Woodcote Correspondent 2012

January 2012
Does anyone recognise the name Tiggy Smith? The ‘Contact Us’ button on the WCG website brings us some intriguing queries, and one of the more recent ones relates to a woman of this name (also known as Victoria) who lived in this area a century and a half ago. The enquiry came from a young Romany Gypsy who is researching her family history. Tiggy was her great-great-great grandmother – a poor, homeless woman who lived with her twin brother in the hedgerows around Woodcote in the mid-nineteenth century. Local people were fond of Tiggy, and did a lot to look after her. She had a son called Jack, who ended up being fairly successful, and in his later years lived in a house in Woodcote.
We have already been able to find further members of this family, but there is a gap in the information about Tiggy herself, as Jack never discussed his mother – so if you can help us with more details, please get in touch. And what has this genealogical research got to do with the Conservation Group? Well, it’s all part of our involvement in the Chiltern Commons project: Gypsies played an important role in the history of the commons, and it is intended that in due course the Project will lead to a book containing a chapter devoted to their lives.
  If you have visited the Greenmoor Ponds lately you will have seen evidence of another piece of work that has been funded by the Commons Project: the Upper Pond, which had become badly clogged by an invasive alien pondweed, has been cleared out, and some of the surrounding trees have been trimmed back. (You can see a picture of this work in progress on the centre pages.) Our Greenmoor Ponds have stood up well to the drought of the past two years (many others across the south of England have simply disappeared), but we do need a good wet winter now to see them fully restored.
  Our programme of activities for the coming year is now on our website: these include bat and moth evenings, a butterfly excursion, bird walks, a fungus foray, our regular working parties, and a public talk on the Commons Project. In a few weeks’ time we shall also be doing our annual ‘Woodcote Garden Birdwatch’. As mentioned in last month’s Correspondent, this depends very much on reports from members and non-members around the village who are participating in the RSPB’s ‘Big Garden Birdwatch’ (details at www.rspb.org.uk/birdwatch): please let us have your list of the birds seen in your garden during any one-hour period over the weekend of 28-29 January.
  And finally: by the time you read this, the fascinating map of Woodcote that has been produced by our hard-working Environmental Audit team should be on display on the bus-shelter and in the Library. It offers a novel way of mapping our village and its varied habitats: do have a look at it!

February 2012
Our January column referred briefly to the new map of Woodcote that our Environmental Audit team has produced. The map is now on display in Woodcote Library, where it was unveiled at a little ceremony on 17 December. A second copy has been placed on the bus shelter by the War Memorial, where we hope it will catch the eye not just of local people, but also of walkers and other visitors to the village.
  The ‘Woodcote 2011’ map covers the whole civil parish, and among the first things to strike the eye are Woodcote’s distinctive elongated shape and the range of altitudes it embraces. This is vividly illustrated by the profile that is included on the map, showing a ‘slice’ through the landscape from the lowest point at Icknield Road up to Greenmoor Hill, and then down again to the eastern boundary of Woodcote on Deadman’s Lane. As the Parish Plan of 2008 noted: ‘The village proper is located in the higher part of the actual Parish of Woodcote: indeed, the houses at the top of Greenmore (or ‘Greenmoor’ or ‘Grimmer’, to give it its full range of variant spellings) are some of the highest habitations in the county. There is a drop in altitude of some 30 metres from Greenmore to the lower edges of the village proper on Beech Lane and South Stoke Road, and from there on down to the lowest point of the overall Parish of Woodcote on Icknield Road is a further descent of 95 metres. In other words, from the Greenmore reservoir to the road in front of Icknield Farm there is a difference in altitude of some 410 feet.’
  Woodcote is not alone in its distinctive shape and range of altitudes, features common to most of the parishes within the arc of the Thames between Henley and Wallingford.  Indeed, the extremes were even greater in the parish of ‘South Stoke-cum-Woodcote’, which we were part of until 1952, and maps of the original local parishes show them radiating out like spokes of a wheel from the high ground near Stoke Row down to the banks of the river. The logic behind this is still clear on our 2011 map: the range of land usage extends from the woodlands and former commonland of the higher areas down to the open arable fields of the lower slopes – and in the days of ‘South Stoke-cum-Woodcote’ it would have extended further still to the grazing marshes by the Thames. Each parish thus enjoyed a full range of land-usage possibilities, as well as having access to the Thames, which made possible the export of Chilterns firewood to places as far away as London.
  The Conservation Group is very grateful to the little team of volunteers (pictured in the centre pages) who did the fieldwork; to Stephen Hanna, who produced the map itself and the accompanying drawings; and to Rob Spencer for the graphic design. We also extend thanks to the Woodcote Charitable Association for the generous financial support that they provided, and to Sam Peates (aka ‘Stilehopper’) for an equally generous donation from the proceeds of his ‘Woodcote Walks’ book.
  ‘Woodcote 2011’ is a snapshot of our village in a particular year. Our environmental audit work continues, and we plan over time to update the map, which is now available on our website.

March 2012

Wildlife-friendly gardening
With increasing pressure on wild habitats, gardens have become an important resource for wildlife.  By making small modifications in management and planting, we can help provide the basic requirements of wildlife:  somewhere safe to breed and shelter, and a food supply throughout the year.
 Changes in management can be very simple.  Dead wood and leaves left to rot encourage insects, fungi and mosses; unmown and rough grass provide habitats for insects and for beetles, which feed on slugs.  Climbers, thick shrub beds, hedges, and bramble patches all provide nest sites and shelter for birds; and rotational shrub cutting creates different structures and ages of growth, benefiting different wildlife at different times.  Allow some of your plants to go to seed and delay tidying borders until late winter or early spring to provide shelter and food through winter months.  
Habitats for amphibians, beetles, centipedes, and small mammals can be created by piling up logs or stones in suitable places around the garden.  Twig or ‘brash’ piles of loosely packed hardwoods, or bundles of hollow stems placed in a quiet spot that catches the morning sun, can attract bees, including solitary mason bees.
  Creating bird and bat boxes will supplement natural sites, and instructions for making them can be found at www.rspb.org.uk   Wooden houses specially designed for hedgehogs are also available. Bug hotels can be made from blocks of wood bored with holes, or plastic waste pipes filled with lengths of bamboo, rolled corrugated cardboard or drinking straws.
Ponds are invaluable resources, attracting frogs, toads and newts for slug control and providing a place for birds to drink and bathe. Deeper areas of water help aquatic insects survive cold spells but even a simple bowl can encourage frogs and other wildlife. Information on creating a pond is available at www.naturalengland.org.uk  and www.pondconservation.org.uk
  A leaflet on plant species beneficial for wildlife can be downloaded from Natural England. Early and late flowering plants are particularly important, as they produce nectar for insects at critical times – just after emergence or prior to hibernation.  As a general rule butterflies are attracted to yellow and blue flowers, bees to blue, red or purple and moths to white and night scented flowers. 
  If a natural balance is achieved in our gardens, pests become less of a problem. Companion planting on vegetable patches also helps to reduce pests and ensure maximum use of nutrients and water. Planting onions and carrots together keeps the carrot fly at bay and the shallow roots of onions do not compete for food or water with the deeper roots of the carrot.  Old fashioned, non-hybridised seed varieties tend to be more resistant to pests and disease, as well as tasting better than newer versions.
If further control of pests is necessary try to use organic sprays or biological control methods as many insecticides kill beneficial species as well as harmful ones.  Avoid using herbicides by hand-weeding, applying mulch, using weed-suppressant fabric and planting ground cover. 
 (Contribution written by Sue Buys)

April 2012

‘Common? What common?’
That was one response to the cover story about the ‘Greenmoor Ponds on Woodcote Common’ in February’s Correspondent. But then where is the ‘common’ at Sonning Common, the ‘heath’ at Goring Heath, or the ‘green’ at Trench Green? Woodcote Common does at least still exist, even if only as a shrunken remnant of the open land that once covered the upper part of our parish. Sometimes called ‘Woodcote Heath’, it appears on old maps extending all the way from the boundary with Goring in the south to beyond the present A4074 to the north.
  In those days, Woodcote was an outlying part of the parish of South Stoke (we finally gained our ‘independence’ in 1952). As our village name suggests, we were then simply a scattering of ‘cottages in the wood’, and it was not until the mid-twentieth century that the process of ‘infilling’ began in earnest, replacing the gaps and open spaces – including the Common itself – with housing and other developments.
  The new 2011 map of Woodcote mentioned in last month’s Correspondent  gives a vivid picture of the distinctive shape of the present-day parish: long, thin, and steeply sloping, with the populated area concentrated near the upper end. In the days of ‘South Stoke-cum-Woodcote’ the elongated shape and the difference in altitude between the upper and lower ends (well over four hundred feet) were even more pronounced.
  We were not unusual in this: maps of all the original parishes in the arc of the Thames between Wallingford and Henley show them radiating out like spokes of a wheel from the high ground down to the banks of the river. Each parish thus enjoyed a full range of land-usage possibilities, from the high woodlands and commons, down through the arable slopes to the riverside village, with its summer grazing marshes and the bonus of access to the Thames, which provided water-power and enabled the export of Chilterns firewood to places as far away as London.
  If you would like to find out more about the history of Woodcote Common, and about the history of commons in general – how they came into being, their role in rural life, their legal status and what remains of them today – do come along to our public talk at 7.30 p.m. on Thursday 19 April in the Community Centre. Rachel Sanderson – who heads the Chilterns Commons Project – is the speaker, and admission, including refreshments, is £3 (free to WCG members and under-sixteens).
  The WCG column in December, and a letter prompted by it in the January number, mentioned a survey being conducted at Reading University into the way people are increasingly feeding Red Kites in their gardens. The aim of this project is to try and assess what effects this may be having on the birds’ population and behaviour. If you have ever fed Kites, the research team would very much like to hear from you. You can find their questionnaire at: www.reading.ac.uk/gardenwatch.

May 2012

The Woodcote Garden Birdwatch
The RSPB’s annual ‘Big Garden Birdwatch’ took place this year over the weekend of 28/29 January, and we again took advantage of the national event to conduct our own ‘Woodcote Garden Birdwatch’, asking local people to let us have their records of species seen over any one-hour period in their gardens. The RSPB’s Birdwatch produced results from 285,440 gardens, with a total count of over nine million individual birds representing over seventy species. The Woodcote figures were more modest: we had just seven responses, and clocked up 267 individual birds and a total of 23 different species.
  A small sample maybe, but – having started our local survey in 2009 – we are now getting a clearer picture of distinctive differences between the garden bird population in Woodcote and the situation nationally. Take the House Sparrow, for instance: this species was recorded in over two-thirds of gardens nationally, but in Woodcote it appeared in only one of the seven returns. There has been a lot of media attention to the decline of this once-familiar bird, but it still manages to rank first in the RSPB national tables by virtue of the relatively high number of individuals counted in those locations where it does occur. Last year and in 2010 we thought we had noted a more encouraging trend for House Sparrows in Woodcote:  six gardens as opposed to only two in 2009. So is this year’s single-garden return a sign of a collapse in the local population? Well, possibly not, as the garden in question (on South Stoke Road) did have a very high number of individual sparrows: some thirty were seen there, which is actually more than the overall village total in any of the previous years.
  House Sparrows are social birds, spending their time in small flocks in the winter, and roosting and nesting communally, and rarely travelling very far. So it may be that our Woodcote population is holding up (or even increasing) in numbers, but very much concentrated in a few isolated pockets at distinct points around the village. Now that we are into the breeding season, it would be good to find out where these are: please let us know if there are some near you.
  So what was the Woodcote ‘top ten’ in terms of frequency this year? Three species were recorded in all seven gardens: Blue Tits, Blackbirds, and Woodpigeons.  Then came Chaffinches (six gardens) and Robins (five gardens), followed by four further species each seen in four of the gardens: Dunnock, Great Tit, Goldfinch, and Greenfinch. Tenth place (three gardens each) was shared by Redwing and – to finish on a resounding note – Red Kite. There we certainly did ourselves proud: the national figure for this species was barely one percent of gardens . . .
  Full details of the ‘Woodcote Garden Birdwatch’ are on our website, along with our programme for the coming months, and you can find the RSPB’s figures (both nationally and by county) at http://www.rspb.org.uk/birdwatch/results.aspx

June 2012

During the rainy days of April one of our members noticed that layers of mud were being applied round the entrance-hole of one of the nest-boxes in his garden: what (or who) was doing this? The mystery was eventually solved when a Nuthatch was spotted entering and leaving the box. Well-known for these plastering activities, in some parts of the country this species is traditionally called the ‘Mud Stopper’ or ‘Mud Dauber’, while its Dutch name translates as ‘Tree Sticker’, and in German it is simply known as the ‘Sticker’.
  There are plenty of birds that will enlarge holes in trees when constructing their nest sites, but the Nuthatch’s habit of making them smaller is much more unusual. Once a suitable hole has been chosen (usually in a tree trunk), nest-building is carried out almost exclusively by the female, and the process is sophisticated and methodical, with pieces of bark and small wood-chippings being incorporated to strengthen the initial coats of mud. Even the interior walls of the nest-cavity are plastered, and the size of the entrance hole is determined by the dimensions of the bird’s body as she squeezes in and out through the final wet layers. (Male birds have never been known to enter these cosy homes!)
  These dapper little birds are quite common around Woodcote, both in the local woods and as visitors to gardens, where they often visit bird-feeders, especially if peanuts are on the menu. Their energetic table manners provide the clue to their common name as they ‘hack’ repeatedly at their food – nuts and other items that they will first wedge into the bark of trees. The resultant tapping noise can be heard over some distance in the woods, as can the birds’ ringing ‘tui-tui-tui’ calls. They are supremely at home on tree trunks and other vertical surfaces, where they can be seen descending head-first (the only British birds to do this) just as easily as they can climb or shuffle sideways.
  We nearly always see and hear Nuthatches on our seasonal ‘Bird Walks’, and that was again the case this year on April the 28th. But this was a not a walk like our spring outings in previous years: the record rainfall of the previous weeks meant we saw nothing of the Swallows or Martins we had hoped for (solitary Swallows had been seen in Woodcote at the beginning of the month, but were unlikely to have survived the drenching that followed). Nonetheless, we still notched up a total of twenty bird species, including several Skylarks singing exuberantly in the rain over the fields beyond Dean Farm.  We also identified twenty-five different species of plants in flower along our route: the list we made was an innovation for us, and we plan in future to upgrade these seasonal rambles into ‘Bird and Plant Walks’. Do keep an eye out for details of these and other future events on the WCG website.

July 2012

‘The Ongoing Mystery of Birds’
The request for records for the ‘Woodcote Garden Birdwatch’ brought in lists of species from around the village, but one local resident in particular – Ian Cruickshank from Grimmer Way – also let us have his very personal musings on what he called ‘the mystery, almost taken for granted, of each species of bird having its own definitive characteristics’. Ian’s thoughts are worth sharing, so here is what he wrote about some of the species he has seen. (You can find the more prosaic list of species seen in all the gardens from which we received records on our website.)

The Pied Wagtail – we only seem to see them in the coldest weather, randomly pecking at non-existent ‘food’, even when real food is left out for them. There is almost always just one of them, or sometimes three. (How odd…) With their stiff little legs of black cotton, and bobbing tail, they are brave, often surprisingly aggressive little Hitlers who refuse to be intimidated by much larger birds.  They thrive on nothing.
Starlings – the Mafia of the bird world – marauders, quick to gang up, quick to arrive, quick to take advantage, quick to do the business, quick to depart. Use their beaks to part blades of grass in search of insects. Good singers too. Noisy. Non-aggressive.
Blackbirds – as territorial as Robins, by far the greatest avian singers that we have in the U.K. Fantastic jazz improvisers, they almost never sing the same line twice.
Sparrowhawks – lone, lethal, superfast dispensers of instant death. The cruise missiles of the bird world.
Thrushes – stately and stunning in their flecked beauty and long pale legs.  Shy, nervous and much rarer than they used to be.
Long Tailed Tits – like Japanese paintings come alive. They form little flocks in the hedgerows for friendship and safety. Extremely delicate, exquisite and welcoming. The ultimate Zen bird.
Magpies – cunning, grabbing, thieving, despicable.
Rooks – noisy, clever, wary but sociable. Proud, shiny strutters.
Wrens – sweet, solitary, darting illusions of almost nothing.
Red Kites – the princes of the sky. Huge but affable gliding machines of great beauty. Resourceful and determined in survival. Masters of time and space.

The Conservation Group has two events lined up for July (and more may be added at short notice: check our website for updates):
  On Saturday 7 July we have an excursion to the downs above Streatley to see what butterfly species we can find. Meet in Woodcote Village Hall car-park at 11.00 for car-sharing. Bring a picnic lunch; also – if you like – a camera and/or binoculars (which can be as useful for butterfly-watching as they are for other wildlife).
  And on Friday 20 July we have a Moth Evening, taking place at ‘Breydon’ on Behoes Lane, and starting at 9.00 p.m. Wear warm clothes for this, and bring dark glasses (the mercury lamp we use is very bright!)

August 2012

The Wasp Season Comes Round Again
There are many species of wasp-like insects in Britain, but the ones we love to hate – especially at this time of year – belong to the genus Vespula.  We have two main species, Vespula vulgaris, which has a black anchor shape on its head and Vespula germanica, which has three black dots on its head and is a little larger.  The Germanic (continental) form nests in shrubs and trees, whereas the common wasp (vulgaris) often nests in buildings.  Contrary to popular belief, cold winters do not reduce wasp numbers the following season, but warm winters often lead to queens coming out of hibernation too soon and starving to death. Wasp stings kill hundreds of people each year worldwide, owing to extreme immune reactions.
  Queen wasps overwinter anywhere they can avoid extreme conditions.  In spring they emerge and look for a suitable nest site, building a strong and rather beautiful nest of wood, saliva and wax around a central stalk.  The queen lays eggs in the first cells and hunts for insects to feed to the larvae when they hatch.  The larvae pupate and transform into adults.  Young workers hatch and take over the role of foraging and running the hive, whilst the queen lays more eggs – thousands of them.  In the autumn the queen lays fertilized eggs in special queen cells and unfertilized male eggs that become drones.  The new queens and drones fly off to breed (drones will only mate with queens from another nest: they recognize every wasp in their nest by their smell!).   Once the new queens have left the nest, the original queen stops laying and the colony slowly starves to death: this is why they become so aggressive and such a nuisance at this time of year.
  If a wasp is killed, it can release a pheromone that attracts other wasps – both a cry for help and a warning of possible danger.  Last year one queen chose the Woodcote Conservation Group shed as home, and another nest appeared under the floorboards of my bedroom, keeping my wife and me awake on warm summer nights with the hum of hundreds of pairs of wings ventilating the nest. 
So what do they do that is useful?  In fact, wasps are immensely useful, eating up to 5 tons of insects (many of them pests) per nest per season.  They are also inadvertent pollinators of a wide range of plants, including crops, and they are central to the food webs of life in wild Britain, helping to maintain biodiversity.  Loss of biodiversity is a major threat to our world – so spare a thought for our little striped friends.
  The Conservation Group has two events lined up for August: on Saturday the 11th we have a Working Party, and the following Saturday we have another of our ever-popular Bat Evenings. Details will be sent to our members, and can, as always, be found on our web-site.
(Contribution written by Phil Lea)

September 2012

What do the following have in common: Beaded Chestnut, Early Thorn, Peach Blossom, Scalloped Oak, Pale Oak Beauty, Willow Beauty, Centre-barred Sallow? Is it something to do with trees? So how about these then: Garden Carpet, Green Carpet, Large Wainscot? Something you might find around the house, maybe? In fact, they are all names of moths, some of the most imaginative given to any of our wild creatures. Some of them are no-nonsense references to distinctive colour patterns – the Blackneck, the Marbled Brown, or the Buff Tip, for instance. Some sound less than complimentary, like the Clouded Drab, or the even more unfortunate moth that has to answer to the name Snout. But many others are quite exuberantly poetic: the Beautiful Golden Y, the Brown-line Brighteye, the Burnished Brass, the Flame Shoulder, the Golden-Rod Pug, the Heart and Dart, the Scarlet Tiger, the Setaceous Hebrew Character, the Silvery Arches, or the Small Brindled Beauty, to name but a few.
  Something else that these twenty-five colourfully named creatures have in common is that they are not just any old moths, but local Woodcote moths, as the Conservation Group’s ‘Moth Evenings’ have shown. We have now held eight of these events – the first was in July 2007, and the most recent one took place just a few weeks ago on 20 July this year – and over the course of those five years we have managed to identify a total of ninety different species in three local gardens. (No doubt there was also the odd ‘one that got away’ unidentified.)
  The Victorian amateur entomologists who were largely responsible for coming up with all those wonderfully descriptive names would have had no qualms about condemning the specimens they netted to a display-case. Our technique is, we hope, rather more enlightened:  we attract the moths with a mercury-vapour lamp, pop them into a jar, identify them, and then let them go again (at the end of the evening, that is: no point in releasing them while the lamp is still shining, as they would simply return to go through the whole process again). And, of course, unlike those Victorians, we have digital cameras. No Moth Evening passes without scores of pictures being taken, and – as the results show – it’s not just the names that are so memorable: out there, largely unnoticed in the dark of the Woodcote night, there are some quite spectacular creatures flying around. Our Moth Evenings are open to all (they are great fun, and include refreshments!), so keep an eye on our website for future dates.
  Earlier in the year we got a bit of stick about the low water level at the Greenmoor Ponds. Now, of course, the ponds are overflowing (credit for that always welcome), which does mean that the planned reinstatement of the dipping well is temporarily in abeyance. Rest assured this will go ahead as soon as possible, and in the meantime research into the history of the well is continuing.

October 2012

You may have noticed that some of our local Red Kites have been looking rather tatty over recent months, with clear gaps in their wing or tail feathers. This is not the result of any mishap, but of the normal process of moult that all birds undergo at regular intervals. Birds need to shed and replace their feathers, as the existing mature ones are dead material that cannot repair the wear and tear it inevitably suffers. Different species moult in different ways – in terms of the length of the moult, of the degree to which the bird’s appearance changes, or of the extent to which the bird’s mobility is hindered during the feather-shedding period.
  With some of our more familiar garden birds moult is quite discreet, and has little obvious effect on the bird’s appearance or behaviour. But with other species it can be quite dramatic: this is especially the case with water birds such as ducks, which become flightless during the moult period, and where the males lose their bright plumage to turn into replicas of the duller females – a process known to ornithologists as ‘eclipse’. An explanation for this difference is that garden birds such as thrushes and finches need to retain their ability to fly in order to feed and escape from predators, whereas ducks can bide their moulting period quite happily out on the water.
  For most of our familiar birds moult is a seasonal occurrence that takes place in the summer half of the year. Clearly it is better to get this inconvenience over when the weather is warmer and food is abundant. But, of course, this is also the busy time of year when birds breed – there are nests to be built and young to be fed. Moulting is accordingly very closely related to the breeding cycle, occurring sometimes before and sometimes after nesting takes place. This latter is the normal pattern with the Red Kite, but that doesn’t mean that ‘ragged’ Kites can’t be seen in the spring: like many larger birds, Kites do not reach sexual maturity until they are two or three years old, so those ‘early moulters’ seen over Woodcote in the spring are probably juveniles not yet tied to the seasonal patterns of the adults.
  Although moult is followed by the growth of new feathers, this does not necessarily mean instant brighter plumage: many birds, after all, look much duller in their new winter coat. In fact, the brighter colours that are displayed in the spring – just in time for attracting a mate – can emerge when the dull tips of the winter feathers have worn away: this is how Starlings acquire their shiny springtime look, or the male House Sparrow his smart black bib.
  As a follow-up to last year’s very successful event, the Conservation Group is organising another fungus foray with members of the Oxfordshire Fungus Survey. All are welcome:  we shall be meeting by Common Wood on Long Toll at 1.30 p.m. on Saturday 20 October.

November 2012

Pond Conservation, a national charity dedicated to protecting the wildlife of ponds, lakes and rivers, recently launched the second phase of their ambitious Million Pond Project. Over the next seven years of this UK-wide programme, we will see the construction of 30,000 new clean-water ponds. This is the largest-ever pond creation programme in the UK, and is meant to address both the appalling loss of ponds since World War II, and the massive increase in pollution of water courses throughout the country.
Despite hundreds of millions of pounds being invested annually to control pollution, research undertaken by Pond Conservation shows that throughout lowland Britain virtually all ponds, rivers, streams and lakes are damaged by runoff and effluents. Many people have a mental picture of the ‘perfect pond’ – probably a bulrush-fringed pond on a village green, with a few ducks lazily sculling on the surface. However, many of our most threatened freshwater creatures can’t live in these types of ponds. Some species, like newts, can’t tolerate fish, which eat their young; many others, including types of caddis, alderfly and dragonfly need clean water – the sort you can only find in woodlands or flower-rich meadows with a completely unpolluted catchment.
  This is why we are so very lucky to have two large ponds in Woodcote that are of such high quality, and support such a high number of different species. The Greenmoor ponds have certainly changed over the years. Most people will recall how we nearly lost the Lower Pond completely, when an underground fault led to it losing most of its water. Now successfully restored (and extremely full) it has taken on a different look, from its once clear and still surface, to one that is positively verdant and full of a very vigorous pond plant called Water Milfoil, as well as some non-native, large water lilies. The Upper Pond is also looking rather green and full of grasses and a wide variety of aquatic plants. This massive increase in plants in both ponds is mainly due to the unusual weather patterns we have experienced this year, which has led to a both ponds looking rather choked with weeds!
  Whilst admitting that this isn’t the smooth and clear water surface of the Lower Pond that we are used to, it might be of some consolation to know that this proliferation of plants will provide a very good environment to the many species that this pond now supports. These very shaded woodland ponds, fed by water that has been filtered by a layer of sand some 2-3 metres underground, are largely free from the pollution that affects so many ponds, and the plants will certainly be helping to provide both oxygen and food for the numerous creatures that live there. However, the Conservation Group will be undertaking some winter maintenance work on both ponds and will aim to remove some of the more vigorous plants, to ensure areas of clear water.
(Contribution written by Karen Woolley)

December 2012

The WCG Fungus Foray

The afternoon of Saturday 20th October saw the Woodcote Conservation Group joined by the Oxfordshire Fungus Survey for our annual Fungus Foray, this time in Common Wood, off Long Toll. We were a little concerned about how it would go: three of us had walked in the wood two days before and seen very little, and much of what we did see was slug-chewed. We need not have worried: within five minutes of their arrival and before they had taken more than a couple of steps from their cars two OFS members had seen and identified seven species! WCG honour was saved a little because one of these, the bone-white almost translucent discs of the Porcelain Fungus, was spotted on a branch 15 feet above our heads by WCG chair John Sandford. He’s a birdwatcher, so used to looking upwards!

  The OFS, led by professional botanist Judy Webb, and WCG members went on to see a huge array of fungi of many different colours and shapes, among them the little purple toadstool-shaped Amethyst Deceiver, the tiny white coral-shaped Candle Snuff, and a huge colony of the common, but still extraordinary Shaggy Inkcaps, or Lawyers’ Wigs, which can grow over a foot [30cm] high, only to dissolve into a sort of black ink – a process known as ‘autodigestion’.  We also saw a pretty little slug (those are three words I never expected to put together) which was pale yellow with purple antennae. It’s called the Lemon Slug, and is quite rare, since it eats the fungi of ancient (over 400-year-old) woodlands. We were all very excited.

  Judy explained that fungi are an essential part of the ecology of woodlands. What we call mushrooms and toadstools are just fruiting bodies. The fungus ‘plant’ takes the form of underground threads, mycorrhizae, which live in relationship to the roots of trees, with which they exchange chemicals. Indeed, without their associated mycorrhizae, many trees would not survive. These mats of mycorrhizae can be very large, and can spread from one tree to another: ‘Trees talking to one another underground’ was the striking way Judy put it.

  Going on a fungus foray is only the beginning of learning about fungi. Though you will hear a great deal about them from the experts, if you want to remember anything you will have to do your homework, because, as with most worthwhile things, it requires effort. Start with the excellent little Field Studies Council leaflet ‘The Fungi Name Trail’; or look online at Rogers Mushrooms; then you might want to buy a good field guide, such as Roger Phillips ‘Mushrooms’ or the Collins Fungi Guide.

  And if life’s too short for all that, is it worth going on a fungus foray? Yes! Living in Woodcote, many of us care about our local countryside. A fungus foray can open our eyes, almost literally, to just how diverse, beautiful – and downright odd – is the natural world around us.

(Contribution written by Sue Sandford)

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