HIDDEN away in a tiny Oxfordshire village is an extraordinary secret.

A small stretch of the River Thame in Waterstock, near Wheatley, is home to more rare or endangered animals and plants than almost any other site in the county.

Otters and their cubs play in the water; falcons and owls haunt the trees nearby and striking ‘bee orchids’ bloom in the grassland.

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But some of the most exceptional residents of this wildlife wonderland are its extremely rare curlews.

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This strange-looking creature with its long, curved beak, is the UK’s largest wading bird and has one of the most evocative calls of all birds.

It is also one of the UK’s most rapidly-declining breeding bird species.

Between 1994 and 2010, the UK population plummeted 46 per cent, and the UK now holds 28 per cent of the European breeding population.

The decline, as with so much wildlife, is largely attributed to destruction of habitat.

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However amidst this catastrophe, the River Thame at Waterstock has become a haven for the threatened birds.

Last year, the RSPB estimated there were 12 breeding pairs in the area east of Oxford.

This is part of the reason that Waterstock Flood Meadows was this month crowned as an official Local Wildlife Site.

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The designation, awarded by the Thames Valley Environmental Records Centre (TVERC) and Berks Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust (BBOWT), recognises the site as having ‘high wildlife value’ or containing threatened species of county or national importance.

The accolade is in huge part down to the work of dedicated local volunteers, many of them working for the River Thame Conservation Trust, who have surveyed the flora and fauna, captured it on camera and helped with practical conservation work such as installing owl boxes for nesting.

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Among them is Waterstock resident Henry Manisty, who joined an official designation event on Wednesday.

He said: “I have lived in the village for over 20 years and have always enjoyed seeing kingfishers, grey wagtails and little egrets feeding along the river, and regularly captured otters and polecats on our wildlife cameras.

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“However, it wasn’t until we started working with the RTCT and their volunteer bird surveyors that we were able to monitor professionally the exceptional variety of birdlife.

“It’s a real honour for my land and our neighbouring flood meadows to become a Local Wildlife Site.”

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Sally Rowlands, chairwoman of the RTCT, added: “We fairly quickly discovered that Waterstock is a hidden jewel in the crown of the River Thame.

“It’s brilliant the area is now formally on the birding map of Oxfordshire and the efforts of local landowners recognised for the great work they are doing to provide fantastic habitat.”