its Swift-friendly architecture for future generations as it has almost certainly done for well over a century now.
The warm weather has also been a bonus for moth-watchers: in the first place, the moths themselves like it, and secondly, because people have been leaving their windows open in the evenings, they have been receiving some unexpected visitors attracted by the lights in the house. When that happens, it can come as a surprise just how exotic some of our local moths actually are. One example is the Privet Hawk Moth, which is not uncommon, but most impressive in its size and coloration. The picture below was taken on 22 June on Behoes Lane – in broad daylight, as it happens – and shows how even the most brilliant of our moths can at the same time be perfectly camouflaged.
Photo: Eric Grimes
For this month’s website recommendation we are venturing across the county boundary: www.greenlink-berkshire.org.uk provides access to a whole range of Berkshire environmental groups. Among them you will find the Bucklebury Heathlands Conservation Group, who hosted our ‘Nightjar Evening’ on 25 June. This was a great success, as not only did we see and hear Nightjars, but also Woodcock, Woodlark, and Tree Pipits, and we were also given a fascinating insight into the heathland restoration work that is being carried out at Bucklebury. (And as for the Tree Pipits: like the Yellowhammer, these birds sing most obligingly from prominent isolated tree-tops. They used to nest some thirty years ago in what is now the larch plantation in Dean Wood. Back then this was a large clearing with scattered trees– perfect Tree Pipit territory. The last record we have from there is of a singing male at 12:15 p.m. on 3 May 1978!)
We have some intriguing place names around here. One of the oddest has to be ‘Drunken Bottom’, which you’ll find on the Ordnance Survey map just to the west of the lane that runs from Ipsden to Crowmarsh (the lane that you’ve probably used to get to the King William or to take your rubbish to Oakley Wood). ‘Bottom’ is easy enough: it’s simply a local term for ‘valley’, and in hilly countryside like ours there are plenty of ‘Bottoms’ on the map – including various ‘Bottom Farms’ and ‘Bottom Woods’. But how can a valley be ‘drunken’? Nowadays the word is used almost exclusively in the sense of ‘inebriated’, but earlier usage covered other meanings. The Oxford English Dictionary gives one of these as ‘soaked or saturated with moisture’, illustrating it with a 1697 quotation from Dryden, who used the phrase ‘the drunken field’. So our ‘Drunken Bottom’ was almost certainly once a very wet patch of land, and indeed the modern map still marks a spring a few hundred yards to the south. Intriguingly, the map also shows a watercourse which it labels as ‘Trunk Ditch’, which starts near this spring but then mysteriously stops when it reaches the A4074, at the lowest point of the road just beyond the Ipsden turning.
Our local ‘bottoms’ were certainly once a lot more ‘drunken’: as a result of water extraction, the Chiltern valleys are nearly all dry now, but there are plenty of records showing that many of them formerly contained streams, which, in our part of the world, flowed into the Thames. The ‘Trunk Ditch’ is no exception. In an unpublished manuscript of 1871 (held by St John’s College, Cambridge), Edward Anderton Reade of Ipsden House referred to this watercourse as ‘the Drincan’, adding ‘the Drincan is now called, Drinking, Drunken, and Trunk ditch in different parts of its course’. He even surmises that it was ‘formerly a stream of sufficient volume to serve a mill at Little Stoke’. There was indeed formerly a mill at Little Stoke – as Reade points out, it is mentioned in the Domesday Book and in fifteenth-century deeds – but as there was a weir there, it seems more likely that its wheel was driven by the power of the Thames than by the little Drincan.
Nonetheless, the Drincan certainly entered the Thames somewhere near this mill, so why does it now stop at the A4074? Well, the answer is that it doesn’t. Like a number of local streams, it has gone underground.
Course of the Trunk Ditch
This remarkable aerial photograph was taken in early July this year, and, as a result of the exceptionally dry weather we have had this summer, the meandering watercourse has produced clear traces on the otherwise parched vegetation as it seeps its way towards the Thames beneath the flat fields. (The road across the top is the A4074, and in the top-right you can see the barns at Ipsden; the farm-track running down to the bottom-left is the one that comes out on the B4009 Goring-Crowmarsh road just before North Stoke. The route of the gas pipeline is also visible crossing this track at a right-angle.)
But you don’t have to wait for a drought and to go up in an aeroplane to see evidence of these ‘lost’ streams. An extremely wet period can produce an even more dramatic effect. This happened locally in the winter of 2000-2001, when villagers in the Assendons suddenly found that they were neighbours of the long-forgotten ‘Assendon Brook’, which had for decades flowed unnoticed beneath the Stonor valley. A similar thing happened in Berkshire, where the Pang flowed for weeks down the high street in Compton, reminding locals that its source was actually above their village, rather than below it – as many had come to think. That same winter the Drincan also reappeared: you may remember the large lake that formed each side of the main road just beyond the Ipsden turning. This sudden reappearance was nothing new. Reade said that the Drincan ‘resumes its activity once in about 10 or so years’, and in 1959, in his book The Ipsden Country, J.H. Baker wrote: ‘This spring, after a lapse of 21 years, the Trunk Ditch runs again’, adding ‘According to tradition, this tiny stream . . . usually flows every seven years.’
Do you have any recollections or family accounts (or even photographs) of hidden local watercourses making these sudden re-appearances? We’d like to hear from you if you have. (It is often said, for instance, that one such runs more or less parallel with Greenmore, from the top of the hill down to Reading Road and across towards Tidmore Pool.)
As for this month’s local website, it surely has to be about things under the ground. So what could be more appropriate than soagarch.org.uk, the splendid site of the South Oxfordshire Archaeological Group?
Early on the morning of 28 August a small group of WCG members set off to the Withymead Nature Reserve to see some bird-ringing. When we arrived, the warden, Brian Shaw, and his assistant Elizabeth Gill had already had some catches in ‘mist nets’ set up at various points around the reserve.
The nets are strung between poles, and are so finely-meshed as to be unnoticed by the birds that get caught in them. Checks are made every few minutes, and any birds caught are disentangled and then weighed, measured, sexed, aged, and ringed before being released. An intriguing array of devices are made use of, some specially manufactured, others improvised, like the discarded 35mm film canisters (remember them?) which are popped over the smaller birds’ heads to keep them calm. The ringing itself is done with light-weight metal rings, secured over the bird’s leg with special pliers that have notches to safely accommodate every leg-size. Full details are entered into a delightfully old-fashioned notebook, but later computer-coded for sending on to the British Trust for Ornithology. On release, the birds fly off in great indignation – seeming to be saying, as Brian put it, ‘I’ve never been so insulted in all my life!’
So what is the point of all this? This year is the one-hundredth anniversary of scientific bird-ringing in Britain, and traditionally birds have been ringed to study their migration patterns. Some of the furthest recoveries of Withymead-ringed birds have been in West Africa (a Reed Warbler in the Gambia, for example), and as for foreign-ringed birds recovered at Withymead, the record is held by a Swallow that was ringed in South Africa. Today, the emphasis is more on studying population changes. Many recoveries are made by other ringers; however – sadly but inevitably – quite a few occur when birds are found dead.
Bird-ringing is a strictly-regulated activity, and even the mist-nets can legally be supplied only to licensed ringers like Brian and Elizabeth. Qualification involves a lengthy supervised apprenticeship. This can last as much as five years, and is followed by three months of critical observation. Should you spot a wild bird with a ring (on your bird-feeder, for instance), the ‘do not try this at home’ rule applies very strictly: you should not try to catch it (you would in any case be breaking the law). If you do manage to decipher the ring (with binoculars, or by zooming in with a camera), or if you find a dead bird with a ring, do let the BTO know – you can find full details of what to do on their website at www.bto.org/ringing (you can also find your way there to county-by-county details of recent ringing records).
And what was the tally during our visit? After a fascinating morning (accompanied, as always at Withymead, by coffee and cakes), over a dozen Blue Tits were ringed, as well as several Great Tits, and one each of Reed Warbler, Blackcap, and Robin. (Details of the Withymead reserve are at www.withymead.co.uk)
On November 2nd the WCG will be ten years old. We came into being as a result of the 2000 Village Appraisal, in which village residents were asked if they would like to see a conservation group in Woodcote. The response was hearteningly positive, and very soon we found that, of all the similar village groups in Oxfordshire, the newly-founded WCG was the largest. With a membership that is now approaching one hundred, we still maintain that proud position.
We shall be marking our tenth anniversary at our Annual General Meeting, which will take place at the Community Centre on Tuesday 9 November, starting at 7.30 p.m. Members and non-members alike are welcome, so why not come and join us? There will be drinks and refreshments (including the WCG birthday cake!), and the evening will be an opportunity to meet the Committee and talk about what you would like to see happening (or not happening) in Woodcote in matters relating to conservation of the natural and built environment. This is the time of year when we draw up our plans for the coming twelve months: we are not just an organisation in the village, but an organisation for the village, so please come along and let us know what you would like to see us doing.
One of our projects that is now well under way is the Woodcote Environmental Audit. You may remember the front-page article in the July Correspondent in which we asked for volunteers to help with this. The response – both from members and non-members alike – has led to the establishment of a working group which has now met twice. We already have quite a collection of records of plant and animal life in Woodcote (you can find some of the details on our website), and the new Audit team has decided to put these into a geographical context by surveying the environmentally significant features in the village. They will be working on this over the coming year, with the aim of producing a parish map that highlights and describes these features. The map – which would provide a completely new perspective on our village – would then be made available for public display for the information of Woodcote residents and visitors alike. There will be an update on this project at our Annual General Meeting, so if you would like to hear more, or feel you may have something to contribute, that’s another reason to come along on the 9th!
The audit mapping theme is picked up in this month’s website recommendation. The Oxfordshire Wildlife and Landscape Study, or ‘OWLS’, has produced some fascinating maps plotting the various landscape and habitat types across the county: you will find them at www.owls.oxfordshire.gov.uk. The website includes a facility that enables you to click on individual parishes: if you’ve ever wondered what the shape of Woodcote actually looks like, you’ll get a very clear (and perhaps surprising) picture of it here.
The Ring-necked Parakeet (also known as the Rose-ringed Parakeet) has been variously described as ‘the grey squirrel of the skies’, ‘as British as curry’, and – referring to the fact that some people love it and others loathe it – ‘the marmite bird’. Plenty of people in the West London area, where it has been established for well over 30 years, have already formed clear opinions of it, and it can’t be long now before we will have a chance to decide what we think of it here in Woodcote too. A native of southern Asia and central Africa, this striking little emerald green parrot has long been a popular pet, and escaped birds have shown a remarkable ability to thrive in climates very different from those of their tropical homelands. In Europe, the largest concentration is in south-east England, where the estimated population of around 50,000 is still expanding fast.
Ring-necked Parakeets have spread steadily up the Thames Valley, and are now frequently seen in the Henley and Sonning areas, and, more recently, around Pangbourne. Records in Woodcote have so far been few and far between, but when one turned up on South Stoke Road in late October, a query addressed to Conservation Group members revealed that there had been at least three other sightings in the village over the past couple of years.
The South Stoke Road Ring-necked Parakeet
Ring-necked Parakeets are certainly beautiful birds, and for that reason alone, lots of people love them. But there are downsides to their spectacular spread. In their native haunts, they are widely regarded as a pest, as they can wreak havoc with fruit and other crops. Evidence of similar problems in this country has led to their being placed this year on the list of birds that may be culled without special permission. There are also concerns that they are having a negative effect on native bird populations: they can do serious damage to garden bird-feeders, and smaller birds can be intimidated by their presence there. Moreover, as a hole-nester the Parakeet competes with such natives as owls, woodpeckers, and starlings – all the more so as its breeding season starts in January, well before the native birds have started setting up home. And it is a famously noisy bird: the squawks and shrieks from the West London roosts that now total 6,000 or more birds are not universally popular with their human neighbours.
It would be interesting to hear of any other records of Ring-necked Parakeets in Woodcote, and to track their spread as they – almost inevitably – move into our area. The photograph of the recent sighting on the centre pages gives a good idea of what they look like – though this is a female bird, lacking the distinctive neck-ring of the male. (Why are some bird-names so sexist? Half our ‘Blackbirds’ are, after all, ‘Brownbirds’!) There are also plenty of pictures on the web – just google the name. But beware: so fast is this bird spreading that most of the statistics there are already out of date.
Copyright © Woodcote Conservation Group 2020