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Aston Rowant NNR

Visit to Aston Rowant NNR, Sunday 3 July 2022

When Dr Tim King, our leader, started his reseach at Aston Rowant national nature reserve, he found the continuous loud singing of many skylarks for hour after hour a little trying.  A few years later, the reserve was divided in two by the dramatic cutting for the new M40 motorway at the top of Stokenchurch hill, and these days in parts of the reserve the skylarks are drowned out by the roar of traffic – but it’s still a glorious place.

This visit was a follow-up to a talk that Tim had given the Club in November last year on the role of yellow meadow ants in grassland management.  Twelve members met Tim and Stephanie Wilson, the reserve warden, in the Cowleaze car park on a sunny but rather breezy morning, and we set off to see some of the estimated 100,000 anthills on the reserve. 

On a steep slope of chalk grassland, full of flowers and butterflies, Tim produced a soil sampler and took a core out of one of the anthills, to show us what was going on underground.  Many agitated workers were running around, and we saw some winged males who didn’t seem so bothered by the sudden invasion of their privacy.  When we had all had a look, the core was carefully replaced.  Tim pointed out that the anthills often have different flora from the surrounding area, and the cooler north sides tend to have moss growing on them.  They are often covered in wild thyme and rock roses, which can grow up through the soil that the ants throw up. Anthills are also favourite places for rabbits to dung, although nobody seems to know why. Perhaps they just like the view from the top. Further along the side of the hill, in an area of shorter grass, we saw many pyramidal and common spotted orchids.

Stephanie told us how the grassland was managed, with some grazing and also mowing, including with a “robomower”. The flower-rich grassland that we admired is a completely artificial landscape and is only kept this way by careful management.

Some of the party returned to the car park, and the rest of us crossed an ancient sunken road and entered Linky Down, where Tim had been involved in a long-running experiment to see how the grassland would regenerate if left to its own devices.  A number of rectangular plots were fenced off to keep out grazing animals – and people – and the trees that arrived were recorded over the following years.  The plots are now full of mature trees, including juniper, and have recently been re-fenced with a grant from the Ecological Continuity Trust.

On the way back to the car park, we passed a patch of very pale rock roses, and in a corner of a field a “showroom” for different types of gates, for pedestrians, vehicles and horse riders.

After the group had thanked Tim for a wonderful visit, John and I went back to the first slope that we had visited and found a bench for lunch with a truly stupendous view over what looked like the whole of Oxfordshire. A final bonus for me was spotting a speckled bush cricket nymph sunning itself on a bramble leaf!

Male Speckled bush-cricket nymph, Aston Rowant.

The species list can be found here.

Sue Morton, 31 July 2022