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A walk in Oughtonhead, Hitchin

PUBLISHED: 16:34 15 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:06 20 February 2013

Oughtonhead Common

Oughtonhead Common

The Countryside Management Service shares one of its picturesque Hertfordshire walks

THE best place in Hitchin for walking is Oughtonhead Common, one of the town's Medieval cow commons. Emerging from the chalk below, springs dotted the site in days gone by and made it too wet for growing crops. With no ploughing to harm them, wildflowers grew in profusion and cattle grazing the colourful sward never went thirsty.
The water also fed the River Oughton, at little more than 3km (2 miles) long, one of the shortest rivers in England. Nevertheless, its flow was enough to power a waterwheel at nearby West Mill which ground flour from 1600 or earlier. The mill operated for more than 300 years then lay derelict until fire destroyed it in 1960.
After 1914 grazing ceased, allowing hawthorn and buckthorn bushes to colonise the common's drier soils and willows to invade wet peat creating 'carr' woodland. Scrubbing over led to a decline in the wetland plants that naturalists had recorded for three centuries. Dredging of the river channel in 1959 and abstraction of water from a nearby pumping station also affected the water table. In the late 1970s, after a series of hot dry summers took their toll, many of the wetland plants died out.
After that, its owners North Hertfordshire District Council constructed a sluice to hold back water and conservation volunteers began to control advancing bushes and clear paths. In 1998, grazing returned to the common courtesy of the Williams family whose Longhorn cattle, a traditional and placid breed, eat
coarse vegetation.
Now, the common is kept in good order with local people playing their part through the Friends of Oughtonhead Common. The Countryside Management Service supports a voluntary warden, Phil Lumley, who organises regular work parties. Recent grants from Biffaward and the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty have paid for new signs, better entrances and surfaced paths. Oughtonhead Common remains one of Hitchin's greatest natural assets, rich in wildlife and historical interest. The suggested walk takes you round the perimeter of the common but gates give access into the middle where the cattle graze. If you have a dog, please keep it on a lead at all times.
Large clumps of sedge dominate the pool near the sluice and Southern Marsh Orchids appear in the grazed area behind it as the weather warms up. Frog and toad tadpoles fill pools and ditches in spring and dragonflies begin to emerge. Other damp areas are dominated by Meadowsweet, Hemp Agrimony and Great Hairy Willowherb.
You can see or hear various birds along the river - reed bunting, sedge warbler, water rail, siskin, moorhen and treecreeper. Most impressive of all is the colourful kingfisher which perches on overhanging branches to fish. In open water, great cushions of water starwort and water crowfoot appear by June. Reeds can grow to more than two metres tall and form a small reedbed in one low-lying spot near the river.
In the grazed areas, notice the large hillocks formed by the yellow meadow ant and spot brimstone and ringlet butterflies in summer. In the autumn, large flocks of finches, especially linnets and corn buntings, come in along with redwing and fieldfare to plunder berries on the hawthorns, buckthorns and wayfaring trees.

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