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Archive - Wednesday, 31 October 2012
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Tales of wild wetland still flood in
Few places are genuinely ‘steeped in history’, but Oxford’s Port Meadow is one of them. Three thousand years ago Bronze Age farmers settled here; in the 10th century King Alfred gave this pasture to the Freemen of Oxford to graze their cattle. Parts of it have, over time, been used for horse-racing, an aerodrome, a rubbish tip and ‘Dig for Victory’ allotments.
Port Meadow Picture: Marc West
When you walk on to Port Meadow from Aristotle Lane, the sheet of water that greets you is held back by a bank created when the Parliamentarians dug in during the Siege of Oxford. Today you will see teal and wigeon among the wildfowl swimming on the flooded pasture.
Port Meadow is a precious ‘green lung’, a wonderful open space where I can hear the soft ‘pee-wit’ call of lapwings just a mile from the noise and bustle of overcrowded city streets. The sweep of green that runs beside the River Thames all the way from Jericho to Wolvercote is dotted with cattle and ponies. In the distance a boat seems to be floating on the meadow as it slowly moves upstream.
The constantly changing cloudscapes and long views with water and wildlife provide the best scenic medicine against the pressures of modern life and the confines of working indoors. Combined with walking or cycling there can be no better way to stay healthy and happy. The value of Port Meadow, and other Oxford meadows, is immeasurable and deeply felt by those who love them. Commoners’ rights are one of the reasons the land has remained so open and protected from enclosure and development. Geese were kept in Wolvercote and goose-girls and boys were responsible for walking them down to the meadow and river. Descendants of those geese still nest by Godstow Abbey ruins, noisily defending their chosen spot from each other and anyone else who comes too close.
For many people the wild birds are a greater draw. The sheets of open water that spring up in winter are very attractive to flocks of wigeon, teal and shoveler, and this autumn more than a thousand golden plover can be found roosting with lapwing on the wide open spaces. Smaller birds like pied wagtails scurry along the water’s edge picking up insects, and groups of twittering linnets hustle through the bushes around the meadow edges. Occasionally local birders make the blood-stirring discovery of a rare visitor, especially when birds are on migration. Last year a white stork was seen, as well as black-tailed godwits, a wood sandpiper and little egrets. Burgess Field between the meadow and the railway, a rubbish tip reclaimed by nature with help from Oxford City Council, is a good hunting ground for peregrine falcon, hobby, and both short-eared owl and barn owls. The mix of plants growing in the sward changes seasonally with the flooding and grazing, as it must have done for millennia, and so the insects and birds that live here have adapted to survive in this habitat. Port Meadow is one of Oxford’s precious grasslands along with Yarnton, Oxey and Pixey Meads to the north. Linked by the River Thames these are so ecologically valuable that they are known collectively as the Oxford Meadows Special Area of Conservation, among the most highly protected areas in Europe. Other meadows in the city include Iffley Meadows, and the fields of Marston, Hinksey and Kennington. The beautiful wildlife living in and on our precious meadows gladdens our hearts and brightens our days, but ever-increasing pressures for housing and transport around a thriving city like Oxford could threaten these special places. If we love our meadows we must protect and nurture them for ever. l Find out more about BBOWT’s Oxey Mead nature reserve at www.bbowt.org.uk