Upper River Ray Meadows, Aylesbury
"The meadows are hidden gem, and even many locals are unaware that they are there."
- Matt Jackson, Berks, Bucks & Oxon Wildlife Trust
The Upper Ray is home to some of the most amazing flower-rich wet grasslands in lowland Britain. Most of our wet meadows were lost in the 20th century through drainage and intensive farming, making it all the more urgent to protect remaining areas and restore damaged habitats.
The River Ray is an important breeding site for wetland birds that were once common but now are facing serious decline, including lapwing and curlew (see 'Species to spot' below). In the summer the drier meadows are ablaze with wild flowers such as common knapweed, yellow rattle, great burnet, tubular water dropwort, meadowsweet, tufted vetch and lesser trefoil, attracting large numbers of butterflies and other insects. Extensive flowering and fruiting hedges of blackthorn, hawthorn and crab apple also provide food and nest sites for numerous birds, including finches, bunting and warblers, while also acting as wildlife corridors for small mammals.
The Plantlife-owned meadows were some of the first well-known biodiversity hot spots on the Upper Ray, and are said to have featured in a famous advert campaign for shampoo in the 1980's. Since then the importance of the area has gradually become more and more apparent. There have been some large-scale habitat creation projects, restoration projects and river restoration work.
How to get there
From the M40, take the A41 to Aylesbury and approximately 6 miles beyond Bicester turn left at Piddington to Marsh Gibbon (at the second sign to Marsh Gibbon). Park on the verge beyond the Grange Farm on the right, taking care not to obstruct gateways. Access to the meadows is then by foot, across the concrete yard and through the gate to the field.
The nearest train station is Bicester Town, which is 5 miles from the reserve.
Species to spot
Best time to see: All year
Curlew are very large, tall waders, about the same size as a female pheasant. The sound of the curlew's display call ('Cur-lee') is unmistakeable and can be heard from February through to July on its breeding grounds. Image (c) Damian Waters (www.drumimages.co.uk)
Best time to see: May
The jester-like motley of its green and purple flowers gives this orchid its scientific name: morio, meaning 'fool'. It can sometimes be confused with the early-purple orchid but does not have spots on its leaves.
Best time to see: June - Sept
A thistle-like plant also known as 'black knapweed', although its flowers are actually bright pink. It is a popular source of nectar for the Red Admiral, Meadow Brown, Peacock, Painted Lady and many other butterflies.
Best time to see: June - Sept.
This frothy wild flower has a scent not unlike marzipan. Its sap contains the chemical responsible for aspirin and was in fact used as a medicine in Medieval times. Image © Plantlife/Andrew Gagg
Best time to see: May - Sept.
A semi-parasitic flower, that feeds off nutrients in nearby grass roots. In doing so it helps restrict the vigorous grasses, allowing more delicate wildflowers to emerge. Its 'rattle' is from tiny seeds in their pods.