Wendy Tobitt of the wildlife trust looks at three precious local fenland habitats

When you look at a map of Oxford there are no obvious links between the three nature reserves of Lye Valley in Headington, Rivermead in Rose Hill and Chilswell Valley on the slopes of Boars Hill. But to ecologists at the Berks, Bucks & Oxon Wildlife Trust, and countryside managers at Oxford City Council, these three sites each hold precious fragments of a very rare and threatened habitat for some of our most beautiful nature.

Calcareous, or limestone, fen probably means little to many people, other than an area likely to be damp or boggy and be filled with impenetrable vegetation!

But if you love to see brightly coloured damselflies and dragonflies darting and skimming across pools, or enjoy the breathtaking sight of wild flowers such as grass-of-Parnassus and the delicate bee orchid, these wild places are fascinating and very special.

Fenland habitats are rare in this part of England. The only other site around Oxford is Cothill Fen, near Abingdon, and they are found around the city because of the underlying geology and water sources on the hills and in a few valleys. The ecologically rich habitats have been fed since the retreat of the last Ice Age by alkaline springs that flush water from the permeable rocks of the Corallian ridge where it meets impermeable Oxford clay.

The three small pockets of Oxford’s fenland and the Cothill Fen contain flora and fauna that cannot be found anywhere else between North Wales and East Anglia; this is priority habitat on the Government’s Biodiversity Action Plan.

Given the immense pressure of development in and around Oxford, it’s amazing these sites still exist. Chilswell Valley, a 6.3-hectare site, includes a deep ravine with the Chilswell stream at the bottom — the steep sides probably saved this beautiful woodland, limestone grassland and fen from becoming a golf course!

The 4.5 hectares of Lye Valley in Headington, another ravine-like valley, is almost entirely surrounded by housing and the Churchill Hospital, with Cowley Marsh at the southern boundary. The designation of part of the Lye Valley as a Site of Special Scientific Interest has given some protection.

Rivermead Nature Park, three hectares that borders the River Thames and the Oxford Ring Road, was probably too boggy for houses when Rose Hill was developed. Under the Wild Oxford project, which starts this month, Lye Valley, Rivermead and Chilswell Valley will be managed by BBOWT in partner-ship with the sites’ owner, Oxford City Council, and local communities including residents’ groups, conservation volunteers and the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

The Wild Oxford project is a fascinating opportunity to bring the people of Oxford closer to the unique and historic biodiversity of our city. Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) through a grant of £54,800, and a grant of £7,100 from TOE2, the Trust for Oxfordshire’s Environment with funds from Grundon Waste Management, the two-year project aims to inspire people to take part in looking after their local wild spaces. Councillor Mark Lygo, Oxford City Council board member for sport, parks and events, supports Wild Oxford. He said: “This is an exciting project and I hope that our communities get involved.”

Andy Gunn, the Wild Oxford project manager, has already met local groups including representat-ives from the Rose Hill Regeneration Partnership, Friends of Lye Valley, and Oxford Urban Wildlife Group.

“There’s a real feeling of excitement about this project, and I’m looking forward to working with local groups to run workshops for people of all ages and abilities covering traditional conservation skills such as coppicing, hedgelaying and scything,” says Andy.

“There’s a lot of history associated with Lye Valley and Chilswell Valley. We’ll be celebrating the Tudor botanists from Oxford University who discovered and recorded the fenland at Lye Valley in the 16th century. And it will be fun to see the traditional Good Friday Picnic reinstated at Happy Valley, the local name for Chilswell Valley.”

Find out more about and how get involved with Wild Oxford: andygunn@bbowt.org.uk

To find out more about nature reserves in Oxfordshire log on to www.bbowt.org.uk