The Aquisition, Funding, and Recent History.
For a sum of £55,000 Stewkley parish council has become the proud owners of a wildlife site, dedicated to the nurturing of the jewels of English lowland countryside and the benefit that bestows upon the animal, bird, insect and plant life that inhabits it and the humans that appreciate and gain succour from it.

In recent years capital investment has secured a total transformation and enhancement of the Rec's play equipment for our young people (over £70,000 since 2001) and tennis courts (1986) and football field (£50,000 to purchase and landscape in 1990) for the sporting fraternity.

Now, those seeking a more peaceful, relaxing environment and one in which to experience 'Springwatch' moments for real, have their habitat. One in which to study or just appreciate the flora which gained the area its County Wildlife Site status in 2005 or listen to and watch birds and butterflies that require such environs to thrive.

The land in question, a total of almost (2.64ha) 6½ acres, lies adjacent to the football field in the Rec. and is contained in three small meadows. Two were historically allotments known locally as Church furlong, and have been bought from the Oxford Diocese, the other, known as 'The Jackdaw' field was a hay meadow belonging to Stewkley's St. Michael's church and held in trust for the P.C.C. by the Diocese.

The money to finance the purchase has come predominately from a Heritage Lottery Fund grant of £41,200 the bid for which was arranged and organised by A.V.D.C.'s Green Spaces department who have also contributed £6,000 of the District Council funds to the cost. Stewkley Parish Council has committed £6,000 of its budget to achieve the acquisition of this wonderful resource to the village's assets.

The total cost includes the price of the land (£7k per acre), all the survey and legal costs for all parties and V.A.T. The last of which can be reclaimed by the parish council and used for works at the nature reserve including new access gates, information boards, fencing and hedge planting.

Letters of support for the Heritage Lottery Fund grant were received from several village organisations including the W. I., SROWA, Brownies, St. Michael's school, Scouts, History Society, and the Recreation Ground Committee. It was this support and the educational as well as environmental opportunities that the purchase offered that enabled the funding to be secured.

The parish council have been renting the fields under a grazing licence since 2004 when AVDC Green Spaces team were approached to conduct a botanical survey of the site. Thanks are due to Matthew Dodds for carrying out that survey and securing the County Wildlife Site status for two of the fields. Matthew has since provided invaluable advice and encouragement to enhance the wildlife value of the fields. The aim is to improve the rich botanical content of the fields with the traditional hay meadow management regime; the sward allowed to grow until the grass is cut at the end of July/August and the regrowth being grazed until late autumn by livestock. The creation of a pond and rejuvination of the small copse is also anticipated.
The flower rich lowland meadows of the early 20th century is an endangered habitat, 98% have been lost to more efficient, productive agricultural practices involving ploughing, drainage and application of chemical fertiliser and herbicides. Stewkley has been granted the opportunity to witness and encourage the retention of a small acreage of a bygone landscape feature, flower rich meadows idealised by those of a romantic nature and reflected in the works of English artists, poets and novelists.

Since 2005, in anticipation of the site's purchase, some efforts have already taken place to increase the range and quality of wild flowers in the fields with the guidance of Mathew Dodds.
The native annual flower species, yellow rattle, was introduced which by its parasitic habit of drawing vigour from the roots of the grasses reduces the dominance of the grass to enable other flora to flourish and be more prominent, this policy has already been successful.

The wet, ill drained nature of much of the acreage is of particular value from a botanical perspective giving the opportunity to nurture flower species that have particularly suffered by progressive, commercial agriculture's drainage priorities. Species like sneezewort, ragged robin, great burnet, meadowsweet and devil's bit scabious may be expected to thrive on wet ground but a diversity of flora requiring drier conditions, such as field scabious, cowslip, dropwort and burnet saxifrage, can utilise the ridges in the field immediately adjoining the Rec's football field. In retrospect, it was very fortunate the Recreation Ground Association did not have sufficient funds to buy the whole field in 1990 to level and drain for sporting requirements. The three acres on the east side of boundary hedge planted in 1991 is now an invaluable habitat with different priorities. The partition lies approximately where the school allotment of the 1930's and 1940's was to be found. A small sub-committee has been convened to manage the evolvement of the project for the parish council, to the benefit of the environment and for parishioners to enjoy.

Whilst the purchase completion was awaited some preliminary work has already been undertaken with a scheme of tree planting along the hedgerows and the erection of bird and bat boxes.
Paths have been mowed around and through the meadows to allow ease of public access and small patches of flower rich grassland are being specifically nurtured to exemplify what the whole area may eventually look like. It is intended the fields will be an educational resource for local schools and surveys of local bird, butterfly, moth and other insect populations have been and will be undertaken.

By securing this wildlife site the parish council has fulfilled a significant requisite of its obligations under the Natural Environment and Rural Communities (N.E.R.C.) Act of 2006. This gave a new duty to local authorities to "have regard to the conservation of bio-diversity" ie habitats and species of wildlife, not only conserving the existing but to improving them to the benefit of the environment.
In the purchase of the fields Stewkley not only has a great opportunity to help our increasingly threatened wildlife but to provide a life enhancing experience for the people of the parish.
It is widely recognised that a walk in the countryside can have a palliative effect on the human condition, soothes and eases the stresses associated with modern, hectic lives. To have an oasis of that rural idyll of small meadows full of flowers and butterflies, surrounded by high hedges from which a variety of birdsong may be heard and yet so close to the settlement makes Stewkley a very lucky place.

July is the high season for experiencing our new acquisition. As a survey in 2005 revealed, one can expect to hear and perhaps see birds like greenfinches, linnets, wren, robin even a rare corn bunting and its particular speciality the yellowhammers whilst amongst the grasses yellow meadow vetchling, lady's bedstraw, birdsfoot trefoil, tufted vetch, self heal and lesser knapweed are on display. Given suitable weather conditions a host of butterflies will also be in-flight including meadow brown, ringlet, marbled white, gatekeeper, small skipper and speckled wood as well as the vanessa's whilst the cacophony of grasshopper ā€˜songā€™ will pervade the background.

Thanks to the efforts of a lot of people in various ways Stewkley now has its haven for nature and if you are wanting to see, learn and enjoy it or just seeking some peace away from the hubbub and a restorative aid towards good mental health then this is for you.

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