An island of the past
PUBLISHED: 18:38 01 June 2016 | UPDATED: 18:38 01 June 2016
An oasis of ancient countryside in suburban Watford is being restored for wildlife. Countryside Management Service projects officer Gregory Ault outlines the plan
The long days and warm temperatures make late spring and the summer months an ideal time to get out and enjoy the county’s meadows. With grasslands bursting into colour as wildflowers bloom, open meadows are a beautiful flora and fauna-rich destination to explore.
One such grassland is Prestwick Road Meadows in South Oxhey, Watford, where the Countryside Management Service has been working closely with Three Rivers District Council on a landscape improvement project. The meadows showcase a fantastic display of wildflowers. Buttercups dominate in early summer, before the yellow gives way to the deep purple of black knapweed. In the mix you will also find the likes of the evocatively-named bugle, tufted vetch and sneezewort.
The meadows are a designated Local Nature Reserve in large part due to the species rich grasslands; a habitat which declined drastically across Hertfordshire in the second half of the 20th century. The area supports numerous birds, including starlings, bullfinches and blackbirdhich, which can be spotted as they feed in the grasslands and hedgerows. Along with birdsong, perhaps what is most distinctive about the meadows is the chirping of crickets and grasshoppers which generate an incredible sound.
Prestwick Road Meadows lies next to the county boundary with Greater London and as you reach the southern end of the site there are fantastic views across north west London, while open Green Belt and a network of Public Rights of Way provide an ideal opportunity for extending your walk.
On the north side of Prestwick Road is a new play area, constructed a couple of years ago partly from trees felled on the site. This has created a fun space for children to get outside and active in a natural setting.
A pocket of rural life
Prestwick Road Meadows is a beautiful oasis of nature amid a post-war development. And it was almost tarmacked. The South Oxhey housing estate - a suburb of Watford - was built on fields in the years after the Second World War in response to a lack of good quality housing for returning soldiers and the widespread destruction caused by the Blitz in London. As housing rapidly appeared, a linear strip of greenfield land was left intact, earmarked for a road to connect Watford and Harrow. This road never came to be, leaving Prestwick Road Meadows as a snapshot of the rural landscape prior to the development.
The meadows are intersected by hedgerows that once formed field boundaries. These hedges can be seen in the 1842 tithe map and may be much older than this. The remnants of old ditches can still be seen alongside some of the hedgerows - part of a wider network of ditches and streams that drained the agricultural fields into the river Colne. An old farm pond that once connected to the ditch system can also still be found.
Uncovering its history
Since the meadows were inadvertently created more than 60 years ago, the hedgerows have become overgrown and reduced to banks of scrub that are encroaching on to the species rich grasslands. Ditches have become hidden by vegetation and the pond increasingly filled up with silt.
CMS and the district council have produced plans to restore the historic features of the meadows. Over winter CMS volunteers began the process of pushing scrub back from the grassland to the original hedgerow line, a project that will continue over the next few years.
At the same time silt has been scraped from the pond, which will allow it to hold water for longer into the year. This will keep the pond as a prominent feature of the meadows, while improving it as a habitat for wetland species such as frogs and dragonflies.
Do head out this summer and explore this wonderful meadow while it is full of colour and discover a remnant of the county’s historical landscape.