This site is an OCV favourite. It's a National Nature Reserve and a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) managed by Natural England to maintain the nationally important chalk grassland habitat. There is a small flock of sheep on site which we sometimes help with, carrying out routine animal husbandry tasks such as hoof-clipping. Other regular tasks include fencing and scrub clearance.
Landscape and Habitat
Aston Rowant is familiar to many from the dramatic cutting on the M40, where the motorway has been carved right through the chalk hill which is the heart of the reserve; the reserve therefore includes land on both sides of this major road. The chalk that was formed around 350 million years ago supports the diverse communities of wild flowers, grasses and herbs which are typical of the calcareous grassland habitat. Scrub species such as hawthorn grow in places on the chalk. In other parts of the reserve where the bedrock is clay-based, mature beech woodland forms the main habitat type.
There are many “sunken ways” and ancient tracks through the landscape, such as the Icknield Way that is thought to have been in use for at least 3000 years. Small quarry pits dug for flint and sawpits where timber was cut into planks at Aston Rowant indicate the source of some of the building materials for local houses and farm buildings within the area
Flora and Fauna
The chalk grassland species include wild thyme, basil, Chiltern gentian, squinancywort, autumn gentian, stemless thistle, fairy flax, marjoram and horseshoe vetch, as well as large numbers of orchids (common spotted, fragrant, pyramidal, bee, frog, early purple, greater butterfly and twayblade). The site also support the area's last remaining population of juniper, which is the subject of National conservation action plans as it provides a vital habitat for many rare insects. Whitebeam, hawthorn and wayfaring also thrive at the site. A wide variety of fungi can be seen at Aston Rowant in Autumn, from the stinkhorn and King Alfred’s cakes to the common puffball and birch polypore.
Over 30 species of butterfly have been recorded at Aston Rowant, including the rare silver-spotted skipper and other uncommon species such as the dark green fritillary and Chalkhill blue. Brown hares, roe deer and muntjac deer are found on the reserve, along with the UK-protected hazel dormouse. Anthills at Aston Rowant are over a hundred years old and are home to yellow meadow ants. You are guaranteed to see red kites wheeling overhead and their shrill, whistling calls usually accompany our work here. Other species birds commonly heard or seen here include woodpeckers, yellowhammer, chiff-chaffs, redwing, buzzard, kestrels and passage migratory birds such as ring ouzal and wheatear.
Flock of sheep awaiting dagging
Sheep graze the chalk grassland areas to maintain the delicate balance of this fragile plant community. OCV carries out foot-trimming and dagging on the flock several times a year. Also connected to the management of the sheep is the fencing work we frequently undertake here, which allows the Natural England wardens to better control where the flocks are grazing. In areas where the scrub has grown too high for the sheep to have much effect, we work to cut it back, preventing it from overwhelming the grassland and also creating scrub-chalk grassland mosaics which benefit a number of invertebrates and birds. We have also planted juniper seedlings on the reserve, and created rabbit- and deer-proof enclosures to protect them while they become established.
Natural England are carrying out a National conservation plan to protect and enhance the habitat of junipers, including planting saplings. Aston Rowant also has significant woodland that OCV assists with the management of through coppicing to prolong the life of the trees, provide more diverse habitat and to assist native flora and fauna that evolved alongside the traditional art of coppicing.
To get to Cherry Tree Corner, exit the M40 at junction 6 and turn left onto the B4009. Then turn right to get onto the A40 (Oxford Road) heading South-East towards Stokenchurch. Take the first right off this road, signposted Christmas Common. After a short distance there will be a brown sign for Aston Rowant directing you to take a right off this road, before you cross the M40. Take this right hand turn. Half way along this road is a lay-by where we normally park the minibus. Anyone coming by car should be advised to carry on down this single track road to the car park at the end. The minibus will not be able to get into the car park due to the height restriction.
To get to Cowleaze Wood car park, also known as the Forestry Commission car park, or the top of Hill Road, exit the M40 at junction 6 and turn left onto the B4009. Then turn right to get onto the A40 (Oxford Road) heading South-East towards Stokenchurch. Take the first right off this road, signposted Christmas Common. After a short distance there will be a brown sign for Aston Rowant directing you to take a right off this road. Ignore this sign and carry on. You will cross the M40. If you carry on for a bit you will see a car park on the left that volunteers can use. The minibus will normally come here to collect any volunteers who made their own way. The normal meeting point with Natural England is a short way down Hill Road - if you head back towards the M40 (but do not cross over it) there is a small road off to the left that is restricted for motor vehicles. How far the minibus can get will depend on the weather and state of the track. Volunteers bringing their own cars should park in the car park.
To get to the Natural England Offices, exit the M40 at junction 6 and turn left onto the B4009. Then turn right to get onto the A40 (Oxford Road) heading South-East towards Stokenchurch. Take the first driveway/lane to the right off this road, which is soon after you join the A40 and has a small triangle of grass at the entrance. The offices are just up the driveway.
To get to Hill Farm, exit the M40 at junction 6 and turn right onto the B4009. Take the first left, normally half-hidden by parked cars, to get onto Hill Road. Follow this road until you get to the point where it becomes a track and there is a sign saying unsuitable for motors. Park near the sign.