9 Plants and Animals to Look Out For in Oxfordshire
Britain isn’t known for exciting plant and animal life.
Up in the wilds of Scotland you might catch sight of a golden eagle, or a Scottish wildcat (though you might not wish to – the name ‘wildcat’ is well deserved). But the fact that Britain only became a true island about 8,000 years ago, having been connected to mainland Europe by a land bridge until then, means that unlike more isolated islands such as Australia or Madagascar, it has little in the way of unique flora and fauna. Although if you’re afraid of snakes or spiders, you might find this reassuring: no one has died from the bite of an adder (Britain’s only venomous snake) since 1975, and snake or spider bites that cause serious injury are rare enough in the UK that they can make national news.
So given that Oxfordshire isn’t home to many rare plants or animals (at least, not ones that you are likely to see), what is worth looking out for when you’re here? Whether they have historical or literary significance, or simply because they’re cute, here’s our list.
In November of last year, the British parliament held a celebrated debate on the subject of the hedgehog: whether it should replace the lion as Britain’s national symbol. Hedgehogs are endangered in the UK – what was once a population of 36 million has shrunk to under one million, and may be falling further. Semi-neglected gardens make great homes for hedgehogs, who hoover up garden pests like caterpillars and slugs. However, a single hedgehog requires an area the size of three or four gardens to sustain it, and if gardens are paved over or fences between them are impenetrable, the habitat available to the hedgehog is reduced. Cutting small gaps in garden fences is a simple solution to this problem, so saving the hedgehog might simply be a matter of raising awareness of its decline – hence the parliamentary debate.
Parliament had last debated hedgehogs in 1566. This time round, one MP, Rory Stewart, argued that Britain should retain the national symbol of the lion, “majestic, courageous and proud” rather than “an animal which when confronted with danger rolls over into a little ball and puts its spikes up.” But lions in Britain can only be found in cages, while you might still catch sight of a hedgehog trundling across a lawn at night despite their falling numbers – so keep an eye out.
Rather easier to spot than hedgehogs are some of the different types of deer that live in Oxfordshire.
Easiest of all are the large group of fallow deer resident in Magdalen College’s very own deer park. Magdalen is the only Oxford college to have resident deer, and with students picnicking in the park, tourists gliding by in punts on the river and lots of visitors walking by the in the summer, the deer are quite unafraid of human company.
But there are other types of deer in the county too. Unlike fallow deer, roe deer are native to Britain. Country house estates often have herds of roe deer, but they can also be found wild in woodland, including in Oxfordshire. Another non-native species of deer are muntjac deer, which only grow to about 50cm high – or to put it another way, a little smaller than a labrador. They were introduced to Britain around 1900 by the Duke of Bedford, and have spread across Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire, confusing anyone who didn’t realise deer could be that small.
3. Oak trees
Oak trees are hugely important in the history and culture of Britain: ‘The Royal Oak’ is the third most popular pub name in England (number one being ‘The Red Lion’ and number two ‘The Crown’). The name is derived from the apocryphal story of King Charles II hiding in an oak tree after the Battle of Worcester, in order to escape the Parliamentarian soldiers looking for him. A public holiday, Royal Oak Day or Oak Apple Day, was celebrated on 29th May every year from Charles II’s restoration to the throne in 1660 until 1859 – in some parts of the country, celebrations are still held.
In literature, too, oak trees are plentiful: Keats described them as “those green-robed senators of mighty woods” whereas to Dryden the oak was “the patriarch of the trees”. In The Lord of the Rings, Bilbo Baggins celebrates his birthday party under the Party Tree in the Shire; while the species of the tree isn’t mentioned, it sounds a lot like an oak.
And oak trees of course appear in Oxford myths. David Cameron claimed in a conference speech that the beams in “a great hall in Oxford” (usually supposed to be New College, in other versions of the same story) needed replacing, and that oak trees had been planted for the purpose 500 years previously. Unfortunately, it’s complete fiction – but it does make for a good metaphor.
If you’ve read Alice in Wonderland, you’ve probably developed a fondness for sleepy little dormice. The dormouse appears at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, and is generally not treated very kindly by the other characters:
“The Dormouse is asleep again,” said the Hatter, and he poured a little hot tea upon its nose.
The Dormouse shook its head impatiently, and said, without opening its eyes, “Of course, of course; just what I was going to remark myself.”
The sleepiness of the dormouse in Alice in Wonderland is entirely accurate – dormice can hibernate for six months of the year, or sometimes even longer. This is one reason why you would be doing very well to spot one. Another is that dormice are endangered and becoming increasingly rare, especially in Oxfordshire, which is a particular concern because their presence or absence in an area is a good indicator of the health of the whole ecosystem. If you’re eagle-eyed, you might spot a tiny little dormouse in a healthy woodland or hedgerow, or possibly even the verge at the side of a road. Wherever you see one – let the conservationists know!
The common or stinging nettle is native to Europe, Asia, northern Africa, and western North America. So it seems remarkable that so many visitors could arrive in the UK and be unaware of what nettles are – and more importantly, what they do: namely, sting. The sting is an annoyance – people who aren’t allergic seldom require any kind of treatment for a nettle sting – but it still comes as something of a shock to any visitor not expecting it. Dock leaves, which often grow near nettles, have been suggested as a treatment for the sting, but the reality is that they probably don’t do anything much to help and rubbing any kind of leaf on the affected area would probably help a little.
Introduced by the Romans, nettles have played their role in British life. For instance, you can eat them – nettle soup, made with the fresh tops of young nettles, is still eaten today, and contains high levels of vitamin C and iron (you’ll be relieved to hear the stinging effect goes away when the nettles are cooked). There is, however, an annual nettle-eating contest at the Bottle Inn in Dorset in which the nettles are not cooked, though is worth noting that most people build up a tolerance to nettle stings quite rapidly so this probably isn’t as painful as it sounds for the dedicated competitors. If you’ve never encountered nettles before, they are widespread – just don’t touch them!
You probably know some of the significance of mistletoe already: that you hang it up at Christmas, and if you stand underneath, it’s an invitation for people to kiss you. European mistletoe has distinctive forked branches and white berries, both of which are poisonous. It grows parasitically on trees such oak trees, and this association between the two may have contributed to the Druid ritual of oak and mistletoe, described by Pliny the Elder in the first century AD.
Pliny described how, on finding mistletoe growing on a oak, “a priest arrayed in white vestments climbs the tree and, with a golden sickle, cuts down the mistletoe, which is caught in a white cloak.” The mistletoe was then – somewhat counter-intuitively – used as a cure for poison and infertility. How much of this description is accurate (if any) is a mystery; Pliny’s work provides the only description of the ritual as the Celts did not leave behind written records. All the same, modern-day pagan communities have seized upon the story with gusto, and though they don’t usually go through with the later part of the ritual (in which two white bulls are sacrificed), white robes and collecting mistletoe are popular ways to celebrate their religion.
You might well have come across that internet classic, Otters That Look Like Benedict Cumberbatch. Though the animal was once widespread, organo-chlorine pesticides in rivers caused a decline in the otter population and they shrank back to areas with less intensive farming, such as Scotland – as the otter is a predator, pesticide levels that are harmless to fish can build up and injure them. But as the use of these pesticides has been restricted, otter populations have gradually been recovering. Oxfordshire is still an area where otter numbers are relatively limited but they are gradually making a return to rivers such as the Thames and the Cherwell. You probably won’t see any on the major punting routes (too many people) but keep an eye out if you’re walking along the river in an area that’s off the beaten track – you might get lucky.
Otters, too, have their place in British literature, namely in Kenneth Grahame’s children’s classic, The Wind in the Willows which is set in the Thames valley. It features a mole, a water vole (confusingly called Ratty), a toad, a badger, weasels and two otters. The otter here is a confident, rough-and-tumble sort of character, who says, “I know every path blindfold; and if there’s a head that needs to be punched, you can confidently rely upon me to punch it.”
8. Noctule bats
Many different types of bat species live in Britain; we’ve decided to pick the noctule bat because it’s the largest and the earliest to appear in the evening – sometimes being seen before sunset, so it may be easier to spot than smaller species that prefer a lie-in. British bats are protected, to the extent that not only is it illegal to kill a bat, it’s illegal to disturb one intentionally while it’s in a place of shelter (which can include people’s attics). If you want to see a bat, try looking out for them at twilight somewhere where there are lots of insects to eat (e.g. by a river or near woodland) – you might well catch a glimpse of them swooping around.
You are very likely to see squirrels in Oxford – there are vast numbers of them living in Christ Church meadow, gorging themselves on the leftovers of picnics and quite unafraid of people. Yarnton Manor has its own squirrel family too, but all of these squirrels are greys, a non-native species from North America. Red squirrels – the grey’s smaller, shyer cousin – have almost disappeared from England, and are certainly unknown in Oxfordshire, the more aggressive greys having driven them out. British people can be remarkably prejudiced when it comes to the colour of a squirrel. A trend has even begun for squirrel pie – but in order not to risk an outcry, its originator had to specify quite clearly it is grey squirrel pie.
This hysteria might seem odd given that the red squirrel, though gradually being chased out of the island of Great Britain, is not in any danger elsewhere. Red squirrels are protected in most of Europe. All the same, with fewer than 140,000 red squirrels remaining in Britain, a frantic conservation effort is underway. It’s similar to the hedgehog – though the European hedgehog is doing perfectly well elsewhere, the fact that numbers are falling so rapidly in Britain is, as we saw above, seen as worrying enough to merit a parliamentary debate. Britain might not have much exciting or dangerous wildlife, but any animal that’s cute, in decline and likely to be the starring character of a children’s book will have plenty of fans on these shores.
Image credits: woodland; hedgehog; muntjac deer; oak tree; dormouse; stinging nettles; mistletoe; otters; bats; grey squrirel