The eyot is a mosaic of habitats, from water meadows to woodland.
Until the mid nineteenth century the land was a low-lying riverside water meadow. It was used as a mixture of pasture and market garden. From the early 1900s until the 1940s it was used as the city rubbish dump. The area contains the residue of old pottery and glass, often bearing scraps of College crests, as well as broken tiles, food jars and medicine bottles. Through tipping, the level of the land was raised by about two metres. And since tipping ceased, the vegetation has gradually developed so that the area has become a semi-natural wild area, with scrub dominating.
At the water’s edge
Hay used to be grown on the Eyot in the late Middle Ages. This provided a substantial income to its owner, All Souls’ College. This continued right up until the end of the nineteenth century, but with rise of railways the value of hay as winter fuel for horses lost its significance and plant life on the Eyot soon changed. The eyot was soon sold to Christ Church College, and this, along with the digging of the Cherwell New Cut led to changes.
What’s left of the meadow plants that flourished on the Eyot for the hundreds of years? Common meadow-rue (Thalictrum flavum) grows alongside the Thames, as does common valerian, meadowsweet, water mint, gipsywort, yellow iris and even wild angelica. Some of these water meadow plants are rare, and to spare them from from accidental destruction by humans, and from being eaten by deer, we’ve made small enclosures where it has flourished.
Another water meadow plant that has made single pop-up appearances and rapid disappearances along the bank on this stretch is the Fritillary (Fritillaria Meleagris). It flowers both downstream on the Thames and upstream near the Cherwell in some abundance.
In recent years, the non-native invasive Himalayan balsam (Impatiens glandulifera) has spread extensively and threatened to take-over the river bank from native water meadow plants such as marsh woundwort (Stachys palustris). Since 2010, the Himalayan balsam has been pulled up by local volunteers.
From the paths
The main path runs from the bridge over the Shire Lake Ditch at the Jackdaw Lane entrance, up to the bridge over the Shire Lake Ditch at the exit onto the Kidneys. The path was constructed as a wide metalled path to serve the lorries dumping rubbish on the eyot in the first half of the twentieth century. The strengthened bridge at the end of Jackdaw Lane and the hard surface of the path till it turns left to run along the upper level of the Thames bank provide the owners of the land, Christ Church, with a route for emergency vehicles in case of threat to the boathouses on boathouse island, which is connected only by a footbridge to Christ Church Meadow. The electricity substation on the Eyot, opposite the boathouses, also needs vehicular access periodically.
The advantage to the plant communities of this wide, well surfaced, comparatively dry path, is that the verges of this path are less trampled in winter by walkers than are the edges of the grass paths; the grass paths become wetter and muddier in winter and inevitably trampled into wider areas of compacted ground, making survival for meadow flowers and small wild flowers more difficult.
The arrangement with Oxford City Council to mow a wider area to each side of all the paths, with a vehicle that can remove and pile the cuttings away from the path edge, has meant that the threat to the smaller wild flowers and some of our traditional meadow flowers has been reduced. We have increased the area for them to flourish. Removing the cuttings is important. Previous mowing had not involved removing the cuttings, leaving dying vegetation along the path edges. The rotting vegetation suppresses some of the smaller plants and enriches the soil to the benefit of the coarser grasses and nettles, which out compete the wild flowers.
For five years, from 2011 to 2015, the plants on the eyot were intensively recorded by path and by area. Some sowing of wild flower seed took place on newly reclaimed open areas:
- scallops, areas cut wide along Plantation Path;
- a meadow area which was formerly nettles to the left of the Main Path coming from Jackdaw Lane Gate;
- the former Japanese Knotweed area to the right of the Main Path, beyond the new meadow and the turn along the path into the Wild Wood.
The Middle Way runs left from the Main Path just beyond the new meadow in the direction of the Orchard. It has been grazed by rabbits in the past, and has a good community of grassland sward flowers, including Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil. In the summer there’s a good number of Red Bartsia plants. Yellow Rattle is showier with its larger yellow flower has been introduced and appears to be spreading.
At the far end of Middle Way, where it turns the corner round the brambles and at Orchard Fork becomes Woodpecker Way, there is an open grassy area on the left. This is the one area where Tufted Vetch has been found occurring naturally on the eyot. It is more abundant on the Kidneys. This is really a hedgerow plant or plant of taller vegetation so the grass here is not mown. Look out for the toothbrush-like blue flowers in the later summer.
Woodpecker Way is shaded by taller orchard trees and receives afternoon sun. Climbing plants with deep root stems thrive here. Look out in the spring for their shoots emerging and growing fast, climbing up through their hosts. The native Hedge Bindweed, the southern European naturalized Large Bindweed and the hybrids of the two species all occur along here. The hybrids are plentiful on the eyot, unsurprisingly since Large Bindweed was recorded in 1946 in Jackdaw Lane, the first record in the wild in Oxfordshire, and the Hedge Bindweed is still plentiful along the Thames bank path of the Eyot. Other climbers to look out for are the Hop and White Bryony.
Plantation Path used to run in a much straighter line, with the Plantation on its left, leaving the Main Path soon after entry from the Jackdaw Lane Gate and finishing above the Shire Lake Ditch where it meets the ditch path. The straight line of the path provided little variation in woodland edge habitat; all the trees, shrubs, grasses and flowers would receive the same amounts of light and sunshine, the same exposure to wind. The Friends of Aston’s Eyot have worked hard on projects along the path to provide a variety of light and shade and shelter and exposure to wind, and to manage the woodland edge with pruning of overgrown hedge plants, planting of new hedgerow area, and planting of clumps of trees outside the line of the original path. Some wild flower mix introductions have taken place along this path, especially in the scalloped end where some tree felling took place to create much greater diversity of habitat for plant communities. The species list for the path, being records made from 2011 to 2015, reflect these happenings. From 2013 onwards the first wild flower mix species, for instance the Wild Carrot, Common Knapweed, Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil, make their first appearances in the list.
Former Japanese Knotweed sites
Newcomers to the Eyot may not realise that it had been totally dominated for many years by patches of Japanese Knotweed.
Once the clearance of the Japanese Knotweed had begun, the area was open to sunlight and comparatively bare of vegetation. A few deeply rooted plants such as White Bryony, and spring vernals such as Lords and Ladies, had been able to compete with the Knotweed. Other annuals that made a brief appearance while the ground was open to the sun but not yet thickly carpeted in vegetation may have been waiting in the seedbank, or seeds may have hitched a ride on small mammals or human boots. All three of our Eyot thistles have been found in this area.
Once the Japanese Knotweed was in retreat, wild flower mixes were sown to provide meadow grasses and flowers as nectar sources for butterflies, bees and other insects. The Cornflower, Wild Carrot, Hedge Bedstraw, Field Scabious, Bird’s-foot Trefoil, Wild Marjoram, Cowslip, Yellow Rattle, Sorrel, Bladder Campion, Red Campion are among the wild flowers introduced here, and the grasses introduced include the rather fascinating Crested Dog’s Tail.
This area continues to be managed each year as wild flower meadow, to retain and encourage a wide variety of meadow plants.