If you go down to the Woods today
"The large population of badgers dwelling there have been studied for over 30 years and its great tit and blue tit populations have been monitored closely for over six decades."
Visit Wytham Woods, Oxford University’s 1,000 acre stretch of woodland, just 5km north-west of the city centre, and there’s a very reasonable chance you might happen across an assorted gaggle of researchers, artists, potters, foresters, and the occasional TV celebrity. You might even catch a snatch of an opera aria competing with the bird song.
According to its Site of Specific Interest (SSSI) report, Wytham Woods comprises a ‘complex mix of ancient woodland, wood pasture, common land and old limestone grassland on a variety of soils’. The site boasts a well-documented history dating back to at least 1544, when it formed part of the lands of Abingdon Abbey, and its ancient woodland copses were probably present in Saxon times.
Over the years, more than 500 vascular plants (to you and me that’s a land plant with tissues for conducting water and minerals), 800 species of butterflies and moths have been recorded there and the Woods comprise around 300,000 trees, the oldest one pushing down its first roots over two thousand years ago.
To today’s visitor, it provides a delightful woodland setting to explore and enjoy which is exceptionally rich in flora and fauna – both studied extensively by the University. This has resulted in the compilation of a hefty volume of valuable data unlikely to be paralleled anywhere else in the UK. Indeed, Wytham Woods is considered to be the most researched piece of woodland in the world.
So what is it about Wytham that makes it so special? Why has such extensive research been carried out there since ecology became considered a modern science?
Charles Elton (1900-1991), a biologist credited with framing the basic principles of modern ecology, spent 20 years working at Wytham. He considered it essential to analyse species in their own natural environment to understand them. However, it is not Wytham’s uniqueness that makes it so important. It is the fact that this dedicated space is so very typical of British woodland that enables the findings of the research to be so valuable – and applicable right across the UK.
Fascinating evidence of the experiments being carried out in this living laboratory (normally around 60 projects at any one time) is everywhere.
Look up and you’ll find numbered trees carrying an intriguing assortment of boxes; down, and you’ll discover stretched hammock-style canopies collecting samples. Elsewhere, sections of the woodland are adorned with an array of materials (from sophisticated technology to tin foil) capturing data from the Wood’s plants, insects, birds and mammals and monitoring environmental changes. It is because of the long-term research carried out at Wytham that we now understand some of the UK’s species as well as we now do.
The large population of badgers dwelling there have been studied for over 30 years and its great tit and blue tit populations have been monitored closely for over six decades. This has led to a better understanding of these particular feathered friends (including the nuances of their social life) than any other bird population in the world.
The magic of Wytham hasn’t escaped the media either. The Woods frequently feature in documentaries, attracting the likes of Brian Cox and Ray Mears to film there. The BBC’s recent Oak Tree: Nature’s Greatest Survivor focused on a year in the life of a particular oak tree, which has been flourishing in Wytham for around 400 years. The documentary, an idea conceived by Dr Keith Kirby of the University’s Department of Plant Sciences, scooped the Science and Natural History Programme Award at this year’s Royal Television Society awards.
But it’s not all about research, data and findings – when the Woods were bequeathed to the University by the Ffennel family in 1942, the University agreed to maintain its natural beauty, allow its continued use for education and research and to enable the inhabitants of Oxford to enjoy the space. Nigel Fisher, Conservator of Wytham Woods, works with a surprisingly small team to keep these promises. As well as managing the extensive woodland, enabling researchers to work and hosting film crews, they also coordinate an impressive number of events throughout the year.
Members of the public can join badger watching, bat walks and morning chorus expeditions, whilst local school children regularly don wellies to take part in various outreach opportunities.
“It’s a great place to be,” says Nigel. “Where else in the world can you sit under a 400 year old ancient oak tree, take in the scent of the bluebells and talk to world class experts about the plant and animal life flourishing about you?
“Wytham is not purely for science though – it doesn’t matter if you can’t identify a sub-species of fly found in a calcareous flush – everyone can enjoy this natural haven. I gain a lot of satisfaction knowing that generations of families have enjoyed walking through the dappled shade of the Woods.”
Nigel’s keen on the arts too. Since joining the Wytham team in July 2000, he’s extended their offer by inviting artists and opera singers into the Woods. Wytham hosts two residential artists, Robin Wilson and Rosie Fairfax-Cholmeley, who work from their own purpose built wooden studio nestled in the Woods, taking inspiration from their natural surroundings to deliver a range of workshops available to all. Recently, they have been involved in a fascinating project to create two traditional ancient-style Anagama kilns in the Woods, working alongside a team of Japanese potters. The project is supporting academic research and enabling local potters to understand and develop their own craft process. Robin explains why Wytham is so important to them:
“It provides the perfect and necessary base for our research, carried out in the form of art and craft practice, to understand perceptions of the environment and the relations between thinking and making. The Woods form an excellent space for public participation in our study of art and anthropology, and the pictures and ceramics made at the Wytham Studio and at the Japanese Anagama Kilns represent just two of the outputs from our long term residency.”
So, as the song suggests, if you go down to the woods today, make sure you’re prepared for a pretty big surprise.
Want to find out more?
A fascinating series of short films about the Woods are available on YouTube.
Members of the public need a permit to walk in the Woods. Click here to apply. Please note that dogs are not permitted in any part of this research woodland. The award winning Oak Tree: Nature’s Greatest Survivor documentary is available to purchase from the BBC online store.
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