JENNY STEEL  Fascinating Otmoor




How to Create a Wildlife Friendly Garden - BBC Easy Gardening

Growing the 10 Best Plants for Wildlife in your Garden - BBC Gardens Illustrated

A Flavour of April in your Wildlife Friendly Garden - Country and Border Life

The Rural Craft of Hedgelaying in Dorset - The Countryman

Managing your Garden in October  - Country and Border Life

The Historic Welsh Gardens of Plas Tan y Bwlch - The Countryman

Looking after the Bees in your Garden - Daily Express

Making Wildlife Ponds the Easy Way - Daily Express

Wings over Mull - a Centre for Birds of Prey - The Countryman

A New Garden for Wildlife with Butterflies in Mind - Butterfly Conservation

The Extraordinary Wildlife Art of Ian and Richard Lewington - Limited Edition Magazine

'I went to Noke and Nobody Spoke' - Fascinating Otmoor - Limited Edition Magazine

Gardening on the Wild Side of Town - New Consumer Magazine

Peter Parks and the Great Rainforest Project - Limited Edition Magazine

The Countryside in January - Limited Edition Magazine

The Countryside in May - Limited Edition Magazine

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Contact Jenny to find out more about her freelance writing


'Lapwing, flapwing are your babies grown

Each of them small enough to hide beneath a stone'

 from an old song in A Book of Baby Birds by B. Parker published in the 1930s

Oxfordshire has many stunning landscapes, but few can rival the almost magical tranquillity of Otmoor.  Steeped in history and myth, this area of low lying land to the east of Oxford, surrounded by the ‘Seven Towns’ of Otmoor, has legends associated with it that stretch far back in time.  Bizarre beasts were reported to roam here, taking livestock at night, strange ailments could be caught by unsuspecting travellers, and tales of walkers lost in the mists were commonplace.  I almost became one of those lost souls when visiting this favourite wildlife haunt many years back.  Heavily pregnant, I had to be hauled from the deep wet mud by my three companions as I slowly sank past the tops of my wellington boots!  Our expedition to the flooded centre of the moor to see the over-wintering wildfowl and waders there, especially my favourite lapwings, had to be abandoned much to the annoyance of my friends.  Maybe the mythical bottomless mires really did exist!

In the sultry heat of August and safely on dry land, I recently found myself on Otmoor again.  There were common blue, marbled white and ringlet butterflies dancing along the ditch banks, a hobby hawking overhead for dragonflies, sedge and reed warblers singing from the ditches and there were lapwings – several hundred of them - lifting into the air as the hobby passed nearby.

In the distant past The ‘Fen of Otta’ was once an extensive marshy area that provided a living for the people of the seven villages (Beckley, Noke, Oddington, Charlton-on-Otmoor, Fencott, Mercott and Horton-cum-Studley) perched around its edges.  Only accessible on foot, it flooded all winter and wet areas and pools persisted into the summer months.  The local wildfowl were caught and sold in Islip market or in Oxford, and cattle and geese grazed on the wet pastures. But change was afoot when serious drainage began, followed by the Enclosure Acts which removed the Commoners’ rights to the land that provided their livelihood.  All this culminated in the infamous Otmoor Riots.  More than a thousand local men removed hedges and drains and there were many arrests.  But in spite of their protests, Otmoor, with its new hedges and small fields had changed forever although the centre continued to flood in spite of the drainage ditches, providing a protected refuge for large numbers of birds and other wildlife.  The patchwork appearance was even noticed by Lewis Caroll who modelled the chessboard in Alice Through The Looking Glass on the view of Otmoor from his home in Beckley. 

Otmoor’s fortunes continued to change.  Since the 1920s the Ministry of Defence has owned part of the area, some of which was used for RAF practice bombing.  The construction of the M40 motorway narrowly missed the moor itself but had a serious impact on local wildlife sites.  But in the late 1990s an event as momentous in any in the history of Otmoor took place.  The RSPB, with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Environment Agency and many other donors, began to approach local farmers with a view to purchasing land, in order to restore the moor to its former glory of grazing marsh and reed beds.  The RSPB now owns 267 hectares of land and lease more from the MOD.

Reserve manager Neil Lambert arrived in 1998 after working on the Ouse Washes, with just the necessary experience to oversee a project of such national importance.  He was joined by Nick Droy and between them they manage the reserve, its volunteers and visitors.  When I met Neil recently he outlined the huge amounts of work undertaken so far to begin the restoration, which will take many years to complete.  As well as introducing grazing cattle on the wet fields, the major task has been to plant 20 hectares of reedbed with the help of about 200 volunteers.  Seed from local reeds are collected, dried and then spread onto compost in trays to germinate.  90,000 small plants have so far been established, and Neil estimates there are possibly 50,000 still to plant.  This reed bed is crucial to the whole project as it acts as an on-site reservoir, allowing the water levels to be maintained in the ditches and pools throughout the year. To prevent grazing of the new shoots by some birds, 6 kilometres of netting have been used so far to protect the tender young plants.

It has taken six years to complete the restoration work on the first block of land.  Soil compaction has been a problem; the soil here is heavy clay with little organic matter to support the range of invertebrates that wading birds feed on, so there is a long way to go.  But the success of the project so far is obvious to anyone who looks around them.  Neil reels out facts and figures - 31 pairs of redshank, an increase from only 4 pairs in 1998, over 300 snipe over-wintering a couple of years ago, shoveller, gadwall, garganey.  Add to these the merlin, peregrine, hen harrier and short eared owls that visit in the winter months and the impressive list of birds goes on and on.   But this is only part of the story.  Areas managed to attract birds will always improve the habitat for all wildlife; in other words the water voles, butterflies, reptiles, dragonflies, in fact every living thing here is benefiting from the work that Neil and Nick and their team of volunteers is carrying out with such dedication.

Neil has one last tantalising piece of information about this blossoming wetland.  Twenty hectares is just the right size for the breeding territory of a pair of bitterns.  Only 31 males were recorded in the whole of Britain last year, and the RSPB is hoping that Otmoor may become a refuge for this enigmatic bird.  The shallow, reedy water should provide the perfect conditions for the eels and shoals of small fish that the bittern depends upon.

Otmoor has survived riots, drainage, bombardment by the RAF and motorway construction.  But the changes that have been brought about by the staff and volunteers of the RSPB over the last six years will have far reaching consequences.  And those lapwings?   An increase of almost 100 pairs since 1998 brings a big smile to my face.

I went to Noke but nobody spoke

At Borstall and Brill they were silent and still

I went to Thame. It was just the same

But I went to Beckley and they spoke directly


17th century verse written by unknown local author referring to the Otmoor Riots in 1830


© Copyright Jenny Steel 2017