Weasel Autumn 2003

Gallery pictureGallery pictureGallery pictureGallery pictureGallery picture

Hot news from Headington!

Weasel Cartoon
Just got back from the OCV Bonfire Party, 8 to 11 pm on Tuesday 4th November. A dozen conservers old and new sat round the fire, roasted chestnuts, glugged strange beers and lit the clear night sky with bright and cheerful talk. Is the OCV a dating agency for people who go on to get married? Oxford house prices- any hope or live in a box? Ghostly footpaths on Shotover Hill - where do they lead to? Burning MFI furniture on the fire: is the bad smell worth it? One hundred uses for a wooden pallet...other people's fireworks...sad-faced religious cults...hot knees...stinky sparklers...what you can find in a skip...recycling a carpet...and so it went along. A perfect peaceful evening beneath the stars! Thanks to those who brought parkin, dates, crisps, ginger cake, extra firewood and the sparklers.
Onto this new issue - I hope it keeps you in touch with things you missed. But why miss them? There are many more great things coming up and new faces are always welcome. Don't be shy. Get stuck in and go home happy! It's as simple as that.
I am the Weaselest link. Goodbye,

Good reasons to get out of bed on a Sunday...

You mean you go out and cut back brambles and nettles for fun? is the usual reaction I receive when I tell friends that I am going out with the OCV. This is closely followed by, I've got lots of brambles in my garden if you want to come and cut them. But this is where they have missed the point; I don't go out with the OCV purely to get my own back on the prickly undergrowth.
The camaraderie of a friendly bunch of people, the endless cups of tea, biscuits and a crackling bonfire on a cold winter's day are just some of my reasons for dragging myself out of bed on a Sunday morning. Not to mention the fresh air, the feeling of being active all day and occasionally even learning something useful!
Seeing the progress from some of our tasks is satisfying too. Dense patches of bramble have been turned into leafy woodland glades that support orchids and attract butterflies. Coppicing woodland has encouraged fresh new growth and provided a perfect home for many birds and insects. A raft we built for birds to nest on at Calvert lake was gratefully occupied by a family of Terns this year.
These days I am far more appreciative of footpaths in far-flung places, having experienced some of the hard work involved in making them. My hedge-laying still leaves something to be desired, but I'm working on it. I no longer clamber over dry stone walls, having seen just how long it takes to build them!
Perhaps the most interesting result from joining the OCV is that I have started to notice the countryside on my own doorstep. Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Berkshire may not have mountains or coastlines, but there are still many hidden delights to be found. From ancient woodlands to rolling meadows and chalk grasslands, the OCV visits them all. Next time you are kicking your heels on a Sunday, come and join the OCV and see exactly what I mean.

Kate, Task Programmer.

Why are OCV people like countries?

Because they meet at borders! Yes, Borders the bookshop between Debenhams and the Randolph Hotel in Magdalen Street. You're welcome to come along to the regular Tuesday meetings when we organise the Sunday tasks, social activities and other business of the group. We start at 8pm downstairs, normally in the sports book section. Then we go for a drink in a nearby pub, probably 'Far from the Madding Crowd' in Friar's Entry. November's meetings are on the 11th + 25th. Then 9th December + 6th January. After that, nobody knows except Mystic Meg..

Something there is that doesn't love a wall, That wants it down...('Mending Wall', 1915)

Robert Frost was right: a dry stone wall is up against all the forces of nature. How can it survive without cement, concrete or barbed wire? Read on and find out...
The Dry Stone Walling Weekend began on Friday evening, 24th October. A 3-hour drive in the minibus took us to Worth Matravers on the coast of Dorset. The village hall was a bobby dazzler with heating, carpet tiles, kitchen, loos but no shower except ourselves. The local pub is the Square and Compass, famous for cider, folk music and rustic character. We went there to sample them all. Next morning fourteen of us had a fine breakfast and set off for Durlston Country Park. The lovely people there had put out tea and biscuits and the ranger Alli gave a quick talk on the craft of dry stone walling. He explained the Golden Rules:
Start with heavy flat stones dug into the ground. They can absorb small movements in the soil.
Batter - not for pancakes. This batter means that the bottom of the wall is wider than the top. You can use strings and a wooden batter frame to guide the work, or do it all by eye. We used our eyes and then a nylon line to do the top.
2 on 1, 1 on 2 - sounds pervy? No, it means staggering the joints. A 'running joint' is a weak point because the stones could work loose and fall outwards.
Hearting - this is the stone rubble that fills the middle of the wall. You add hearting as you build up the faces - you can't add it later. All the worst stone is useful for this. Nobody will see it!
Through-stones: long flat pieces that span the full width of the wall. They staple the two faces together, but are difficult to find and to fit.
Wedges. Push them in from the inside. They'll fall out if you shove them in from the outside.
Capping/cappers. These are the heavy stones on top of the wall. They hold the lower stones in place. The 'cocks and hens' pattern means a tall capping stone, then a squat one, tall, squat and so on. This looks good and puts off climbers.
Plus a bonus now to make you look clever...
Hogget Hole: this is a small, rectangular opening built into the base of the wall to let animals through. Badgers might dig under your wall otherwise.
The action begins...
We walked to the worksite and found a wall half-finished by a previous group. On one side was a field with barley stubble. On the other was grassland taken over a few years before by the country park. As we built the wall up to about 4 feet tall, Alli and a second ranger called Katie gave cheerful advice. Some people did the capping, some built the faces and others dug a trench for new foundation stones at the downhill end of the site. A few brave souls took down the decrepit old wall by pulling out the usable stone and sorting it into lines of small, medium and large. By changing jobs we learnt the start-to-finish method of building a wall.
The weather was sunny and dry. The view was of the blue Solent, the Isle of Wight and deer dodging between patches of scrub. The food was marvellous (and we couldn't eat it all). Everything was perfect. Sunday was great too, but we had to stop at about 2pm in order to get back to Oxford.
Why is a wall useful? It's a habitat. Alli gave examples of bees, adders, frogs and birds that have set up home in local walls.
How long will it last? One to two hundred years, said Alli, because the Purbeck limestone is a sedimentary rock that will crumble. Harder rock in the Orkneys can make a wall stand for a thousand years.
Is it difficult? No, but you need patience, teamwork and steel toe-caps. Nobody got hurt. Is it boring? Never - this was the best thing we've done for a long time. It's a shame we can't find similar work near Oxford.
How much did the weekend cost? £11.50 or £14 depending on who drank the cider. This was an OCV miracle.
The next residential task will probably be in Spring. Details in the next Weasel or task programme. Why not give it a go?
More information on Worth Matravers, Swanage

Did William Morris play in our toolstore?

The man who built the Morris Minor and invented the Oxford car industry is often linked with Cowley. That's because he started his first car factory in Hollow Way in 1912. Before that, he launched his first business at the family home - 16 James Street near Tesco in the Cowley Road. He left school at 14, trained as a bicycle mechanic and began selling bike parts from the front room. He built his own bikes and then motorbikes. Cars came next the BullNosed Morris was the first.
Before James Street, William Morris lived near Wood Farm because his father was bailiff/supervisor there when it really was a farm. Today it's a housing estate. The house that went with the bailiff's job was Brasenose Farmhouse, now between the ringroad and our toolstore. It's not certain but it's probable that the Morris family lived there from 1881 to 1891. Could the young inventor have sat in the outbuilding dreaming his dreams...the English Henry Ford, first British maker to sell a million cars, becoming Lord Nuffield, making MG sports cars (MG stands for Morris Garages), giving £30 million to medical research (nearly £1 billion today), setting up Nuffield College?

The OCV (and our tools) have a link with greatness.


fencing and step buillingtackey stepsTackey is ten miles north of Oxford next to the main railway line, the River Cherwell and the Oxford Canal. You might guess it's a beautiful place, and so it is. Our work on 5th October was at Crecy Hill, 3 acres of unimproved limestone grassland sloping steeply down to the railway track. We were met by Rachel, one of a committee of villagers who manage this reserve. She told us that contractors had put up wire fencing alongside the track and complained that it was the hardest work they had ever done. Machinery can't deal with grassy slopes, but conservers leap up and down them like mountain goats. We set about building steps, repairing fences and cutting back the invasive, thorny scrub. Call me a whinger now, but I think scrub-bashing is very boring. When you can't burn the stuff and sit round a glowing fire, what's the point? The answer is keeping the grassland open as a haven for wild flowers, butterflies and moths. Ant-hills are annoying when they trip you up, but how many do you see in normal farmland? None, so even they need a little protection. Lizards too do well here. Just like Baldrick, the reserve has a cunning plan: cows and sheep control the coarse grass in winter, ragwort and thistles are hand-weeded and the OCV plus three village ladies grubbed out or cut down the scrub that had grown to 3 or 4 feet tall. We couldn't clear the whole reserve, but we made a big difference.

If you're on the train from Oxford to Banbury, look out for Tackley Station. After that, on one side you'll see a river and canal. On the other you'll see a long narrow cutting behind a tall hedge and a new fence. Then you'll go under a rusty black metal bridge. You've just passed Crecy Hill, where the young Winston Churchill and his friends from Blenheim Palace used to exercise their horses. If your journey is boring, you deserve it. You should have got up early one Sunday, made some Marmite sandwiches and gone out with the OCV! Then you'd feel a part of what you're looking at. Doh!

More information on Crecy Hill LWS, Tackley, Oxfordshire

Where is Boundary Brook and who are the Oxford Urban Wildlife Group?

Getting dirty in the pond at boundry brookI've heard of both but, until our task on 12th October, I was too lazy to find out. I learnt a lot in one day. Boundary Brook Nature Park is between the Iffley and Cowley Roads on a 3-acre site that used to be allotments until the mid 1970s. If you go down Iffley Road away from the Plain, pass the university sports ground, reach the traffic lights with the turn to Donnington Bridge on your right, you turn left, head towards a primary school straight ahead and the reserve is behind the school. It's hidden behind a hedge and wire fence with just a single gate and an information board to mark the entrance. The gate may be padlocked shut since there have been problems of theft and vandalism. If the OUWG members are at work there, you're sure of a friendly welcome. They publicise their work-parties and open days in the Get Out column of the Oxford Times Weekend supplement.
The OCV's main job was to clear reeds that have closed in on the open water of a man-made pond. From the wooden viewing platform, all we could see was swampy mud with no open water at all. After a few hours of digging, hacking and hauling, the pond looked much bigger, a little deeper and ready to fill up with winter rains. We were proud of that. As we worked, Pat, Kath and John of the OUWG chatted about wildlife they have seen, school groups who have visited and plans to enlarge the reserve by taking on more disused allotments. Foxes, hedgehogs, toads, frogs, newts, Cinnabar, Tiger and Elephant Hawk Moths, Emperor Moth Caterpillars and many types of bird have been seen. Two boys claimed to have seen snakes, but nobody else has. Badgers have not arrived yet. This is a wildlife haven surrounded by roads, houses and schools. It's also a recycling project - unwanted vegetable plots becoming urban habitats on land owned by the City Council. This is the biggest green box in Oxford! In the reserve there is a nesting cylinder for Red Mason Bees.
It looks like a foot-long piece of brown plastic drainpipe with both ends open. In the pipe are narrow cardboard tubes for bees to overwinter. Apparently they wall themselves into a tiny cell by plugging the tube with mud. Other bees set up home next door, so one tiny tube can house a series of solitary sleepers. Believe it or not, there is an Oxford Bee Company which specialises in bee nesting equipment. These are not honey bees, so don't plan on a harvest from your guests.
Since our pond-work, OUWG-ers have rotavated their cornfield and sown it with a corn and wildflower seed mixture. They plan to coppice their woodland next. In the longer term, they hope to get 2 more acres of land. This may take 18 months because the scheme must be approved by a council sub-committee and then confirmed by a private bill in parliament before the allotment land can change use. Another ambitious step is to put in a visitors' centre ( = a posh shed) as soon as planning permission allows. Their next open day will be in March - in summer they've had up to 100 visitors, but in cooler weather about 30. Work-parties are 10am - 1pm, 30th November and 14th December. There's a buzz about Boundary Brook, and not just from the bees. Pat tells me a Quaker group hopes to start a similar reserve/nature park in Barton for the dual benefit of residents and wildlife. You read it here first! Kathoffered to put us on the OUWG mailing list for their newsletter. Days later I received six copies of 'Oxford Wildlife News' from its diligent editor Janet Keene. Janet has guided our work at Holywell Cemetery (near St.Catherine's College) as well as working at Boundary Brook. It's a small world in local conservation, but there's always something new to discover. Thanks to the OUWG, to Paul (leader) and Charlotte (driver) for an enlightening day in a place I wish I had visited sooner.
More information on Boundary Brook, Oxford


The group has been working at this site since before 1990, when Mike Jones, the present reserve manager, started there. (Mike has helped me out here with such information as I didn´t know already, which is the larger part of it.) As shown on BBOWT´s map, it consists of a big central field, a smaller one, and a little one at the entrance, occupying 29 acres in all; it is a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
The fields are all bounded by hedges, and for me the reserve´s particular attraction is the hedgelaying we do there, and have been doing since the early 90s or earlier. BBOWT (the Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust) are responsible for perhaps a half of the hedges on the external boundary, and of those we have laid about half over the years: we are not in danger of running out in the near future.
The fields themselves feature medieval ridge-and-furrow: an undulating surface created by ploughing. The reasons for doing this are, according to Oliver Rackham´s The History of the Countryside, ´obscure and controversial´. Apparently the turning circles for the bullock-pulled ploughs can be seen close to the top of the main field. Nowadays, cattle graze the fields from June to November. In addition, the upper part of the main field is ideally cut every year or two to deal with the coarser grass there, and we help manage the scrub in the lower part.
The main attraction for visitors to the reserve seems to be the flowers, with May-July being the best time to visit. One time we went looking at orchids in the bottom field: the site has both the common spotted orchid and green-winged varieties.
The flowers were what got the site noted as a potential nature reserve. It was a County Council farm, and the tenant´s son described them to a teacher at the local grammar school. The teacher, Roy Maycock, drew English Nature´s and BBONT´s (as it was then) attention to the site, and BBONT bought it in 1984.
More information on Pilch Fields, North Buckinghamshire

Be a part-time herbivore!

Yes, Shotover Country Park is no longer grazed by sheep or cattle, so gorse, brambles and birch trees are invading this rare heathland site. On Sunday 9th November OCV early-risers stood in for the missing livestock and cut out the invaders with loppers and bowsaws. Anthony, the Oxford City Council Ranger, guided our work and painted glyphosate weedkiller on the stumps. We didn't burn the debris, but left it in piles to be tractored away later. This work will allow the heather (and heather beetles) to thrive without taller rivals stealing the sunlight. Heath is a rare habitat these days - it's here due to the sand and gravel that make up the subsoil.
While working, Anthony told me about the Ranger Service. There are 5 people in the team: Oliver de Soissons is the boss, there are 4 Rangers and an office next to Brasenose Farmhouse and the OCV toolstore. They get paid for working on Sundays, but this may end soon. Two other Rangers were at Shotover running the Family Orienteering Fun-Day. Next time I pay my council tax, it will think of these great people and smile.

Their next big project is at Lye Valley in Headington - a site the OCV helped to prepare a few weeks ago. We raked up cut grass and reeds from this fen. On November 10th, 11th and 12th the Rangers and a heavy horse will be dragging out the green stuff and pollarding the willows. The wood and grass cannot be hauled by tractor since there is no roadway to drive on and wheels would tear up the wetland. Wheels in fact might never get out again. That's why Carl (one of the Rangers) booked the horse and horseman to drag the debris clear of the rare calcareous fenland habitat. Apparently it's only one of 4 similar sites in England, but you wouldn't know it was there unless you read 'The Weasel'.
If you want to visit, go to Headington traffic lights, turn into Windmill Road, follow it to traffic lights, cross Old Road and go up the Slade. Lye Valley is on the right just after Girdlestone Road. There is a battered footpath sign and an information board at the entrance. After a short path, there's a walkway built from railway sleepers. You'll see the big willows, the fen and our handiwork next to a ditch and the path. Don't call this a bog, by the way, since bogs are acid while fens are alkaline. This is one memorable fact I learnt while working there - it might come in handy one day in a pub quiz or when trying to impress a wetland ecologist.
John Gorrill.
STOP PRESS!!! I went to Lye Valley on Wednesday 12th November. I met Domino, a 7-year-old piebald cross and Harry, a 770 kilogram Scandinavian forestry horse. Working with them were Alan and David, the horsemen, plus the OCC Rangers. Both horses were pulling low metal carts that were loaded with grass, wood or wood chips in nylon jumbo bags. The Rangers were using chainsaws and a large chipping machine to deal with tree branches. I took photos, but I haven't developed them yet. They'll be here next time!

Old Grunt remembers the past . . .

I joined the OCV in the autumn of 1981. My first task was coppicing at Sydling's Copse near Beckley, just a few miles north Of Headington. I loved the work at once because there was a bonfire. Woodsmoke in the frosty air and dry leaves underfoot - DELICIOUS!
In the chair of the group back then was Roger Heath-Brown, a maths don at Magdalen College. Roger had fuzzy hair, scarecrow clothes and a taste for dismal jokes. This fun-loving eccentric attracted other offbeat characters who were never far from a laugh. When the kettle didn't boil or the rain wouldn't stop, Roger sang 'The Conserving Song'. One verse went like this,
She put her hand upon my knee,
Mark well what I do say.
She put her hand upon my knee,
Young maid, said I, You're rather free -
I'll go no more conserving with you, fair maid!
Unfortunately the other verses went like that too, but the comedy was in the reedy, high-pitched singing. Every group needs a comedian who can keep the fun going during a dull day of scrub-bashing or pulling ragwort. Even the business meetings were great.
Roger married another conserver called Ann. They live with their children in Garsington now. He gave a lot to conservation, so conservation gave a lot to him. There's a message in that for you young'uns today!

The OCV... a whole new set of friends

The OCV... a whole new set of friends
Ancient country wisdom for Autumn: He who digs deepest,
Deepest digs...

Skittles at the Isis Tavern

illed as Your chance to win Gloria, the annual OCV skittles event had a sufficient turnout to leave Paul with only a small statistical chance to retain the trophy. (Note: winning the trophy is a generally unwanted accolade - you need to see the trophy to appreciate this). The skittle alley at the Isis had been recently rebuilt, with a snazzy system to return the ball, hidden within a row of benches. We'd have preferred that they had installed heating instead. The pins are Gloucester pattern (an elongated barrel shape) and there was the excitement of having two different sizes of ball to choose from. The main competition began, and the first few rounds were close-run, with Steve, Laurence and Anthony neck-and-neck. A few more rounds later they had generally lost their composure, with no clear leader when we reached the last column on the blackboard. And then Paul, showing the style with which he had won last year, got a strike, clearing all nine pins. This was the first time anyone had got a strike so far, so there was a quick discussion on what the rules should be about what happened next. It was decided that the pins should be reset, and Paul quickly notched up an unassailable lead with his extra turn. This was in no way a fix, and Paul got to keep Gloria for another year. The secondary competition was a knock-out, with lives lost for each ball that didn't knock over a pin. This was going rather slowly, so we added to the excitement by progressively putting up less and less skittles, until lives were being lost more rapidly. Jamie was the last man standing. We carried on experimenting with new styles, and Anthony proved that it was possible to knock down two skittles with two single balls thrown simultaneously from right and left hands. That was a sufficent finale, and we retired to the bar.

Holywell Cemetery

Cycling down Longwall Street towards the Science Area, I decided to look in on Holywell Cemetery, an old OCV worksite. Spooky or what?
The Friends of H.C. have been busy: there's a new information board in the middle of the place with a history of the site and a map of notable graves. All the pathways are clear now but not over-tidied. It's a fine balance to strike between viable habitats for wildlife and safe public access, but the Friends have got it right. The OCV have worked there since the early 1980s, helping to clear the overgrown parts and burn the debris. This is what Richard Mabey called unofficial countryside - no fields nor forests, but plenty of greenery nevertheless. If you haven't been, the graves people seek out most are of Kenneth Grahame (writer of 'Wind in the Willows'), Ken Tynan (1960s drama critic), Walter Pater (Victorian essayist), Maurice Bowra (ex-Warden of Wadham College) plus two Inklings, lots of professors and a few bishops. It was a meadow until 1851 with some holy wells - hence the name Holywell and the lack of older graves. In fact the land was given by Merton College in response to a cholera outbreak in 1849 which filled up other graveyards with its victims.
The Grahame headstone names father Kenneth and son Alistair, who died aged 20. It's a sad story: Kenneth was a bank manager who invented Toad, Ratty and Badger for his son. Alistair could not live with the high hopes for him and committed suicide on the railway track next to Port Meadow. They rest in peace together near the entrance gate.
More information on Holywell Cemetery, Oxford

OCV... more hoots than a Barn Owl

more hoots than a Barn OwlThat's it for the Autumn edition. Thanks to Paul for internet expertise, to Kate for her 'get out of bed' piece, to Peter for the Pilch piece, to Anthony for the skittles action and to you for reading this far. We will use this newsletter in a paper version as a publicity hand-out at the Green Fair in Oxford on 13th December. See you there? Best wishes,
John Gorrill, Editor. P.S. Writers always welcome, so get to it!