The wind rustled the trees, and something slipped into the water. In the darkness I could see little, but there were creatures moving in the gaps. I scanned the bushes with my head torch and sensed scurrying. Then, in a flash, fireworks exploded above. There was an exodus of birds from the treetops. Amid the mayhem, I saw a pair of eyes glinting in the forest. I crept closer. It was a Muntjac deer, tiny, only metres away. We locked eyes, then he ran into the night.
These dramatic scenes played out in the Trap Grounds, a nature reserve in the heart of North Oxford. Its humble ten acres burst with life, home to an impressive range of habitats for its size. There are refreshing forests, shimmering reeds and idyllic ponds. There are hawks in the trees, snakes in the reeds, and voles in the water, to name just a few.
The Trap Grounds is dense, full of vines twisting in all directions, like a jungle. The plants form magical archways above the paths, and gaps in the brambles make secret dens. It is a wonderful place to get lost in- the good kind of lost, where each new sight is a discovery. I used to come here as a kid, frolicking through the meadows, swept away by the colour and complexity. You can hear screaming schoolkids and thunderous trains, but these sounds are muffled by trees, so you get the sense- if only a little- that you are removed from the world at large.
One day I met Catherine Robinson, secretary of The Friends of the Trap Grounds. She is a bright-eyed, sturdy woman in her seventies. That morning the place was at its best: an explosion of green. We watched moorhen chicks glide out of the reeds, with their mother close behind.
Catherine gave me a history lesson. In the nineties the land was neglected, and used as a rubbish dump. It was covered with thickets of bramble, humble lodgings for rough sleepers and drug users. In ‘96 she reclaimed the site for the community, mobilising volunteers to clear paths and remove invasive willow trees. Over the years they removed rubbish, sculpted ponds and planted trees. Then they let it grow. The Trap Grounds was transformed, from a trash heap to a paradise.
Catherine whispered as we joined the boardwalk, hoping to spot an animal. The walkway is flanked by skinny poplar trees, ivy-coated, rising into the sky. You can hear the wood creaking when they sway in the wind. We gazed over the reeds, and Catherine seemed concerned. She pointed out willow trees poking their heads above, and explained that they would suck the pond dry, killing the reeds and reverting the bed to scrubland. “We’ve got to do something”, she said.
If the willows had their way, the ponds would dry up. It is a constant battle to maintain the reserve in its diverse state. If left alone, the place would become covered in brambles: great cover for small mammals and nesting birds, but inaccessible to humans.
Herein lies the balance for British nature reserves: accommodating animals and humans equally. Because at the end of the day, we are not selfless carers for wildlife- we want to get something from it. Those green trees and meadows are as much for our happiness as for their inhabitants. But it is better to use a forest for recreation than chop it down for timber.
Share The Space
In such a small and valued place, interests clash. Walkers let their dogs off-lead, and they run off and disturb wildlife. Whether or not the dogs take chase, the animals still perceive them as predators, and flee. This wastes their energy, which can be deadly for a nesting bird, or a mammal starving through the tough winter months.
Joggers also disturb wildlife, and both groups need to be educated about their impact. Sometimes, however, The Friends of the Trap Grounds go too far. They have shouted at people several times, including at my brother. Once a young man ran out of the reserve, and Catherine scolded him like a naughty child. Fearfully, he promised he would not run there again.
The tone we use is critical. Someone who has been harassed is unlikely to change their behaviour, and they will feel unwelcome at the reserve. What is the point in caring for nature if we shun our neighbours in the process? We need to be patient, and listen to those we disagree with.
Over the years a nature-based community has formed around the Trap Grounds, of like-minded people who appreciate its beauty. There is the talented Nicola Devine, a self-taught photographer, whose knowledge of the fauna is so good that ecologists consult her when studying the reserve. Volunteers include enthusiastic students, couples and stoic seniors.
On work parties we get our hands dirty, planting new trees and daffodils, and constructing habitats for water voles. One memorable day, I donned waders and plunged into a pond, using a net to clear duckweed from its surface. It was cathartic clearing the mossy pond, and seeing my reflection shine back. We had made space for dragonflies to breed, and I hoped to see them thrive in the years to come.
This summer Catherine is leading the first ‘Smelly Walk’, an interactive tour for children. She will show them the fragrant plants of the reserve, inviting them to touch and smell the scents of cow parsley, oregano and lemon balm. Interacting directly with the forest can be a formative experience for children, as it was for me, and embed in them a lifelong love for nature. Who knows? They might be the next conservationists.
The beauty of the Trap Grounds is bittersweet. This place feels so vibrant and alive because most places around it are not. It is the exception that proves the rule. Our nature is more degraded than 90% of nations. Since the Industrial Revolution, it is estimated that the UK has only half of its biodiversity left. I can feel the loss. The skies flutter with wood pigeons and swifts, but they should be busier. The mornings are sweet with birdsong, but they should be louder. When I was a kid, our car’s windshield was full of insects, but no more. Coming back here from Portugal, I felt the emptiness.
One day I woke up depressed. Life felt tedious, and I knew I needed nature. So I got on my bike and rode to the Trap Grounds. When I arrived the trees enveloped me, soothing me with their living complexity. They filled the gaps in my mind, and I stopped thinking. The cycle of negative thoughts ceased.
On that clear morning the air was rippling with birdsong. There was the alternating song of a chiff-chaff, the soothing coo of a wood pigeon, and the cascading rhythm of a chaffinch. I couldn’t see them, but I could follow their calls, and imagined a complex drama unfolding. There were territorial battles, hunters dropping from the sky, and romance. Watching the show took me away from myself: a moment of relief.
In Foxglove Meadow I was floored by the beauty of the flowers. There was knapweed, musk mallow and daisies, hawk’s-beard and bindweed: a layered tapestry of purple, yellow and white. To me it was small, but to the insects inside it must have been a metropolis, full of living skyscrapers fighting for the light. Mammalian monsters would frequent the city, flattening the buildings and eating the citizens. Worker bees hustled between the high-rises, collecting nectar for their queen. When the cold came the city would collapse, then build anew in the spring: bright and bold.
There are still problems to solve, but the Trap Grounds is a triumph. The Friends have done a remarkable job in cultivating this space. In two decades they made a garden of Eden from rubble. Despite the loss of wildlife across our country, this gives me hope that nature can bounce back, if we help it. This won’t be easy. It will require hard work, sacrifices, and difficult conversations. But it will be worth it.
In our industrialised world, I take comfort that there are still people who value life in its raw complexity, people who bathe in the forest just like me.
If you find yourself in Oxford, visit the Trap Grounds. Take your headphones off and immerse yourself. Walk slow. Watch the reeds sway in the wind, hear the birdsong, and feel the texture of leaves between your fingers. Nature is to be felt more than thought about; deep in the soul.
On children spending time in nature: https://www.forbes.com/sites/trevornace/2017/08/21/children-play-outdoors-more-likely-protect-nature-adults/?sh=7cda0d006641
The state of Britain’s biodiversity:
Thank you to Catherine Robinson for your hard work and fearless dedication, and to Nicola Devine for the outstanding photos.