On a dry but chilly early morning on 19th April, eleven local residents met me at Sandford Lock for a wildlife walk along the Thames to the local Wildlife Trust’s Iffley Meadows Nature Reserve. The main aim of the walk was to marvel at the display of Snakes-head Fritillaries at Iffley Meadows but we hoped to see plenty of wildlife before we got there.
As we headed north from Sandford along the Thames Path we spotted typical riverine birds such as Pied Wagtail, Moorhen and a fine summer-plumaged Great Crested Grebe. Signs of spring were evident everywhere with singing Chiffchaffs and Sedge Warblers as well as a Common Tern migrating along the Thames. Distinctive flowers spotted by the group included Marsh Marigold, Cowslip and Lady’s Smock. The latter is also known as Cuckoo Flower as it traditionally first flowers when you hear the first Cuckoo of spring!
One of the most distinctive bird songs we heard was from a Cetti’s Warbler which remained out of view in its dense reedbed home. By the time we had reached Iffley Meadows we had recorded four singing individuals. Cetti’s Warbler was first recorded in the UK in the 1960s but has now colonised much of southern England and the Midlands due to our ‘warming’ climate.
When we reached Iffley Meadows I informed the group the annual count of snakes-head fritillaries a few days earlier produced a new record count of 89,632 …give or take a few! On the day of the count a fantastic army of fifteen volunteers helped me cover almost every square inch of the site to count every flowering fritillary. The county flower of Oxfordshire often attracts media attention and for this year’s count we were joined by a local newspaper journalist.
As we wandered across the site enjoying the fantastic flowering display I was able to inform the group the fritillaries had increased dramatically from the 520 counted in 1983 when the Wildlife Trust first took on the site. Low intensive management in the form of an annual mid-summer hay cut and autumn and winter grazing with cattle has allowed the fritillaries to flourish and spread across the site. As the group took time to photograph the mix of purple, white and the occasional pink fritillaries a Kestrel hovered overhead looking for its next meal. Each year a pair breed on the reserve building their nest in one of the many ancient pollarded Willows.
Interestingly it is not known if the fritillaries at Iffley Meadows and the 30 or so other sites they can be found at in the wild are either native to the UK or garden escapes. They were first cultivated as a market flower in the 1520s but were only discovered in the wild in the 1730s. This is a curiously late date for such a distinctive flower.
The uncertainty over the flower’s origin certainly didn’t diminish our enjoyment or indeed that of the many other visitors who make an annual pilgrimage to Iffley Meadows at this time of year to see this iconic flower.