It was a little bit of heaven.  A wilderness amongst the intensive farming along the Thames Valley.  And to top it off, there were snipe drumming, redshank calling and . .  .  a curlew in song flight.  My notes say imagine a skylark, but ten times bigger, ten times the volume, and ten times slower.  And it was more or less on my doorstep.

I was working in Oxfordshire at the time, on a large dairy farm.  At an Oxford Ornithologists Society (OOS) meeting someone reported a red kite at Tenfoot Bridge.  This was 1983, and a red kite was a real rarity almost anywhere in Britain.  The following day I took a walk along the Thames, and saw the kite at the footbridge, exactly where it had been reported.  But I also saw these meadows.  It was winter, and the area looked as though it would repay a visit in spring.

At another OOS meeting, somebody from the British Trust for Ornithology talked about the Waterways Bird Survey, which had been running since 1974, to record the birds breeding along waterways.  I signed up immediately, and was duly sent a set of large scale maps of the area I had chosen.

Coot 1953

It was during my first survey visit that I recorded the curlew and other waders.  I had definitely chosen the right area.  The survey also gave me the excuse to keep going back – that survey required ten visits during the spring and summer, mapping the territories of specialist water birds.  The current incarnation of the survey requires only two visits during the spring and early summer.

I learned a lot about the birds too, including bird sounds.  Within a few weeks I realised I was no longer having to go searching for the source of a call, as I now knew what I was going to find.  And I got to know who I going to find where, as the birds stayed in their territories while nesting and rearing their young (eg coot, above).  I was a relatively new birdwatcher, and completely new to bird surveys, so that summer was a real eye- and ear- opener.

Red fox 1322

It wasn’t just the birds, though.  The meadows were full of wildflowers in spring and summer.  Hares, rabbits and foxes were often seen, along with butterflies and dragonflies as the season progressed.  Part of my route was alongside the Great Drain where water voles were a regular sight.

Two swans living on the drain must have been fed regularly by fishermen, for one day, when I stopped to watch and opened a thermos flask, they instantly headed in my direction, in expectation of a share of lunch.

Primula veris

The fields were part of Chimney Farm, which was owned by two eccentric elderly sisters.  They rented out the drier fields which were used for intensive cereal production, but grazed the wetter areas as traditional water meadows.  They were very strict about access, and anyone wanting to photograph the flowers was escorted to the appropriate place, allowed to take a few photos, and escorted out again.  Fortunately there was a public footpath alongside the river, so I was able to do my bird survey unhindered.

One day I noticed a family of little owls using an old tree stump not far from the path.  If only I could get a little closer, they would be photographable.  I knocked at the door of the cottage.  No answer.  I knocked again, and heard a distant voice say ‘Why doesn’t she go away like everyone else?’  After the third knock, one of the sisters reluctantly came to the door.  I explained who I was and what I wanted to do, only to be told ‘We don’t have any little owls here’.  I persisted, and was then told I couldn’t do it because there were cattle in the field.  As a dairy herdsperson, cattle weren’t a problem to me, but she persisted with the argument, and I felt it wasn’t worth pursuing at that time.

Now, it’s all different – and the change is for the better.  The sisters are long gone, part (50ha) of the site has been a National Nature Reserve since 1999, and the rest (200ha) was bought by the Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust in 2003.   Even the arable fields are now species-rich wildflower meadows, and two hides overlook parts of the water meadows and pond.

Snipe 1596

Curlew and snipe (above) still nest there, along with skylarks, reed buntings and other species that have declined elsewhere.  Ten-foot Bridge, originally built in 1869 to replace the old footway at the Tenfoot weir across the Thames, is still there.


Useful books

BBONT threatened plants 240207    BBONT butterflies 228704

BBONT mosses 206621     BBONT hoverflies 213525     BBONT orchids 206620