The Historical Ecology of Old Oswestry
Shropshire Botanical Society Newsletter - Autumn 1999 - page11-12
Any traveller passing Oswestry by the by-pass on the A5 will be aware of Old Oswestry hill fort rising up to the west. It appears to be a grassland area from this view but actually walking the site you see many species indicative of ancient woodland. To try to back up this evidence from written sources is interesting.
The iron-age fort was built on a natural clay-capped fluvio-glacial mound of sands and gravel and is constructed of boulders covered with boulder clay from the surrounding region. Varley who did the major excavation in 1974 found the composition of the soil to be "an extremely varied mixture of clays, sands, gravels and …boulders" (Hughes 1994) this is borne out by the presence of plants preferring PN poor, nutrient poor, acid to very acid soils. He also stressed the heterogeneity of the soils.
The earliest traces of man in the area were found on the hill top where there were signs of smelting and the remains of a ceramic crucible with traces "consonant with smelting bronze". (Varley 1974) This would be an occupation requiring wood for charcoal so there must have been woodland around the site then in about the 6th century BC. "Smelting may also have been the occupation of the fort builders though their huts overlay these remains" (ibid.).
The wooded nature of the site has caused comment throughout the centuries,"…in the toppe of the hille now grow great trees of oke" (Varley 1974, quoting Leland). Shortly afterwards Dugdale wrote "the trenches as well as ye crest of ye fort are grown full of oak trees" (Varley 1974, quoting Dugdale). But "by the late eighteenth century, Pennant recorded the summit clear of timber" (Hughes 1994).
Towards the top of the inner ramparts Hartshorne found, " the brakes and brushwood being much thicker towards the top…the labour of pushing through the long wet grass and tangled thickets was extremely irksome…with the exception of the table and at the top, it is now entirely covered with wood and matted fern. So long ago as 1767 as much timber was cut down on the ramparts as sold for £1,700..The whole of this eminence with the exception of the table land at the top is covered with wood in various stages of growth". This might seem to indicate that there may have been some coppicing, as this was reported later as well, but he goes on to report, "Having twice threaded my way through the thorny intricacies of this sylvan labyrinth…I looked upwards…to the prohibitory circle of terraces with their chasms underneath, that were partially visible through the dark umbrageous foliage" (Hartshorne 1841). "Thorny" suggests hawthorn and/or blackthorn was present in some quantity and that part, at least, was not "managed" woodland.
At the turn of the century, Wild Pansy, Viola tricolor, was reported in "the field by the old coppice". Wood Anemone, Anemone nemorosa, Ramsons, Allium ursinum, are two woodland species noted on Old Oswestry while White Ramping-fumitory, Fumaria capreolata, and Weld, Reseda luteola, indicate that there was probably some waste grassland as well (Diamond 1891).
During the First World War, Canadian troops were camped at Park Farm and used the eastern half of the interior as a training area for "excavation of trenches…detonating of explosive canisters…" (Varley 1974) . "The summit was ploughed" during World War II. (Offa Antiq. Soc.1958). This area ultimately became improved grassland. The feeding of the land on the top obviously allowed nitrogen to permeate down to the upper area of the un-improved rampart grassland. to affect the upper rampart area in places encouraging the growth of species like Common Nettle, Urtica dioica, Elder, Sambucus nigra, and Ash, Fraxinus excelsior, near to the top of the eastern ramparts.
The ramparts …."were still thick with trees and undergrowth during the excavation in 1939 by which time the site had become a game preserve." (Varley 1974) A game cover would need a good amount of underwood growth but with some access for keepers and beaters. This would perhaps have allowed species like gorse to start getting a foothold at the edges.
The trees "were cleared when the site came into the care of the Ministry of Works after the Second World War and today all that remains are rotting stumps" (Offa Antiq. Soc.1958). Not all the stumps were rotting as some are showing signs of growth in 1999. An Oswestry Borough brochure about the fort, published in 1989, talks of these trees being "mature" when they were felled.
In 1990 in the full flush of the conservation movement and environmental awareness, a group of journalism students did an assignment for the Advertiser. They entitled this "The ecological disaster that time forgot". They took Old Oswestry and its tree cover as their "cause" and interviewed local people. They claimed that it had been "Oswestry`s largest and abundantly life-bearing woodland habitat…." before the clearance of what was "affectionately known as the 'second coppice'." Elderly residents, it was claimed, "nostalgically remember….the uniquely rich environment of deciduous trees, rhododendron bushes and bluebells". They reported the clearance "burning out the roots of felled trees and employing a permanent labour force to totally inhibit and prevent the growth of anything other than the perennial grass"…a "policy of carefully maintained barrenness". Having worked themselves up, and perhaps their readers, with highly emotive language and a minimum of real understanding, they proposed replanting the entire fort with deciduous trees! Taking much of this with a pinch of salt, the references made by people they interviewed to "coppice" and the "deciduous trees, rhododendron bushes and bluebells" are interesting if rather vague. Shortly afterwards their lecturer, Cyril Owen, wrote in the Advertiser referring to reactions to the original article. In this he quoted a Mr A Clarke who remembered the ramparts as being called "Coppice Two" or "The Old Coppy" and reference is made to the name of the road leading to the fort being called "Coppice Drive".
After the fort was taken into care, it was used only as a pasture for sheep and cattle. "Scheduling and guardianship, and Mr Kempter's grazing cattle have prevented further damage." (Varley 1974). Today, 1999, sheep are still pastured on the ramparts and this grazing accounts for the fact that the coarser and more rank vegetation has been kept at bay to the benefit of ones preferring shorter turf but may have allowed bracken to gain a greater foothold than when cattle were also present.
Plans to develop the site as a tourist attraction with better access and parking facilities, put forward in 1994, were supported by the offer of a grant from the Rural Development Board but these were turned down by the Borough Council in 1995. Perhaps this was to the advantage of the site's ecology.
Apart from immature growth of willow and a few isolated elder and ash, there is one mature tree left which must be of some age. This is a yew by the western entrance probably spared because of superstition about felling yews or because yews are very hard and so difficult to fell.
The centuries of tree cover have certainly left their mark on the fort ramparts and there are several plants still present which are characteristic of ancient woodland. On the western slopes the dominant non-grass species is Greater Wood-rush, Luzula sylvatica. Among the tree roots is Honeysuckle, Lonicera periclymenum, and several Foxgloves, Digitalis purpurea. Nearby are Bracken, Pteridium aquilinum, and Bluebells, Hyacinthoides non-scripta. All these are typical of a woodland site. Two ferns: Broad Buckler, Dryopteris dilatata, and Hard Fern, Blechnum spicant, are to be found in sheltered shade. Species like Creeping Buttercup, Ranunculus repens, Lesser Celandine, Ranunculus ficaria, Ground-ivy, Glechoma hederacea, and Lords-and-ladies, Arum maculatum, which begin to appear from the south to the east-facing ramparts are happy in wooded areas. Further west, there are several clumps of Primrose, Primula vulgaris, and there are Wood Anemones in quite large drifts around the area near the pits.
The stumps remaining suggest that the reports of oak on the site are accurate but whether this was mixed oak or predominantly Sessile or Pedunculate is more difficult to ascertain. "Sessile oak woods are characterised by the absence of ash, elm, field maple, lime and alder. Compared with the woods of more fertile soils, they are poor in tree and shrub species" (Sinker et al.). This poverty of tree and shrub species suggests that the predominant oak may have been sessile as suggested by the references to "coppicing".
It was interesting to discover how little the site seems to have interested local botanists in the past. A major local source, Diamond's manuscript, brings together the finds of the local botanists at the turn of the century but almost no entries refer to this area. Obviously the lime-rich hills round Llynclys and Llanymynech were far more interesting to visit!
Stace, C.A. 1997. New Flora of the British Isles 2nd Edition. Cambridge U.P.
Sinker, C.A., Packham, J.R., Trueman, I.C., Oswald, P.H., Perring, F.H. and Prestwood, W.V. 1985. Ecological flora of the Shropshire Region. Shropshire Wildlife Trust.
Diamond, T.P. 1891. Flora of Oswestry.
Hartshorne, Rev C.H. 1841. Salopia Antiqua.
Oswestry Borough Council. 1989. Old Oswestry -Yr Hen Dinas - Caer Ogyrfan.
Varley, W. Article in Oswestry Advertiser 7th August 1974.
Oswestry Advertiser March 28th 1990
Oswestry Advertiser July 11th 1990
Hughes, G. 1994. Old Oswestry Hillfort: excavations by W.J. Varley, 1939-40.
Oswestry Offa Antiquarian Society: Transactions 1958.