Out in the fields
By July many of our flowering plants are at their best and a day out in the sunshine with good field guide will yield many surprises among the more obvious species.
Of course, our flora has far too many members even to give flavour to what might be found in high summer and in our patch of England in such a short piece as this.
However, some plants are good indicators of the various soil types we have in Oxfordshire and are worthy of inclusion here for this reason alone - if not for their wonderful and curious common names. Climbing corydalis, for example, is an inhabitant of (generally) acid soils, somewhat rare in Oxfordshire, and is an indicator species of ancient woodland.
Patches of Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust's Foxholes Reserve fulfil both of these requirements and this scrambler can be looked for here. At this reserve, the acidy conditions also suit Devil's Bit scabious - although this plant will also thrive in more calcareous conditions and can also be searched-out at Seven Barrows and Watts Bank reserves (both BBOWT) during July Dragon's Teeth can be as hard to find as the proverbial hen's incisors, only found in a few places in the south of the country. But you can find a few examples at BBOWT's Ardley Quarry Reserve.
Biting Stonecrop (also known as Wall Pepper) can be found in rocky and sandy places.
Its flowering period comes to an end as July concludes, but the peppery taste of its shoots lingers throughout the season.
BBOWT's Hook Norton Cutting Reserve is a good place to find it but it is a common plant throughout the county. Staying in this location, also look out for Ploughman's spikenard - another lover of generally dry and calcareous rocky soils. It flowers from July and in years past its dried roots were often used in rustic homes as used as a spicy-perfumed room freshener.
Another plant with a distinctive smell is wild mignonette, its flowers giving off a musky scent. Its preferred habitat is disturbed calcareous soil and it is a somewhat scarce plant outside of the south and east of the UK. Westwell gorse (BBOWT) boasts a small population however.
Pepper saxifrage on the other hand is largely to be found in grassland on clay soils and the BBOWT reserves at Upper Ray Meadows, Chimney Meadows, Rushbed Woods, Asham Meads, Ifley Meadows, Oxey Mead and Woodside Meadows all sport this hairless perennial. These reserves also hold Sneezewort, a species that can be found in neutral through to slightly acidic conditions.
Few plants can be so enticingly named as Enchanter's nightshade, to be found in shady places on calcareous soils and including Whitecross Green Woods - another BBOWT reserve. At BBOWT's Bernwood Meadows Rerserve search for Agrimony - a coloniser (the fruits stick readily to animal fur) of dry grasslands and field edges. In the middle ages the essence of this plant was used for a range of ailments including indigestion and snake bite. Snakes manifest themselves also in the naming of Viper's bugloss, a plant of dry open habitats and to be found at Wells Farm and Hitchcopse Pit (both BBOWT).
Round leaved sundew was also used, until recently at least, for medicinal purposes - when mixed with spices provided an invigorating beverage known as ros solis. This little plant though is better known for its ability to catch insects, on the sticky secretions of its leaves. The decaying corpses of its victims providing the plant with its principal source of nutrients, Although common in the north of Britain it is decidedly scarce in the south where it is known from scattered boggy, acid localities including the BBOWT reserve at Parsonage Moor. Sounding rather more palatable wild liquorice is a plant that favours rough grasslands and open woods and can be found at Sydlings Copse (BBOWT).
Many of the above reserves are also good for summer butterflies, and July is probably the best month for spying a number of speciality species present in Oxfordshire.
Look for the spectacular White Admiral at Foxholes where its food-plant honeysuckle is relatively abundant and where the woodland rides provide brambles for nectar. This insect has recently started to gently spread but Oxfordshire remains at the heart of its British distribution. With a distinctive delicate flight, punctuated long glides, this fine species can be recognised at some distance.
The BBOWT reserves at Whitecross Green Woods, Asham Meads and Bernwood Meadows hold small populations of Brown Hairstreak and Black Hairstreak butterflies. These two species rely on the presence of blackthorn for egg laying and have much declined since the advent of mechanised hedge threshing - that destroys the insects eggs.
For the most part, both are elusive and tend to remain high in the tree feeding on the honeydew secreted by aphids. The latter named reserve also is home to the purple hairstreak - an insect that is restricted to oak woodland where it also mainly remains at canopy level.
However, drought conditions can attract them to floor where they can be more easily observed. This species is also present at BBOWT's Hook Norton Cutting, Rushbed Woods and Sydlings Copse reserves. The Purple Emperor also resides in woodlands of mature oak but requires willow to be present also, being the insect's foodplant.
A most beautiful species with iridescent wings it can be found in larger woodlands in Oxfordshire, but not much further north. It also prefers to remain in the canopy but it will come down to ground level, on occasions when searching for salts. Rushbed Woods, Whitecross Green Woods and Warburg, all BBOWT reserves, hold low densities of this uncommon butterfly.
Despite there being over two thousand species of moth, this genus is often overlooked in favour of their butterfly cousins. Many however are just as beautiful and a number are day-flying. Some of the more special can be found at BBOWT reserves, such as Glyme Valley for chimney sweeper moth ; The Slade and Sydlings Copse for burnet moths; Lashford Lane Fen for Scarlet tiger moth; Bernwood Meadows for forester and burnet companion moths, and Dry Sandford Pit for cineabar moths.
Turning to creatures higher up in the animal kingdom, check out local groups that offer Badger watching. Reasonably common throughout the county July, with its long summer evenings is a good month for watching these delightful mammals at play. Somewhat less difficult to see are fallow deer, a common and widespread animal in Oxfordshire but perhaps nowhere more easily watched than at The Grove, Magdalen College. Oxford. This herd has been in existence here since at least the beginning of the 18th century.
n Many of the nature reserves mentioned are owned or managed by the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust (BBOWT). To find out more about BBOWT nature reserves, membership, events and volunteering opportunities call 01865 775476. Members of the trust receive and events dairy, a high quality magazine and a detailed and beautiful book about the trust's 88 nature reserves.