The common touch: Oughtonhead

The Longhorns on the nature reserve

The Longhorns on the nature reserve - Credit: Archant

Oughtonhead Common on the outskirts of Hitchin is a rich oasis for wildlife. Countryside Management Service projects officer Heidi Hutton describes how the group and volunteers continue to work to improve the nature reserve for wildlife and people

The river is key to the landscape and wildlife

The river is key to the landscape and wildlife - Credit: Archant

With spring-fed streams, grazing longhorns, woods and wildflower meadows, Oughtonhead Common on the western edge of Hitchin holds a special place in the hearts of all those who visit. The Countryside Management Service has played a key role, alongside land owner North Hertfordshire District Council and the local community, to restore and maintain the site over the past 30 years


Springs rising up from the chalk in the area made the land at Oughtonhead, once one of the town’s medieval cow commons, too wet for growing crops. Its escape from the plough and continual grazing created ideal conditions for an abundance of wildflowers and ant hills formed by yellow meadow ants. In 1914, grazing stopped, which allowed bushes such as hawthorn, blackthorn and willow to colonise the grassland. It was this succession of scrub, along with other factors including a series of hot, dry summers in the 1970s, that led to a decline in wetland flora.


A reinstated pool

A reinstated pool - Credit: Archant

Steps to restore the common.

A series of projects have been implemented to help to bring the common back to its former glory. During the 1980s, a sluice was installed to hold water on the common back and help prevent the effects of the falling water table, while conservation volunteers began to work on site controlling the encroaching bushes and clearing paths. Then, in 1998, longhorn cattle were introduced to graze the common – an ideal breed for Oughtonhead as they are placid and will graze the bushes and scrub as well as the grass.

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From 2003 until 2011, Phil Lumley was the volunteer site warden for the common. Supported by CMS, he devoted immense time and energy to managing projects to improve access including path surfaces, fencing, gates and signage. He also formed the Friends of Oughtonhead Common, which continues to work regularly to improve the site for wildlife and visitors. Before he lost his battle with cancer in 2011, Phil had begun work on the current management plan. A lot of the work taking place at the moment has been developed from his original vision to enhance the wetland areas on the common.


A new ditch greening up at Oughtonhead

A new ditch greening up at Oughtonhead - Credit: Archant

New wetland features.

During the past year, efforts have been focused on restoring part of the wetland to improve habitat diversity and accessibility for visitors. This includes a new boardwalk through a recently-created mosaic of ponds and ditches. This new wetland area will provide habitat for creatures such as dragonflies and water voles. Dug only last winter, the ponds were already full of frogspawn this spring and buzzing with dragonflies during the summer. A viewing platform, suitable for pushchairs and wheelchairs, has been built over the largest of the ponds. It gives views over the grazed areas of the common and allows people to get close to the pond and watch its progress as it is colonised by water-loving plants and animals. An information panel is currently being designed to tell vistors about the wildlife and show them what to look for.


The river.

The character of the River Oughton, which rises nearby has changed gradually over the years. The channel was over-widened by dredging in the last century and more recently demand for water from the chalk aquifer beneath has increased. These factors have contributed to reducing and slowing the flow of the river, allowing silt to drop out of the water and accumulate in the channel. Reeds have colonised this silt, which has slowerd the water flow even more, allowing more silt to build up. To try to address this, a narrow channel will be opened through the reeds later this year. This work is experimental to see if the flow will improve enough to move the silt on through these areas and scour the natural gravel river bed. The gravels provide breeding habitat for invertebrates such as the caddisfly larvae and fish like the brown trout. Improving the habitat for fish and the sight lines along the river will also benefit the much-loved kingfisher, often seen on the Oughton.