When Paul Atkins, Principal Ecologist at Atkins Global, first visited MOD Bicester Garrison in 2009, he quickly recognised the extraordinary significance for wildlife of this special place. Paul was initially contracted to carry out Breeding Birds surveys on behalf of the MOD and through this came to know Conservation Officer Gary Beckett (former Pioneer).  Working together, Gary and Paul began to document the rich flora and fauna and Paul (an A-licensed bird ringer) began regular bird ringing sessions at Bicester. In gathering information on the status of breeding birds on-site, they were able to provide the MOD with an understanding of the value of their land and management recommendations.

Cue the involvement of John Shaw; Managing Director of Chiltern Rangers.  For a passionate wildlife enthusiast like John, an invite from Paul to visit Bicester to see the myriad birds and butterflies was an opportunity not to be missed! The list of species ringed at Bicester is exciting: Cuckoo, Turtle Dove, Grasshopper Warbler, Lesser Whitethroat, Common Whitethroat, Blackcap, Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler, Garden Warbler, Linnet, Dunnock and Bullfinch – so far!

The more time Paul, Gary and John spent at Bicester; the more they realised that it was not just birds that were bountiful.  Sunny days over the course of the breeding season revealed one of the most diverse assemblages of butterflies in the region.

Excited by the prospect of the presence of all five species of hairstreak, John contacted Nick Bowles; Chairman of Butterfly Conservation Upper Thames Branch (BCUTB).  Newly retired and tempted by hearty lamb stew and the possibility of recording some of the rarest butterflies in the BCUTB area; Nick made his way to Bicester.  Surveys carried out over the butterfly flight period produced a remarkable set of results, including: Black, Brown, White-letter and Purple Hairstreaks (peculiarly no record, as yet, of the more widespread Green Hairstreak), Purple Emperor and Dingy and Grizzled Skippers.

But why is Bicester so abundant with some of the regions’ rarest species?  The simplest answer is habitat.

It’s a great place to compare with most other clay soil sites, to see the impact of fertilisers and agricultural chemicals. As far as we know, Bicester has not had any and is far richer botanically than almost every field for miles. Greater variety of plants leads to a greater variety of invertebrates and coupled with a near absence of dog walkers, to the varied bird life.

Although the areas of dense understorey provide ideal habitat for warblers and nightingales, it was also recognised that the scrub was reaching tipping point; many areas becoming leggy and too tall.  What the site needed was a mixed age of old and new scrubby species, especially to continue supporting Black and Brown Hairstreaks – the former preferring mature Blackthorn and the latter requiring younger growth.

A management plan was created to manage the scrub on rotation, to halt the decline of the suitable habitat and prevent the associated loss of species.

The last piece of the puzzle was to find funding to deliver practical scrub management sessions.  John approached the Trust for Oxfordshire’s Environment (TOE2).  TOE2 had been tasked with allocating funds drawn down from Grundon Waste Management as part of the Land Tax Credit system.

Thankfully, the funders recognised the value of the site and the need to ensure its value remains for the future.

To date, we have had the help of 165 individual volunteers providing 814 hours of help and support to keep the habitat in good condition.

We’d like to thank all of our volunteers who joined us with special thanks to Butterfly Conservation UTB.