Thursday, 15 June 2017

Out Wood SSSI

A botanical meeting was held on Sunday at Out Wood Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), near Kiddington (SP42A). This was a return to square bashing for Atlas 2020 after a previous jolly to Otmoor. The square had a small number of recent records and the plan was to boost this by taking in a mix of habitats including the SSSI and surrounding farmland. The SSSI citation sounded quite tantalising, so I was hoping for some goodies, perhaps even Ornithogalum pyrenaicum (spiked star-of-Bethlehem). The site is in unfavourable status so I wasn't feeling too optimistic

The participants (seven botanists plus a dog) met at Grimsdyke Farm, named after an ancient fortification that runs through part of Out Wood. Along the walk to the wood was a narrow spit of woodland emanating from Out Wood but not part of the SSSI. Here we recorded most of the woodland plants that we would also find in the SSSI, including Allium ursinum (ramsons), Conopodium majus (pignut) and Elymus caninus (bearded couch), and at least one that we didn't, Ranunculus auricomus (goldilocks buttercup). Arriving at the SSSI it was evident that the grassy rides advertised in the SSSI citation were gone: most of the flora was of shade-tolerant clonal species such as Mercurialis perennis (dog's mercury). I'm sure the place had looked lovely earlier in the year given the abundance of fruiting Hyacinthoides non-scripta (bluebell).

We spent a while working the wood, turning up a suite of common ancient woodland plants, including quite a lot of Epipactis helleborine (broad-leaved helleborine) and a few over-done spikes of Orchis mascula (early purple orchid). For the most part the wood was monotonous, and some areas had been planted with Fagus sylvatica (beech) and other forestry trees. However, parts had been deer-fenced to allow coppicing and tree planting and we hoped the increased light, disturbance and exclusion of deer might turn up some plants of interest. We managed to get into the coppice coop containing Grims Ditch but it was a thicket of Rubus fruticosus (bramble). Here we recorded Lithospermum officinale (common gromwell) and the hybrid between Juncus effusus (soft rush) and J. inflexus (hard rush) known as J. x diffusus. We seem to have been the first people to record the latter from Oxon since Druce in the 1890s.

At lunchtime half of the party left and the remainder abandoned Out Wood for a better mix of habitats. Some grassy areas in woods to the east were quite productive with e.g. Hypericum maculatum (imperforate St John's Wort) and Mentha arvensis (corn mint) and what I think might have been Euphrasia arctica (arctic eyebright). The latter is more of a northern/western species with no recent Oxon records. On the route back to the cars was a rather sad hedgerow with a few limestone grassland species hanging on against the assault from intensive cereal farming: here we recorded such delights as Helianthemum nummularium (common rock-rose) and Knautia arvensis (field scabious) and a large quantity of Carex leersii (leers' sedge, syn. C. divulsa subsp. leersii). A bank near the car had a better-preserved limestone grassland flora, and we added Linum catharticum (fair flax) and Ononis repens (restharrow). We also managed to find some good arable weeds with both Kickxia elatine and K. supuria (sharp- and round-leaved fluellens) and Chaenorhinum minus (lesser snapdragon).

Thus while Out Wood SSSI was somewhat undistinguished we gathered a good number of records, 220 taxa in all making the tetrad total up to 231. To be sure there will be more to be found but that's a good start and improves the county's Atlas coverage. Thanks to all who took part!

Sunday, 4 June 2017


The hybrid Viola x ritschliana between the nationally rare and critically endangered fen violet and the locally rare heath dog violet.
Otmoor Site of Special Scientific Interest was the venue for my latest recording meeting, held on bank holiday Monday. The area has been thoroughly botanised over the last few years so the purpose of the meeting was largely to have fun and see one of the finest wet grassland sites in the country, but I had hoped to add a few records. We were joined by members of the Reading and District Natural History Society. I didn't count but with Oxfordshire Flora Group regulars we made up an exceptionally large group (whom I kept waiting for twenty minutes when I mis-remembered the start time!).

I know the Moor well but this was only the second occasion I'd had to access the area around the MoD firing range. There are many wonderful things in there and for these we made a bee-line. As much as I enjoy recording meetings it was refreshing just to be able to walk somewhere with botanists without getting mired in recording all the plants one sees on the way!

Within the range the first species of interest was a weed, which I over-enthusiastically misidentified as the umbellifer Torilis arvensis (spreading hedge-parsley) on account of its hooked fruits. This is an endangered plant, severely declined in Oxon, and everyone got rather excited. Subsequent to the meeting I re-examined the plant and realised that it was instead Anthriscus caucalis (bur chervil), which also has hooked fruits. We all get things wrong sometimes, but this is still an interesting record! While not threatened A. caucalis has very few Oxon records, most of them old.

The author holding Anthriscus caucalis and looking pleased with himself despite being wrong

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Peppard Common - a guest post by Jack Dorkings

Enchanter's nightshade
On the very sunny Tuesday after Mayday, the Chilterns Atlas Recording group met at a quiet crossroads close to Peppard Common (SU7081). This was my first outing to a recording meeting so I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I also forgot to bring my own notepad so I only logged a few of the species we found! The aim of the day was to record for the Atlas 2020 project.

Led by Sally Rankin, we covered a small patch of woodlands bordering the common. We found our first interesting plants here. Circaea lutetiana (Enchanter’s-nightshade, right) and Sanicula europea (wood sanicle). S. europea has been declining locally, so this was an important find, especially to see it in flower.
Moving on to the heathland, it was immediately noticed that there were several well developed patches of Ulex minor (dwarf gorse) present. The heathland area wasn’t especially large but did have characteristic species present, including Erica cinerea (bell-heather) mixed in with the gorse (left). In the clearing between the trees and gorse was dominated by grass, with tufts of Holcus lanatus (Yorkshire fog) surrounded with Festuca species Most likely F. ovina (sheep’s fescue) but difficult to verify in the field.

We moved onto an old disused golf course that makes up part of the common. There was a wide variety of wildflowers present here, including Cardamine pratensis (cuckoo flower) and Veronica chamaedrys (germander speedwell, below). Around this time, we were also lucky enough to see a stoat (Mustela ermina) run out from the forest onto the old golf course and run back again. Unfortunately it was too fast to get a picture! The golf course followed the slope of a rather steep hill, at the bottom were more wildflowers with a different mixture of species, including two more Veronica species found in close proximity, V. arvensis and V. serpyllifolia (wall and thyme-leaved speedwell).

Anti-clockwise from top: sanicle; dwarf gorse and bell heather; wall speedwell; germander speedwell; thyme-leaved speedwell
Unusual red cleavers
Our route for the day then took us through forest again to a wide mown area, bordering the forest with a large patch of Lamium album (white deadnettle). Rannunculus was abundant here, with all three common species (R. acris, R. bulbosus and R. repens). This mown area was bordered by a road and associated ditch, where Stellaria holostea (greater stitchwort) was found, alongside some interesting red Galium aparine (cleavers). This was said to be a stress response from the plant which can arise from mowing; given the broken stems this is probably the case. Interestingly this was the only small patch showing this, as there were other examples of G. aparine growing in close proximity that retained the usual green colour.

The last plant I took a note of was Galium odoratum (sweet woodruff). I initially confused this for more cleavers at a distance, but the flowers and smell (not to mention lack of barbs on the leaves!) gave it away pretty quickly.

I’m hoping to go on more recording trips in the local area in the near future — next time I’ll remember to take a proper notepad to take note of everything seen!

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Somerton and the Oxford Canal

Botanists botanising by the Oxford Canal. Remark the use of modern technology. Image by Fay Banks
Recording for Atlas 2020 in Oxfordshire continues. The target of this Sunday's meeting was the county's most under-recorded 10km square, SP42. Earlier in the spring I wrote about a recording outing of mine in SP42 at Tackley, and this week the venue was the parish of Somerton in SP42Z, further north along the River Cherwell/Oxford Canal. There will be another meeting in SP42Z on 8th July at Bestmoor SSSI, when we will survey the huge population of the nationally scarce Oenanthe silaifolia (narrow-leaved water-dropwort).

Sporangia of P. interjectum x100, with few thick-walled (indurated) cells forming the annulus and two basal cells between this and the stalk
The five of us who met at Somerton were blessed with wonderful weather and some fabulous plants. We started at the churchyard of St James’ which was a tidy disappointment, however. An exhibitor at the church exhorted us to come in afterwards for coffee and artwork, but we conveniently forgot and instead went to the Bell Inn in Lower Heyford! The only interesting native species in the village was a large amount of the fern Polypodium interjectum (intermediate polypody) on a shaded wall. Contrary to previous records I am finding that this is a common fern of limestone walls in Oxfordshire. I’d be grateful if other recorders would check any Polypodium they find microscopically, or record it as P. vulgare sens. lat. rather than attempt an identification based on frond morphology as this is not reliable.

We left Somerton southwards across bright green agricultural grassland and wheat fields infested with Alopecurus myosuroides (black grass). At this point I began to worry about our species list. A short detour out of SP42Z into SP42Y gave us Senecio viscosus (sticky groundsel) by the railway, from where we looped back into our tetrad and picked up the Oxford Canal. From here our fortune turned.