The wild side of Wickwar
It might be one of the Cotswolds’ best known villages, but there’s more to see here than just the famous brewery, says Sue Bradley
Wickwar is possibly not among the Cotswolds’ best known villages – a statement that real ale buffs may wish to dispute on account of its highly regarded brewery – but it’s top of the list for naturalists looking for something a little bit special.
Lying on its border is Lower Woods, an area of coppiced trees stretching just over 700 acres, making it one of the largest ancient woodlands in the South West. Popular with dog walkers, runners, den makers and wildlife enthusiasts alike, this Site of Special Scientific Interest is a place like no other.
Neil Lodge has been looking after the coppiced woodland for Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust for five years, and his enthusiasm for the site is tangible. “It’s a timeless place, somewhere you can really escape,” he says. “It’s a place in which it’s possible to get a feeling of remoteness and wildness.”
This is an area of heavy clay so it’s always been unsuitable for agriculture. Lower Woods’ historical importance lies in its link with the pre-historic wild woods that once covered much of the UK, and its position between several major settlements, all of which could be reached through its historic trackways known as ‘trenches’ – taken from the French word for ‘slice’. They have names such as Horton Great Trench, Plumber’s Trench, Green Trench, and Don’s Trench (named in honour of the late head forester at Badminton, Don Watts). Laid end to end, the pathways through Lower Woods would cover 60km.
Trees growing in the area have been coppiced for centuries, which means they’re cut to the ground every few years and their wood is harvested for a variety of purposes, including tool handles, charcoal and firewood. Proof of the long history of this practice can be seen in the ancient ash ‘stools’ that sit around the area and it’s continued today by Neil and his band of hard-working volunteers.
Geologists are drawn to the area to examine layers of Cotham Marble, a stromatolitic limestone that looks a bit like brain tissue and is peculiar to the South West and south Wales, while palaeontologists value it for the ammonites and bi-valves that appear in the river that flows through it. There’s even a layer known as the ‘bone bed’.
The many plants found in the woodland include the rare orchid violet helleborine, (Epipactis purpurata) along with the wild service tree (Sorbus torminalis) which tends to be a feature of ancient woodlands. The site is visited by several woodland butterflies, the silver-washed fritillary, white admiral and white-letter hairstreak among them.
Lower Woods attracts a wide range of mammals, including roe, fallow and muntjac deer, and dormice. It also has 12 of the UK’S 17 species of bats.
If an ancient woodland wasn’t enough, Wickwar also sits on the edge of Inglestone Common – an expanse of unimproved grassland that’s one of only two sites in the UK to host the rare adder’s tongue spearwort (Ranunculus ophioglossifolius), also known as the Badgeworth buttercup.
Neil Lodge spends more time than most in Lower Woods and on Inglestone Common and he says he wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. He encourages people to visit, and advises newcomers to bring a map.
“Inside the wood you can really feel the sheer history of the place. It’s a great spot to recharge. People who come here adore it. Some come every single day.”
COTSWOLD GREATS THE HAZEL DORMOUSE
Some wild animals make a habit of being seen, while others stay firmly out of the limelight, quietly going about their business as the seasons pass by.
Among them is the hazel, or common, dormouse, a threatened species that has strongholds in several nature reserves managed by the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, such as Siccaridge Wood near Sapperton, Lower Woods near Wickwar and Poor’s Allotment in the Forest of Dean.
This nocturnal, tree-dwelling mammal is so secretive that the only evidence of its presence is the nibbled nut shells it leaves behind as it prepares for hibernation. Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust places nesting boxes around its sites, which are monitored by licensed individuals.
The hazel dormouse (Muscardinus avellanarius) measures just 6.5 to 8cm and its tail is 80% of its body length. Before hibernation it weighs 20g, rising to almost double prior to its long winter sleep. It’s the only small British mammal with a furry tail, which it puts to good use when travelling through the trees.
Dormice make nests out of honeysuckle bark, or similar plants, and have the ability to go into a state of torpor – a short sleep – to save energy should it turn wet and cold, or food is scarce. They hibernate in nests in leaf litter or under hedgerows between October and May.
Roe deer, by Wildstock
Silver-washed fritillary, by Doug Jenkins
Badgeworth buttercup, by Brian Clarke