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

Cotswold Life - - CONTENTS - You can give to the Dux­ford Old River ap­peal via this web­site: bit.ly/dux­for­doldriver

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.

WA­TERY PLAY­GROUNDS

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

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