Woodcote Correspondent 2011
‘Going to the gym’ is famously one of those New Year resolutions that so often fall by the wayside as the weeks go by. But why pay a subscription when there’s a free alternative? We already live in the perfect place for healthy exercise: it’s all around us, and it’s called ‘the countryside’. And now we have a splendid guidebook to our local patch: Stilehopper’s Woodcote Walks. You may remember the twelve walks that featured each month in the Woodcote Correspondent in 2008. Sam Peates (as ‘Stilehopper’ is better known to many of us) has now revisited these, writing them up in more detail, adding a map for each walk, together with no fewer than sixty photographs, some delightful specially-commissioned drawings, and numerous informative text boxes. Members of the Conservation Group, along with our local historian Vicky Jordan, have been involved with this project, providing input on such topics as buildings, people, wildlife and plants, and trialling the routes. The walks are all circular, starting and finishing at the Village Hall (though that’s for outsiders: as a local you’ll want to start and finish at your own house!). They vary in length, and between them cover all our varied local landscapes – from the Chiltern beechwoods to the open fields and the Thames valley. And, for good measure, several of them include a convenient (optional) stop-over at a local hostelry along the way. (The book costs £5 – proceeds to local charities – and it can be purchased at the Woodcote Library, or by contacting Sam Peates at firstname.lastname@example.org)
We are particularly fortunate here in the sheer quantity of public footpaths that criss-cross our countryside, and in the excellent state that they are kept in. From the Parish Plan questionnaires we know just how popular they are with Woodcote residents, but – hand on heart – even if you do use them, do you really know the paths on the other side of the village from where you live? Seasoned walkers will be sure to find something new here, but this is every bit as much a book for those who have yet to discover the delights of walking in Woodcote’s countryside. And those health benefits? Maybe you’ve heard of ‘Health Walks’ – something that started as a local initiative in our area, and has now gone nationwide and even international. Have a look at this month’s website recommendation – www.sonningcommonhealthwalks.co.uk – to see how regular walking really is a key to a healthier lifestyle in all kinds of ways, both physical and mental.
The Conservation Group’s programme for 2011 is now available on our website. We too are starting the year with a walk: our Winter Bird Walk leaves from the Catholic church car-park at 10.00 a.m. on Saturday 15 January. Finally, on the walking theme: lots of people have now filled in User Evidence Forms for the Dean Wood footpaths. To join them, you can collect a form from the Parish Council Office (Tuesday mornings, 10-12).
It’s ‘Big Garden Birdwatch’ time again. Taking part is easy enough: have a look at www.rspb.org.uk/birdwatch for details. (Essentially, what is required is a list of the species you see in your garden over any one-hour period during the weekend of 29/30 January.) Please let the Conservation Group have a copy of your return, as this will be the third year of our very own ‘Woodcote Garden Birdwatch’. The RSPB site includes some handy identification tools, as well as county-by-county lists of last year’s results. As for the ‘Woodcote Garden Birdwatch’, you’ll find results for the past two years on our website under ‘Articles and Reports’. In 2009 we received details from seven local gardens, and then from twelve in 2010. Let’s try to maintain the upward trend and get returns from even more in 2011.
The exceptionally cold weather both here and on the Continent may well mean some new species are added to our garden lists this winter. Four to look out for are Bramblings, Fieldfares, Redwings and Waxwings. Bramblings are closely related to Chaffinches, and are often seen feeding with them in our beechwoods, but they also visit garden birdfeeders – look out for the Brambling’s distinctive white rump as it flies away. (Known in Scotland as the ‘Cock o’ the North’, the Brambling has nothing special to do with ‘brambles’: its name is most likely a corruption of ‘brindling’, a reference to its distinctive brindled colouration.) Fieldfares and Redwings are northern thrushes: much more numerous here in the winter than our native Mistle and Song Thrushes, but not so often seen in gardens. The larger Fieldfare is a noisy bird, with an excitable ‘chack-chack-chack’ call, while the Redwing’s high-pitched ‘seep’ is easier to miss – though you’d be surprised how often you can hear it once your ear is attuned. You can sometimes even hear it coming out of the sky at night when flocks are passing over.
The fourth northern visitor, the Waxwing, is the real star. Every so often there is an ‘irruption’ of Waxwings into Britain, and this winter has seen the largest numbers ever recorded. Most have been seen in the east of the country – sometimes in huge flocks – but on Christmas Day a couple were seen on South Stoke Road, so maybe that was a foretaste of further sightings in Woodcote as the ‘invaders’ move west in search of food. Waxwings eat berries (and can get drunk on them if they’ve fermented, but are believed to have specially strong livers to cope with any over-indulgence), so if you have any berries left in your garden, look out for these spectacular birds with their reddish-buff plumage, fluffy crests, and brilliant red-black-and-yellow wingtips.
There are hundreds of outstanding pictures of these – and other – species on flickr: the easiest way to access them is to go to the BTO site at http://www.bto.org/about-birds/birdfacts/find-a-species: click on a species from the list, and then on ‘Images’ beneath the picture.
Visitors to the Greenmoor Ponds in January were greeted with the unappetising sight of dozens of dead fish. There were concerns that this might be due to chemicals being dumped in the water, but the explanation was almost certainly much less sinister. There were numerous similar reports from all over the country around that time, and in nearly all cases it was the freezing weather in December that was to blame. The oxygen in the water that fish depend on comes both from above – from the air over the pond surface – and, more importantly, from the plants below. It is not unusual for the Greenmoor Ponds to freeze over in the winter, thereby cutting off the first source of oxygen. But this time there was also a thick layer of snow on top of the ice, which meant the second source was reduced too: deprived of light, the plants beneath the surface were failing to do their bit for keeping the water oxygenated.
In fact, what has happened is probably a blessing in disguise – nature’s way of restoring a better balance to our ponds. Shaded woodland ponds like those at Greenmoor are low in oxygen at the best of times, and not a natural habitat for fish. With spring on the way, we are now entering the breeding season for the amphibians that live there – the frogs, toads, and newts. Fish are not exactly on friendly terms with amphibians, being voracious devourers of their eggs and tadpoles. They are also very partial to the larvae of dragonflies and the other insects whose life-cycles begin in the water. So as far as the biodiversity of our ponds is concerned, that ice and snow may not have been such bad news after all.
You can find out more about what happens to ponds in the winter – including more general advice on how to look after a garden pond – on the excellent website of Pond Conservation at www.pondconservation.org.uk. Based at Oxford Brookes University, Pond Conservation is carrying out a survey on the topic of ‘The Big Pond Thaw’: the website includes a questionnaire for garden-pond owners to fill in with details of their ponds and how they have fared over the winter. If you take part in the survey, the Woodcote Conservation Group would be very interested to receive a copy of your return.
The WCG’s Winter Bird Walk took place on 15 January, with eleven hardy souls braving the cold grey weather for the now traditional circuit down through Dean Wood and out into the open countryside beyond Dean Farm. We saw a total of 25 species (see our website for details), and the highlight was undoubtedly the flock of 30 or so Redpolls that were feeding high up in the trees at the western edge of the wood. These attractive little finches sometimes turn up on garden birdfeeders (see below), so do look out for them, and let us know if you see any.
Redpolls on Behoes Lane, January 2011 (Photo: Eric Grimes)
Many thanks to those who sent in their records for the ‘Woodcote Garden Birdwatch’, which took place over the last weekend of January. We can’t yet compare the results with the national picture, as the RSPB has still to produce the figures for their ‘Big Garden Birdwatch’, but the Woodcote results (details of which can be found on our website) are fairly consistent with what we have seen over the past couple of years. Nonetheless, there are also some interesting changes, which are probably accounted for by the icy weather in December. On the positive side, we received a record of Bramblings, which hadn’t featured on the 2009 or 2010 returns. Some other smaller birds were also more numerous than in the preceding years: the eleven gardens that were covered returned a total of 55 Blue Tits, for instance – the 2009 figure was 23 (in seven gardens), and in 2010, 43 were recorded (in twelve gardens). Great Tit numbers were also up, and there are signs that we may at last be seeing a return of House Sparrows to various corners of the village. More worryingly, though, no-one reported any Wrens this year: this tiniest of our garden birds is known to be particularly vulnerable to cold weather, and our nil return is almost certainly a reflection of that. The most unexpected sighting of the weekend was a flock of thirty Redpolls moving through the treetops up South Stoke Road – quite probably the same birds that we had seen in Dean Wood on our Winter Bird Walk a fortnight before.
You may have seen the report (and photographs) in the Henley Standard of Conservation Group members replacing the liner of the Community Centre pond. (You may even have been there: it coincided with a Coffee Morning, so we had several interested spectators.) This was an urgent task, as the old liner was leaking badly, and had we not acted quickly there would very soon have been no pond left at all. We are very grateful to the Chilterns Conservation Board for providing us with advice and – crucially – money for the new liner at very short notice. This pond has always contained a very healthy population of frogs, and we hope that they will now settle in to their refurbished home for the new breeding season.
On Thursday 7 April we are hosting an illustrated public talk in the Community Centre on ‘The Woodlands of the Chilterns’. Our speaker is John Morris, an acknowledged expert on the topic, who will also be bringing along copies of his book The Cultural Heritage of Chiltern Woods. (You can find out more about his work – and our local woodlands – at www.chilternsaonb.org/caring/stwp.html) The evening starts at 7.30; admission is £3 (free to under-sixteens and WCG members), and includes refreshments.
Sparrows in Woodcote may not have noticed it, but March the 20th was their special day (see www.worldsparrowday.org). Thirty or more years ago the idea of celebrating a ‘World Sparrow Day’ could have been dreamt up by the Monty Python team: the House Sparrow then was simply a fact of life around our homes, gardens, and streets, as it had been for millennia. But then, in the latter part of the twentieth century, the population started shrinking, with the number of households reporting having lost their House Sparrows doubling since 1995.
No-one quite knows why this has happened, but because of their intimate association with human beings, Sparrows have probably suffered even more than other small birds from changes in our social and economic behaviour. Increasing car ownership, for instance, has led to the creation of parking places in front gardens or on plots of ‘waste land’ – once vital sources of food for the birds; and improvements to our houses have meant that far fewer buildings today have the nooks and crannies where Sparrows nest.
Our Woodcote Sparrows seem to have suffered even more than most. The RSPB’s ‘Big Garden Birdwatch’ shows that the House Sparrow still remains at number one as the most frequently reported bird, both nationally and at the county level here in Oxfordshire. But if our ‘Woodcote Garden Birdwatch’ is anything to go by, that is not the case in our village, where the House Sparrow this year came in at seventh equal. The picture we have is of small and largely sedentary groups at distinct points around Woodcote: for instance, the little flock on South Stoke Road seems never to have ventured to the gardens just across Hilltop Field on Behoes Lane, and another flock in the Close keeps to its own side of the Village Green. But perhaps there is a small ray of light in all this: in our first Woodcote Garden Birdwatch in 2009 the House Sparrow was only fifteenth equal, and last year it came in at ninth equal – so with the 2011 rise to seventh equal, maybe a recovery is developing. We’d like to get more details of the overall picture in the village, so do let us know what your impression is of the Sparrow population in your corner of the Woodcote. Have you always had them there? Or have they disappeared, or maybe even come back after a long absence?
It will be interesting to see if we come across any Sparrows on our Spring Bird Walk: this will start as usual from the Catholic church car-park on South Stoke Road at 10.00 a.m. on Saturday 14 May. And the previous week, on Saturday 7 May, we have a Bat Walk leaving from the same spot at 8.00 p.m. All are welcome to these events: please wear stout shoes or walking boots, and – for the bat evening – bring warm clothes and a torch. Details as usual on our website.
The Woodcote Head (photograph copyright Reading Museum)
Is this picture the face of Woodcote Man 2,000 years ago?
In 1973, Mr Wigmore, digging in the garden of his house at 40 Wayside Green, found a large carved stone head. He took it off to Reading Museum, where it is now on display. An Iron Age expert, Anne Ross, decided that it probably came from that period – 800 BC to the arrival of the Romans, in 43AD.
The ancient Celts are believed to have been head-hunters and head-collectors, and heads, and images of heads, often exaggerated in size and features, were important in their rituals. This grim-faced carving is larger than life size. The eyes, brows, nose and mouth are emphasised. It does not seem to be the head of a young man: there are deep lines across the cheeks. Is this the head of a feared but now defeated enemy war leader?
When the head was found Wayside Green had only just been built. The rest of the field it was built on – now known as ‘Hilltop Field – is still undeveloped, and lies between Behoes Lane and South Stoke Road. This field is very flat, lies between 80cms and 1m above the surrounding roads and has an unusual shape. Its western edge is rounded and looks out over the Vale of the White Horse. The ancient road coming up from South Stoke forks when it reaches this field, but the fork forms a U shape, rather than a Y shape, suggesting that the road was going round something: what?
Was this an Iron Age ritual area, looking out over the valley, within sight of a known Iron Age settlement on the top of Wittenham Clumps?
Investigations in 2005 were inconclusive: some seemed to detect the remains of ancient buildings, others picked up nothing. But we know that Iron Age people lived a couple of miles down the road and they would certainly have made use of the wooded hills, as well as the valley.
Surveying techniques are developing rapidly. Is it time for a new look at this field?
(In 2007 the South Oxfordshire Archaeological Group (www.soagarch.org.uk) published a fuller account of my investigations into Hilltop Field in the SOAG Bulletin No. 61.)
The Conservation Group’s April public talk was a great success. Our speaker – John Morris of the Chiltern Woodlands Project – reminded us just how busy the Chiltern woods once were, providing a major source of employment for local farmers, builders, foresters, and craftsmen. The many banks and ditches, bumps and hollows in the woods remain as evidence of their varied activities.
Our traditional summer evening walk in local woods – the ‘Woodcote Woodcock Walk’ – takes place on Friday 10 June. Meet at the Greenmoor Ponds at 8.30 p.m. if you want to join us as we go in search of this most mysterious of our local birds. And then on Friday 1 July we have a Moth Identification Evening. Warm clothes and a torch are advisable for both these events. Details as usual on our website.
(Written by Sue Sandford)
Pholcus phalangioides – you may not recognise the name, but you probably know its owner. Pholcus is that awkward-looking spider with the enormously long spindly legs and the tiny body that keeps appearing in the angle between your walls and ceilings.
Pholcus phalangioides in a Woodcote bathroom
Pholcus has acquired a whole host of English names, including ‘the cellar spider’, ‘the house spider’, and ‘the cobweb spider’. The common name ‘daddy-long-legs spider’ is misleading, though: Pholcus has nothing to do with the true ‘daddy long-legs’, which is a winged insect – the Crane-Fly – normally seen in large numbers in September. (The Crane-Fly’s larvae are the ‘leatherjackets’ that can wreak havoc with lawns as they munch their way through the grass roots.)
But there is another name – ‘the vibrating spider’ – which will be especially appreciated by anyone who has got up close to him (with the nozzle of a vacuum cleaner, probably). He is not trembling with fear: on the contrary, the vibrations are meant to frighten any potential aggressor, and also to make him a more difficult prey to catch. For all its feeble appearance, Pholcus is no mean hunter, even eating its own kith and kin on occasion, and using its vibrating act to deadly effect when visiting the webs of other spiders: the web-owner thinks it has caught something, but when it goes to investigate, Pholcus pounces and has its host for dinner. (In Australia this habit has even led to its being welcomed in houses, as there Pholcus is thought to kill the venomous Redback Spider.)
No need to worry, though: Pholcus is not dangerous to humans. But July is a peak month for the species’ appearance in our houses, in numbers that can even amount to a full-scale infestation. It wasn’t always so: this is not a creature our forefathers were familiar with, the first British records of Pholcus dating back only to the mid-nineteenth century, and even today – after a marked increase in recent years – it is still confined largely to the south of the country. And that scientific name ‘Pholcus phalangioides’? It translates roughly as ‘The Fingerbone Squinter’ – a reference to the creature’s spindly legs and its boss-eyed face.
Our Conservation Group bat evening on 7 May managed to coincide with some of the few hours of rain we have had this spring – but there were still bats about, which made us wonder how it is that the bats’ radar manages to distinguish between the raindrops and the insects they are hunting. If you have bats over your garden and would like to know what species they are, let us know: we’d be happy to arrange a visit with the bat detector to identify them.
Our next event – on Friday 1 July – is a moth evening, and in August we have an excursion to Lardon Chase to look for butterflies, a walk to the Black Horse, and another bat evening. For details please see our website.
Did you notice the caterpillar infestation on local hedgerows earlier this summer? Some stretches near the village were densely wrapped in wispy webbing, and quite quickly the thousands of caterpillars had munched their way through the leaves beneath. The infestation was very patchy, with stretches of up to twenty feet of hedge being attacked, while adjacent sections were completely untouched. Locations included South Stoke Road just outside the village, and the road between Crays Pond and Goring, but there were plenty more elsewhere in Oxfordshire, as well as across much of the rest of the country.
The villain was, for once, not one of those ‘aliens’, but the native Ermine Moth – almost certainly the species known as the ‘Small Ermine Moth’ or the ‘Orchard Ermine’. Its caterpillars emerge from mid-April, and feed mainly on the leaves of blackthorn, hawthorn, and cherry, all of which are characteristic plants of our local hedgerows. The webbing draped across the hedges is designed as protection against the birds, who must be very frustrated to see such an abundant potential food source busily squiggling around just out of reach. By early July the caterpillars pupate, and the moths emerge three weeks later. Dramatic though it may appear in May and June, the damage done to the hedges is not terminal, and most recover quite quickly by late summer.
Ermine Moths (though of a different species) were among the many varieties we identified during the Conservation Group’s Moth Evening on 1 July. Strange though it may seem to anyone who has not attended one of these events, these are very lively – not to say exciting – occasions. This particular evening was perfect: still and mild, with no moon to compete with our mercury-vapour lamp. As darkness fell, more and more moths began to gather, and – as they came to rest round the lamp – were duly popped into transparent containers and rushed indoors for identification using various field-guides and websites. As the evening wore on, it soon became apparent that this – our fifth Moth Evening – was going to provide us with a record number of species. Some were old friends that turn up every year, but there were also several others quite new to us. In the end, the ‘identifiers’ indoors couldn’t keep up with what the ‘catchers’ were bringing in from the garden, and we decided to call it a night. Much of the excitement of these events consists in never knowing what will turn up, and it is a constant source of delight to discover just how attractive – and even exotic-looking – many of our commoner species can be. The excellent website ‘UKMoths’ (www.ukmoths.org.uk) has a very useful page called ‘Beginner’s Top 20’ which provides a good starting-point if you want to find out more.
As usual, details of our August activities – a Butterfly Excursion to Lardon Chase, a Bat Evening, and a Walking Party to the Black Horse at Checkendon – can be found on our website.
Where have all our moths and butterflies gone? This column last month reported a virtual plague of caterpillars of one particular moth species, as well as a record catch at our Woodcote Moth Evening, but the overall picture is more negative. Although one major recent study of UK moth populations has shown that 46 species have actually more than doubled their numbers since 1968, with a further 26 increasing by over 50%, the great majority of species have decreased by about a third. Fifty-three species are listed as a national priority for conservation. Sadly, eight of these are in an even worse state now than before the list was drawn up ten years ago.
Some species, like the painted lady butterfly and the humming-bird hawkmoth, fly to the UK from as far away as North Africa, and we know that some are suffering because of climate change – the garden tiger moth, for instance, which dislikes the warm spring weather of recent years. On the other hand the speckled wood and comma butterflies are on the increase, probably also as a result of climate change. We know that intensive agriculture, commercial forestry operations and increased herbicide use are reducing the number of food plants on which the butterflies and moths depend. Many species lay their eggs on just one plant species on which the larvae will feed.
I remember some years ago, watching in amazement as the annual peacock caterpillar race unfolded and they made a dash from the nettles, across the patio to the house, and up the wall to where they pupated. I think they were glad of my company, as I kept the hungry birds away. Sadly I haven’t seen a single peacock butterfly this year despite the fact that the nettle patch is still there for them.
The south- east of England has been particularly hard hit by declines in butterflies over the last thirty years: urban development, changes to gardens, and light pollution are probably implicated. Moths and butterflies are also a vital part of the food chains on which many birds and bats depend, hence their populations too have crashed in recent years.
So what can you do to redress the balance? The answer is to provide what they need, i.e. habitat, which supplies their food. Butterflies need a food plant on which the larvae feed and a nectar source on which the adults feed. Leave a patch of garden with nettles, buckthorn, cress, holly, ivy and long grass, and the larvae of most of the common species will be happy. Add a patch of herbs, marjoram, sage, thyme, rosemary, chives, phlox, knapweeds, thistles, sedum and some bramble and buddleia.
So, if you want to help butterflies, grow a wild patch in your garden, grow herbs and at least one buddleia. Together we can make a difference!
(Two excellent butterfly websites are ukbutterflies.co.uk [for identification], and britishbutterflies.co.uk [for general information].)
(Written by Phil Lea)
The Chilterns Commons Network is a new initiative of the Chilterns Conservation Board, and – at the time of writing – we have just heard that the Network’s application for a major grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund has been successful. This is good news for Woodcote, as our Greenmoor Ponds site was one of the dozen or so commons across the Chilterns that were included in the application. Research into the history of the Chilterns commons is an essential part of the project, and the first tranche of the Greenmoor grant will enable investigations to be carried out in particular into the history of the dipping well at the edge of the Lower Pond, and its role in the life of the village. Money will also be made available to commission a specialist company to carry out appropriate and sensitive restoration of the well. We are now looking for a volunteer to help with this local research: if you have any information about the well, or think you might be able to help, please get in touch with the Conservation Group.
Our Bird Walk on 13 August came up with no fewer than 27 species, despite the fact that August is traditionally regarded as ‘the quiet month’ by birders. Seven of these species were in fact ones that we did not see on the equivalent walk last summer, and one them – a marsh tit – was a first for any of our Bird Walks. Marshes are, of course, not exactly a feature of the Woodcote landscape, but then the marsh tit must be one of the most inappropriately-named of our bird species. It is really more at home in broad-leaved woodland rather than marshes, and is also an occasional visitor to garden bird feeders, where it is sometimes confused with the blackcap. The confusion arises because both are little greyish-brown birds with black caps, but the marsh tit also has a black bib, which the blackcap doesn’t. (And even the blackcap’s name is only fifty-percent accurate: the female actually has a brown cap . . .)
And on the subject of garden bird feeders: You may have read about the spread of a very unpleasant bird disease called ‘avian pox’. Now that we are coming into the season when birds rely more and more on the food that people put out for them, please don’t forget to keep your bird tables and bird feeders clean. In particular, don’t let uneaten food accumulate, don’t put food under branches or other places where droppings may land, and don’t just ‘top up’ your feeders. Peanut feeders especially need to be cleaned out regularly, rather than just having fresh nuts tipped on top of the old ones. For further suggestions, have a look at the British Trust for Ornithology website at www.bto.org and enter ‘hygiene’ in the search box.
In last month’s Correspondent, we reported the news that a significant grant has been awarded by Heritage Lottery Fund to the Chilterns Conservation Board. This £500,000 programme will help protect and improve the historic commons of the Chilterns, and raise the profile of these important open spaces that have played such a central role in the environmental and cultural history of the area.
Stretching diagonally down from Hitchin in Hertfordshire, through Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire, then finally down to its southernmost tip at Goring, the 47 miles of the Chiltern Hills offer a beautiful, and richly diverse landscape. The Chilterns have nearly 200 commons, ranging in size from over 60 hectares, down to the smallest registered common at a mere 0.6 hectares –the Greenmoor Ponds! Although this major programme should benefit all Chiltern Commons, less than 20 have been awarded a grant to carry out a specific project, and we are delighted to be one of those selected.
Restoration of the Dipping Well will be the main element of the Greenmoor project, and if you’ve never noticed this domed brick well before, then now is the time to take a look! Located at the nearest end of the Lower Pond, adjacent to the steps leading down into the water, this round structure is believed to date from Victorian times. Made from locally produced brick from the brickworks along Potkiln Lane, the well is unlikely to be more than about 10-15 feet deep. It would either have accessed water from the lowest point of the pond, or direct from the sand layer beneath. The narrow opening at the top of the brick dome (plugged with concrete in the 1980’s) was wide enough to lower a bucket down to the water.
We have been awarded a grant to fully restore this important part of Woodcote’s history. But first we want to carry out some research into its background, and we are appealing for two or three people to help find out about its use, and to uncover the secrets of its past. When exactly was it built? Was it made from Woodcote brick? Did it replace an earlier well? Why were 21 steps built adjacent to it? Were there any other wells in the village?
Rachel Sanderson (Chilterns Commons Project Officer) and Karen Woolley (Woodcote Conservation Group) by the dipping well dome
(Written by Karen Woolley)