Duxford Old River appeal
Wendy Tobitt of the Berks, Bucks & Oxon Wildlife Trust gives a guided tour of fields and forgotten backwaters that could become the largest nature reserve on the River Thames
Abrown hare pops up, standing on its hind legs among the grasses bent under the westerly breeze, scanning the horizon with its golden eyes to check for predators.
Startled by the hare, a large brown bird with mottled plumage and a distinctive curved bill flies up from its nest. Uttering a sharp alarm call the curlew flies away briefly before returning to stand guard over its mate hidden from view in the tall grasses brooding their chicks.
This field and its adjoining farmland is Duxford Old River, a missing piece of a vast wildlife jigsaw that could become part of the largest nature reserve on the River Thames, and the first to span the river.
We are now in the final weeks of an appeal run by the Berks, Bucks & Oxon Wildlife Trust
to buy Duxford Old River, 113 acres of farmland beside the forgotten backwaters of the river, and opposite the Trust’s existing Chimney Meadows nature reserve.
Neil Clennell, the Trust’s Conservation & Education Director for Oxfordshire is leading the appeal: “We need to raise £220,000 towards the purchase price to take full advantage of this unmissable opportunity to buy land in the upper Thames floodplain, and see what happens for wildlife when you allow nature to take its course.”
At Chimney Meadows, across the Thames from the Duxford land, the Wildlife Trust has spent the last 14 years carefully restoring 645 acres of arable farmland to traditional floodplain meadows. These are now full of wild flowers and insects, with ancient and new wild hedgerows for bats to forage over and birds to nest in.
If the Trust is successful with the Duxford Old River appeal they will take a completely different approach to looking after the land. “We can take a step back and let nature lead the way,” says Neil.
“Reconnecting the river with its floodplain, creating backwaters and meanders for fish to spawn in and for otters and water voles to live in, will complement and enhance the mosaic of habitats on the other side of the river at Chimney.
“The fields at Duxford are a vast blank canvas giving us a unique opportunity to naturalise part of the floodplain of
the upper Thames. Natural ponds will create wetlands for curlew and lapwing to breed in, and give safe havens for thousands of overwintering wildfowl such as gadwall and teal, pintail and snipe.
“Some of the land may become swampy, some of it could turn back into scrub as the trees from the hedgerows selfseed into the fields and we would allow areas of wet woodland to grow up.
“This landscape will change whatever happens, which is one of the reasons why the Wildlife Trust wants to buy this land.”
The Wildlife Trust’s vision is an environment rich in wildlife, valued by all, and that is what we hope to create here in the upper Thames.
In so many places wildlife is being squeezed out of its natural habitats where it used to flourish. Chimney Meadows nature reserve is already at the heart of the Trust’s Upper Thames Living Landscape area and the addition of the Duxford Old River land will give us another piece of the vast jigsaw for wildlife.
Hidden from the Thames Path, which currently skirts the southern boundary of Chimney Meadows nature reserve and may soon pass right through the middle of the new nature reserve, is the old River Thames gently flowing out of sight over a low weir.
These are the backwaters and meanders now cut off from the main navigable river when a new channel was cut through to Shifford so that heavily laden boats full of Cotswolds wool and grain could trade in Oxford and London.
Beyond the weir the series of meanders are natural watery playgrounds for otters and water voles, and the reeds full of dragonflies and damselflies. Swallows swoop over the white flowers of water crowfoot floating in the languid river as they gather insects to feed their young fledglings perched in the reeds.
The weir and a concrete ford currently prevent fish from taking full advantage of these gentle meanders. The Trust intends to bypass the weir and the ford and allow fish Otter to get into Duxford Old River, spawn and increase their numbers in the Thames.
This could be a haven for the extraordinary club-tailed dragonfly, a rare insect that needs slow-flowing rivers with silty beds for its burrowing larvae, and tall trees nearby where the adult dragonflies thrive.
Neil Clennell is passionate about the opportunities for naturalising both land and the old river. “It’s the potential that’s so exciting here. It’s a beautiful, tranquil place that has been farmed sympathetically to benefit wildlife, but it could be even better with a rich mosaic of habitats that complement the traditional floodplain meadows full of wild flowers on the opposite side of the river.
“Our ecology officer Colin Williams recorded 45 species of bird in one hour, including Cetti’s and grasshopper warblers, a little egret, a large white bird that was once a rarity in England and is now a familiar resident benefiting from the effects of climate change, and a pair of nesting curlew.”
The melodious bubbling call of the curlew is the one of the sounds of Duxford Old River that evokes the essence of the Wildlife Trust’s appeal.
These fields and the meanders have the potential to be a unique haven for the special wildlife of land and water. Curlews and otters, dragonflies and water voles have been squeezed out of their natural habitats in other areas. But here on the naturalised floodplain they will thrive.
Club-tailed dragonfly by Vicky Nall
Brown hare at Duxford by Andrew Marshall
Above: Banded demoiselles feed on water crowfoot by Andrew Marshall Below: Little egret by Jason Buck Above Right: Otter by Rob Appleby
‘Our ecology officer Colin Williams recorded 45 species of bird in one hour’
Little egret by Jason Buck