Naturalists and volunteers explore Old Oswestry hillfort’s wild side

Old Oswestry was once the stronghold of the Celtic tribe known as the Cornovii, but earlier this month a new band of citizens took command of its formidable ramparts for the day.

Wildlife hunting enjoyed by young & old at the Old Oswestry BioBlitz. Photo: Diana Baur
Wildlife hunting enjoyed by young & old at the Old Oswestry BioBlitz. Photo: Diana Baur

On July 1, naturalists and volunteers scaled the hillfort’s lush slopes in beautiful sunshine on the hunt for wildlife as part of a landmark survey.

Specialists in moths, bats, birds, bees, beetles, spiders and small mammals came from all over Shropshire to take part in the BioBlitz. The aim was to take a snapshot of the hillfort’s flora and fauna over 24 hours, most likely the first major ecological study in its 3,000 year history.

BioBlitzers young and old foraged carefully for specimens to identify and record, safely releasing collected fauna, including insects, moths and spiders, back on the ramparts.

The event was organised by Turnstone Ecology, the hillfort ecology consultant to English Heritage who supported the event in association with the Oswestry Heritage Gateway. Funding came from The Charlotte Hartey Foundation and Three Parishes Big Local Partnership/Big Lottery, with volunteers from the Three Parishes Community Wildlife Group also participating. Children had the opportunity to make and paint a butterfly decoration in an activity led by Artists Hugging the Hillfort.

The findings will update and expand records compiled over the years by experts from the Shropshire Wildlife Trust and Shropshire Botanical Society which both supported the event. Data will also help guide on-going landscape maintenance to ensure it safeguards the hillfort’s archaeological structures and thriving ecology.

Clare Knight, the event organiser and an ecologist at Turnstone Ecology, said: “The BioBlitz was a huge success with many different and notable species recorded thanks to a fantastic range of local experts and volunteers kindly giving their time to support the event. We are still collating the data but we estimate between 400 and 500 species were recorded, which has far exceeded our expectations and is a brilliant result.”

Exciting discoveries
The last major investigations on Old Oswestry date back to 1939-1940 when Professor William Varley carried out archaeological excavations. Professor Varley unearthed Bronze Age, Iron Age and Roman finds, and there were plenty of exciting discoveries at the BioBlitz.

Over 400 species of flora or fauna were logged on the day, including an encouraging number not previously recorded.

A highlight was a rare sighting of the larva of a Thistle Tortoise Beetle, thanks to the expert eye of Caroline Uff, Shropshire’s County Recorder for terrestrial beetles. This resourceful creature uses droppings and debris to camouflage itself. Fortunately, the skilful lens of Whitchurch-based wildlife photographer, Stephen Barlow, was on hand to capture the moment. The photo has proved a big draw for bug lovers on Flickr, attracting over 70,000 views.

Experts identified no less than 23 spider species, including 16 not listed in existing site data, and 23 beetle species, none of which had been recorded on the hillfort before. Volunteers also collected samples of diptera – small flies and mosquitos – which will add to the species list after analysis by the County Recorder.

Plant life is blooming with a healthy number of finds including Heath Milkwort, Slender St John’s-wort and the rare Greater Broomrape. Newts, lizards, bees, butterflies, moths, and many more animals made an appearance.

Yellowhammer, Skylark and Linnet were spotted, bird species at risk in the UK though currently present on Old Oswestry. The ecology team was also encouraged by a sighting of a Meadow Pipit, another bird dwindling in number and thought to have all but disappeared from the hillfort.

With monitoring continuing into the night, experts identified six species of bat, including the Lesser Horseshoe and Leisler’s bat. Specialist equipment was used to record them echo-locating – emitting high pitched sounds to help them navigate as they foraged over the hillfort.

Neil Phillips of the Oswestry Heritage Gateway group said: “The BioBlitz was a real day of discovery and provided opportunities for children to get hands on collecting specimens, using microscopes and reference books to identify them, then enjoying the moment they could let them free again.”

Old Oswestry is protected as both a heritage and wildlife site. In recognition of its national significance, it has been a Scheduled Monument since 1934 and is in the guardianship of English Heritage. It is also a Local Wildlife Site, being important for local wildlife conservation.

Anyone interested in future hillfort events or volunteering organised by the Oswestry Heritage Gateway should contact 01691 652918 or email ohgateway@gmail.com