No. 89– SPRING 2009
For me, winter is the time for trees – outlining the landscape with
their stark skeletons. On many Cotswold roads, especially that from Burford
to Cirencester, they droop over the roads like very old men, their gnarled
arthritic arms festooned in what – in a winter mist – appear
to be cobwebs, but in reality are the winter remains of Traveller’s
Joy (Old Man’s Beard). The great oaks of Blenheim have so many cracks,
crinkles and hollows that they always seem like the illustrations of children’s
fiction – you can almost imagine you see a face in the trunk. But
it is the yews which to me most make their brooding presence known. A
churchyard giant has seen many generations of humans come and go –
it has witnessed the optimism of baptisms, the joy of marriages and the
grief and despair of funerals and burials. Oxfordshire has its share of
giant yews, with one in the churchyard at Heythrop having a circumference
of 7.5 m.
After a long, cold winter, spring has finally burst forth. In St Hughes’
gardens at the weekend I saw wild Bluebells in flower, and also Fumitory.
The week before, the Primroses were not as numerous as in previous years,
but the stitchworts were twinkling in the hedges on the Quantock hills
in Somerset, and the Buzzards were courting on the Somerset levels. There
was a Skylark singing above my garden in mid-February – the earliest
I’ve ever heard.
Judging by the number of road-kills, the Rabbits are already breeding
prolifically. Increasing numbers of Magpies are playing “chicken”
on the roads as they leave it till the last minute to abandon their finds.
Again, the Toads seem to have migrated in small groups this year –
no great numbers flattened on the roads here. But the cherry tree on next
door’s lawn was encircled by headless toads the other morning –
any ideas on the culprit? I’m guessing a cat.
The greening of England is also proceeding in another sense of the word,
with the government about to promote the purchase of greener cars, set
up a scheme for getting old polluting rust-buckets off the road, and encouraging
the use of wood-burning stoves. In the last few years the push for biofuels
led to them being grown on former agricultural or forested land, forcing
food cultivation to shift to more marginal areas, with increased need
for fertilisers and greater risk of soil erosion and excessive irrigation.
The saving in fossil fuel emissions was countered by the increased output
of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from the burning of forests to make
room for the biofuel crops. An interesting line of research in the western
USA is the use of large vats of algae producing energy by photosynthesis,
arrayed in the desert like the great hectares of photovoltaic solar panels.
The wood-burners are not always environmentally such a good idea. Apparently
we don’t really have enough wood available, so much of it is imported
from Canada, entailing considerable burning of fossil fuels to cut it
down, transport it to ports and then by ship to England and by truck to
With the demise of set-aside, one wonders what effect this will have on
our wildlife. The potential loss of habitat for mice and voles may well
impact on our already threatened Barn Owl population and also our Kestrels.
In an attempt to help, conservation groups, including BBOWT, have been
putting up owl nesting boxes to compensate for the loss of many old eaves
as barns and farms are converted to elite homes with UPVC eaves. In November
the Oxford Times reported a scheme for inmates of the Spring Hill open
prison near Bicester to make the boxes in their workshops, with no charge
for manpower. Mike Read’s splendid talk on owls has made us even
more aware of what a great loss it would be if we allow them to decline
without putting up a fight for them.
It is rumoured that the sound of the Cuckoo may soon be seldom heard in
the land. In years past Cuckoos have mated in the willows at the end of
my garden. But last year I heard but a single Cuckoo – on Dartmoor.
While some wildlife is in decline in Oxfordshire, it is encouraging that
some is on the increase. Last year a European Beaver, escaped from captivity
and set up home on the Thames in Oxfordshire. A Beaver introduction trial
is taking place next door in Gloucestershire, so maybe these animals will
return to us after an absence of some 400 years. Polecats, spreading east
from their stronghold in Wales, have reached Oxfordshire. And it seems
Oxfordshire has one of the purest Polecat populations in England, with
very few Polecat–Ferret hybrids (Ferrets were originally bred from
Polecats). Apparently Polecats survive better in the wild than Ferrets.
As the Mink population is brought under control, the Polecats may perhaps
do even better.
The Club has had a wide range of activities this year, ranging from trips
to various parts so the Cotswolds to further afield at Slimbridge, and
to the Living Rain Forest near Newbury. We had our usual dawn chorus with
President Graham Wren in May. Those who went on the walk along the River
Coln were treated to a colourful fly-past of the Red Arrows, who coiled
their streamers into a colourful heart with an arrow through the middle.
Included in the programme was a ‘scenic’ summer walk that
took in Badbury Hill and Faringdon Folly.
Winter talks have ranged from the fauna of the Farne Islands to the dragonflies,
butterflies and other British wildlife, both local and further afield,
including a splendid illustrated talk on Barn Owls, where even the life-long
twitchers among us learned something new. Speaking of twitchers, we have
discovered a “plant twitcher” - Brian Laney’s talk on
rare and localised wildflowers of Britain was an amazing array of fascinating
species and where and when he had seen them, delivered with great enthusiasm
that left us all eager to hear still more.
Our social included the usual Christmas dinner, back at the Maytime at
Asthall now it has recovered from the 2007 floods, and a summer party
at the Swan at Radcot Bridge. Hopefully, this coming summer it will at
last be warm and dry enough to sit out by the river there.
ANNUAL GENERAL MEETING 6 March 2009
The 46th Annual General Meeting of the West Oxon Field Club was held on
6 March 2009 at the Methodist Church Hall, High Street, Witney. Fewer
members than usual attended –about 30 – sickness may have
limited the numbers. The President, Graham Wren, took charge of the proceedings.
First, the Treasurer, Tony Florey, introduced the balance sheet for 2008.
After explaining some of the expenses, he told of the need to raise the
Annual Subscriptions for 2010. He proposed that they should be £20
for single and £30 for double, with £3 for juniors and £3
per meeting for visitors. The members endorsed this unanimously.
Tony then spoke about Muriel Seward, who had died recently, aged 97 years.
She, together with her husband, Len, had been a loyal Club member for
The Chairman, Sue Morton, then summarized the Club’s activities
during the past 12 months. These included trips to Slimbridge, Ardley
Quarry (complete with hard hats), Eastleach for the Dawn Chorus (followed
by breakfast at Hailey), Newent and Sherbourne. A short visit to Diss
and a Summer Party at Radcot Bridge completed the outdoor ventures. There
was also a full programme of indoor meetings culminating with a Christmas
meal at ‘The Maytime’ at Asthall. Avery Baines and Ray Edwards
were thanked for their efforts in completing the programmes. Suggestions
for other summer outings and leaders where possible were invited.
Then Tony Florey paid tribute to Avery Baines who has retired from the
Committee. She has prepared the Club Programme for 20 years (carrying
on the good work of Dorothy Bolton). She was presented with a Gift Token
and given Life Membership of the West Oxon Field Club.
After the President had acknowledged the contributions of some of the
long-serving members of the Committee (40 years in one instance), the
Meeting concluded with a talk by Mike Reid on ‘The Barn Owl –
under cover of darkness’. The visual display and amusing delivery
were what we have come to expect from this popular speaker and everyone
A week or so ago I wondered if this newsletter might be the first not
to be produced but I need not have been concerned as you have turned up
trumps and enough contributions have come in to make up a newsletter.
Jill Bailey, as ever, has come up with a very interesting editorial. Most
of the outdoor meetings have been covered by reports with the notable
exception of the Fungus Foray which is a shame as I heard that a rarity
was found. Was this ratified?
The deadline for the next newsletter is the end of August 2009 but if
you write up your report soon after the event, when the information is
still fresh in your mind, please send it in straightaway either by e-mail
as an attachment (Word is preferred) or on paper by snail-mail to the
address given on the programme.
Brenda Betteridge (Newsletter
Muriel Seward 1912–2009
Members will be saddened to learn of the death of Muriel in February.
She was a very keen member of the Club with her husband, Len. They were
very keen cyclists and older members will remember their nature-cycle
trips they led round the Minster Lovell/Asthall area.
With her husband, Len, she was a WOFC member from 1979 until 2004 when
he died and she moved from Kidlington to Goring-by-Sea to be nearer their
daughter. She enjoyed living there very much and attended the day centre
up to 4 days a week and on Saturday mornings. In April 2008 she re-visited
their other daughter at Churchill in the far north of Canada and went
dog-sledging on the Truckers’ Road and also on the Rocky Mountain
railway. Churchill is the settlement where Polar Bears congregate and
wait around until the sea ice freezes again.
She had many happy memories of the Club, and I always sent her a programme
and newsletter to keep her up to date with the Club activities.
REPORTS OF FIELD MEETINGS
Faringdon 3 August 2008
This was a departure from our usual field study expeditions this summer
and was mainly for the far-reaching views of the countryside.
We met at Badbury Hill and walked around the Iron Age hill-fort which
is renowned for its spectacular Beech trees and the Bluebell displays
in spring and early summer. Some of the trees are really impressive and
make one wonder how the relatively slender trunk manages to support the
weight of the array of huge branches spreading out above. From the east
side a fine view of Faringdon town and the surrounding countryside opens
up. Like most of the summer, however, it was rather overcast and rain
threatened at times so was not very inviting for any butterflies to sport
themselves as we headed off through the fields and down
to Great Coxwell tithe barn.
This impressive building dating back to the early 1300s was one of William
Morris’s favourite buildings and would have been used to store a
variety of crops but mainly grain brought to the barn in sheaves, threshed
on the open threshing floors and then stored in the granary.
After lunch at the Swan at Radcot bridge we headed up to Faringdon Folly
which was having an open day and we climbed the stairs of the 100-foot
high tower to marvel at the view from the top and pick out various places
known to us. It was built by Lord Berners in 1935 as one of the last follies
in the country. On a clear day as many as five counties can be seen.
Northleach 6 September 2008
There was a wedding in the church the afternoon Ken had chosen to lead
a walk from of Northleach which meant that there was no parking left in
the square, but as there were only five of us who arrived in two cars
it was not a problem – on-street parking spaces were found not far
away. The wedding party must have been disappointed with the weather which
was probably the reason why so few members turned up for this walk. It
was cool and it rained for most of the duration – fortunately not
enough to soak us.
We soon left the town behind, climbing up through the fields to the west.
Stopping to regain our breath we looked round at the view and identified
Blackheath Clump to the west and Bradbury Castle to the south. We turned
towards Hampnett, walking along Helen’s Ditch before joining Monarch’s
Way. Although some summer flowers were still hanging on, there were definite
signs that autumn was nearly here with the fruits ripening in the hedgerows
and Ivy in flower, providing food for late insects. At the edge of an
unharvested wheat field several flowering arable plants, including the
rather rare Dwarf Spurge, were spotted. The wheat, long overdue for harvesting,
was sprouting in the ear.
The conditions under foot were very wet and as we entered the valley water
seemed to be running everywhere. We passed a stone-built sheep wash, which
had been restored, before we climbed up the hill to Hampnett church. From
here the route back to Northleach crossed a field on which manure had
been spread. In the field below there was plenty of opportunity for washing
our boots – it was flooded! On regaining the road by the Old Prison
we resisted the temptation to stop for a cup of tea in the café
there as we were all anxious to get home and dry out.
Thank you Ken for leading this walk and giving it added interest with
information about the history, geology, etc. as we went along.
Annual Meadow Grass
A mallow (garden escape)
Coln Valley Walk 14 September
On a rather dull but dry afternoon a group of Field Club members took
a fairly leisurely stroll along the edge of the River Coln following its
winding way from the village of Coln St Aldwyn to Bibury. This is a very
pleasant walk through the Coln Valley with undulating farmland on both
sides for most of the way – quintessential Cotswold country with
sheep grazing in the valley and on the hillsides.
From a naturalist’s point of view it was slightly disappointing
as there was little flora and fauna to be seen other than Swans, Mallards
and Moorhen on the river and a few field birds listed below and some blackberries
and other autumn fruits growing in various hedgerows.
The walk is approximately 2½ to 3 miles, quite short really but
we were glad to reach Bibury to sit in the garden of the ‘Catherine
Wheel’ and enjoy a welcome cup of tea during which we were treated
to a fly-past of Lesser Black-backed Gulls in V formation.
The finale of the afternoon was an aerial display by the ‘Red Arrows’
during which several emissions of coloured ‘streamers’ were
made, one of which was a heart with an arrow through the centre. I have
never known the RAF be so romantic!
Birds seen and heard (H):
Robin Long-tailed Tits
Pheasants Wren (H)
Chaffinch (H) Jackdaws
Chedworth 9 November 2008
Seven of us met up near the NT Roman Villa on a wet and windy afternoon.
There was still some autumn colour, mainly on the lower parts of beech
trees where the leaves had escaped the wind and remained intact. We only
did the shorter walk of the two mentioned in the winter programme: along
the old railway track and back through the ancient coppiced deciduous
woodland. The coppice stools here haven’t been cut for many years;
some of the oak and ash ones are 3 m in diameter with up to twelve 30-cm-diameter
boles growing up from them, forming a high canopy. During the walk several
toadstools of different kinds were seen. Earlier, on the way to the rendezvous,
we saw literally hundreds of winter thrushes, mainly fieldfares, which
were eating haws on roadside hedgerow trees. Despite the rain it was an
Buzzard Redwing Magpie Tawny Owl (heard) Wren
Mistle Thrush Pheasant Woodpigeon Great-spotted Woodpecker Nuthatch
Jay Long-tailed Tit Blue Tit Great Tit Fieldfare
Cornwell 4 January 2009
It was a very cold, frosty winter’s afternoon when seven Field Club
members were joined by a family of four (as guests for the afternoon),
at the start of our walk from the small village of Cornwell through its
estate on public footpaths.
This is a ‘model’ village with its own small Norman church
and Jacobean Manor House. The architect, Sir Clough Williams-Ellis (famous
for his Mediterranean-style village of Portmeirion in Gwynedd) completely
rebuilt the village and laid out the manor garden, channelling a brook
under a cobbled footpath, across a road to make a shallow ford and then
on to feed the manor pool.
Starting from the telephone kiosk we followed the road through the village
until we reached a wood on our left. It was very crispy underfoot from
the hard frost and at this point a few flakes of snow started to fall
and the sky threatened more, but fortunately it came to nothing. Continuing
our walk we dropped down to a stream and crossed a small stone bridge,
under which icicles were hanging, and climbed a short but steep hill which
lead to a narrow lane bordered by a tall hedge. A pair of Buzzards flew
low above us as we continued along the lane. After a quarter mile we branched
right dropping down to another valley and crossing another small stone
bridge we climbed a short hill which lead into the churchyard.
The church of St Peter is interesting in that it has a little belfry,
an old sundial and a stone slab from a coffin which acts as a seat inside
the porch. It is the church where Rachael Ward (Maggie from the ‘Thorn
Birds’) was married. It is screened by a group of very old Yew trees
and by the gate we stopped to admire a three which was laden with reddish
coloured fruit, thought to be Malus ‘John Downie’.
We continued our walk, passing the side of the Manor House and its orchard
(in which we counted 17 Blackbirds and 10 Fieldfares busily feeding on
fall-down apples) returning via the village to our starting point.
Finally, we could not resist a short walk down the ‘main’
road to take a look at the front of the Manor House and pool through the
elegant wrought iron gate and admired a pair of swans looking very graceful
on the lake further down.
Buzzards Blackbirds Fieldfares
Rooks Crows Greenfinch
Wren Chaffinch Pigeons
Jackdaws (large flock) Robin
There is always something new
On Thursday 14 August, a decapitated partially plucked juvenile Woodpigeon
(Columba palumbus) was found on our top lawn, near by was a pile of feathers
and a quantity of peas obviously from its crop. About half of the breast
meat had been untidily removed on both sides, lookin as if a shovel had
been used! – not a neat job – the trademark of a Sparrowhawk
(Accipiter nisus). I temporarily moved the carcass into the sunlight to
take several photographs, and then replaced it. The following morning
the carcass had gone and a Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis) feather (see below)
remained as evidence of the predator. This has to be the most exciting
record for the garden in our 13 years here (near Ross on Wye), although
I have seen Goshawks overhead on several occasions. Another first for
the garden was a Wood Warbler (Phylloscopus sibilatrix) on 16 September
Graham J. Wren
Sightings from Stonefold
‘Our’ Barn Owl
A few days before Mike Reid’s fascinating talk ‘The Barn Owl—under
the cloak of darkness’, Ken noticed some owl pellets on the floor
of an open shed in our garden. We forgot to take them to the meeting but
one of Mike’s slides illustrated all the different pellets making
it easy for us to identify ‘ours’ as those produced by a Barn
Owl. As well as the pellets Ken noticed copious white splashes all down
planks of wood stood upright for storage – the owl had obviously
used these to perch on. A few weeks later at dusk, a Barn Owl was seen
through the utility room window perching on a Hawthorn bush. It stayed
there for about 20 minutes before flying off down the lane.
This March we were privileged to witness flocks of Golden Plovers, wheeling
around in the sky over the fields to the south of our home. They turned
as one, flashing their white bellies and made up different formations,
rather like shoals of fish. Presumably they were on migration to their
breeding areas on the moors in the north of England. Sometimes they landed
in the newly sown field next to our garden, giving us good close-up views
with the binoculars. Busy in the garden we would notice their presence
by their characteristic bubbling calls as they flew overhead
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