Burcot & Clifton Hampden for the Protection of the River Thames
The most apparent feature of the landscape surrounding Clifton Hampden is the Thames and its associated habitats and it is on, within and adjoining this watercourse that some of Britain’s most rare wildlife species are flourishing after many decades of serious river pollution. The Otter has made a most welcome comeback to this location and there have been a number of sightings in the river including one seen swimming underneath the road bridge one morning in August 2014. Signs of Otters are plentiful including the depositing of spraints (droppings) and the leaving of the remains of their fish and crayfish prey along the cut and side channels. The banning of dangerous residual pesticides has, thankfully, resulted in wildlife gains so that now the Otter could reasonably be described as being ‘plentiful’ with numbers in the locality slowly ‘creeping-up’ to their pre-WW2 levels.
Breeding has been proven in many locations such as along the river Ock near Abingdon, along the Swiftditch near Culham and upstream above Oxford. It is likely that Otters also breed around Clifton Hampden and I would highlight the smaller streams on Fullamoor Farm as being a refuge of great importance to females and their cubs when disturbance is high on the main river during the boating season. The proposed quarry in this area is of great concern because, without such places, the increase in Otter numbers and distribution may be halted or reversed. The Otter enjoys full legal protection and this legislation also extends to its habitat.
Dr Bob Eeles
The Lodden Lily, also known as the Spring Snowflake (Leucojum vernum), is a very rare plant that grows along the stretch of the Thames between Oxford and Maidenhead. It can be seen in Spring at several sites by the river in Clifton Hampden, including the Wharf and the marsh near the bridge. It is a listed species of local importance with a declining population.
The 19th Century poets who wrote about these intriguing little birds certainly ‘knew’ their Skylarks, and portrayed a surprisingly accurate picture of their activities, within their various verse.
Amongst those, John Clare, who was the son of a farm labourer, and famously wrote about the disruption of the English countryside, lamented that:
“… then hangs a dust spot in the sunny skies,
And drops and drops till in her nest she lies,
Which they unheeded passed – not dreaming then
That birds, which flew so high, would drop again
To nest upon the ground, which anything
May come at to destroy.”
Skylarks are small, ground-nesting birds, which choose to nest in short vegetation, in small depressions, lined with grass and hair and, as such, the eggs and nest are vulnerable to that “which anything may come at to destroy”.
Much of the farming land in this country, which may once have been suitable for nesting, has now been ‘lost’ to these birds, as farming methods have become more intensive: increased use of pesticides; autumn-sown cereal; early grass cutting for silage (the list goes on)… leaving no room for Skylarks. Ground-nesting cannot be done just anywhere!
The agricultural land, on the south-west edge of Clifton Hampden, is unusual farmland. The wet conditions caused by the annual flooding means that much of the land cannot be autumn sown; it is not a decision made which depends upon the trend of the incumbent farmer. And the low and sparse growth of the herb, and similar, planting that is carried out within parts of this land, make ideal nesting grounds, with minimal interference by man, or machinery – and I expect the farmers appreciate the wholesale pest clearance that the Skylarks indulge in.
Skylarks are quite difficult to see in detail as, even though they may be crouching within the sparse foliage, right alongside the pathway that you are walking on, they are very well camouflaged, with complex brown and buff patterned feathers.
As you pass by them, they may fly off – skipping along the tops of the plants – showing fringes of white on their tail and wing feathers, only to land a short way off, on another patch of ground, and to once more become ‘unseen’; or they may rise vertically, singing their little hearts out, and will disappear up in the air to such a height as to, also, become virtually invisible. There the Skylark “hangs” fluttering and singing continuously: “a dust spot in the sunny skies”.
Possibly, the first time you will be aware that Skylarks are around, will be when you hear them singing and, even though they are so high up, the song is very audible; and described as ‘a long, pleasant warbling’ by the experts – or (more poetically) as a “rapture so divine”, by Shelley.
Skylarks have been classified as red-listed birds: one of the species which are most threatened in this country, because either the number of these birds is rapidly falling, or their ranges are contracting.
Skylarks appear to be thriving here, on this ‘unusual’ farmland, which is why this threat – if realised – of these fields being turned into a busy extraction site, or being subjected to the rumble of a working quarry, would have such a significant effect on the Skylark population – the “ethereal minstrel”, the “blithe Spirit” – in this part of Oxfordshire.
The Skylark is fully protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which makes it an offence to kill, injure or take an adult skylark, or to take, damage or destroy an active nest or its contents.
Articles on lapwings, barn owls and bats coming soon – watch this space!