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About the Lye Valley

Lye Valley

From central Headington proceed down Windmill Road on to the Slade, and turn right into the nature reserve soon after passing Girdlestone Road

There are also footpaths from the Churchill Hospital, Peat Moors, and the street called Lye Valley





© OpenStreetMap contributors. Used under the
Open Database Licence

Grass of Parnassus
Grass of Parnassus
Clubbed General Soldierfly
Clubbed General soldierfly
Marsh helleborine
Marsh helleborine

The Lye Brook was once the centre of a large boggy area known by various names including 'Hogley Bog' and ‘Bullingdon Bog. It is a very rare environment:  a wet area, fed by lime-rich springs along the valley walls, making it technically a 'calcareous fen'. It is home to many unusual plants that are adapted to this environment, including the marsh helleborine, an orchid which flourishes here, and grass of Parnassus, a very rare species in this part of the UK. It is also abundant in wild-life: unusual insects including the brown hairstreak butterfly and glow-worms, birds such as the reed warbler, reptiles (grass snakes, slow-worms and lizards) and of course foxes, badgers, and occasional deer. The importance of this area has led to the designation of two Sites of Special Scientific Interest, the North and South Fens, which are protected by national legislation.

For centuries this was common land used for grazing animals, which kept grass and reeds short, allowing the flowers to flourish. But over the last century, the valley has changed: large estates have grown up around it, trees have colonized it, and the vegetation has changed. Now there is a major threat to its continued existence because of hydrological issues. The fen is wetted by natural springs, but the catchment area for these springs, once open country, is now very much built up – and threatened by further development. In addition, water run-off from the surrounding area, instead of percolating gently into the ground, is now captured in large drains and fed into the brook. When there is heavy rain, the brook becomes a raging torrent, and the bed and the walls are being eroded. This increased flow is threatening the fenland.  As the brook sinks lower between its banks, water drains off the fen, leading to a gradual drying out of the fens.

Slow worm
Slow worm at Town Furze

Read more about the Lye Valley in:

Article by Dr Judy Webb in The Weasel

Article by Keith Frayn and Judy Webb in Headington Monthly

The iron-rich springs of the Lye Valley

This article explains why there is no need to worry if you see brown oily-looking stains in the water in the Lye Valley:

Marsh Lousewort

You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone…

Dr Judy Webb continuously scientifically monitors the wildlife of the north and south Lye Valley fens. Changes can result from improved management (cutting and raking reed) and detrimental factors e.g. water flows from the Thames Water drain gouging out the Lye and Boundary brooks which desiccates the fens.

Read Judy’s report and specimen list for the north fen.


Right: Marsh lousewort (Pedicularis palustris) is the one species
that is most likely to be lost with drying, but it has shown the
biggest resurgence as a result of all the cutting and raking

Birds in the Lye Valley (47 species)

(Turdus merula)

Great Tit
(Parus major)

(Sitta europaea)

(Sylvia atricapilla)

Green Woodpecker
(Picus viridis)

(Phasianus colchicus)

Black-headed Gull
(Chroicocephalus ridibundus)

(Chloris chloris)

Pied Wagtail
(Motacilla alba)

Blue Tit
(Cyanistes caeruleus)

Grey Wagtail
(Motacilla cinerea)

Red Kite
(Milvus milvus)

(Pyrrhula pyrrhula)

Herring Gull
(Larus argentatus)

(Phoenicurus phoenicurus)

(Buteo buteo)

(Corvus monedula)

Reed Bunting 
(Emberiza schoeniclus)

Carrion Crow
(Corvus corone)

(Garrulus glandarius)

(Erithacus rubecula)

(Fringilla coelebs)

(Falco tinnunculus)

(Carduelis spinus)

(Phylloscopus collybita)

(Alcedo atthis)

Song Thrush
(Turdus philomelos)

Collared Dove
(Streptopelia decaocto)

Lesser Black‑backed Gull
(Larus fuscus)

(Sturnus vulgaris)

(Prunella modularis)

Little Egret
(Egretta garzetta)

Stock Dove
(Columba oenas)

Feral Pigeon/Rock Dove
(Columba livia)

Long-tailed Tit
(Aegithalos caudatus)

(Apus apus)

Garden Warbler 
(Sylvia borin)

(Pica pica)

(Sylvia communis)

(Regulus regulus)

(Anas platyrhynchos)

Winter Wren
(Troglodytes troglodytes)

(Carduelis carduelis)

Mistle Thrush
(Turdus viscivorus)

(Columba palumbus)

Great Spotted Woodpecker
(Dendrocopos major)

(Gallinula chloropus)


Thanks to Tom Bedford and Dave Lowe for their bird observations

Plants in Lye Valley with Red List status

The Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland (BSBI) has released a new Red Data list for Vascular plants in England – see http://bsbi.org.uk/england.html

According to this re-assessment of threat status to plants, fourteen of the plants in the Lye Valley fens have now a national status – either Near Threatened or Vulnerable. Previously, when considered in the context of the whole of Great Britain, their status was LC – least concern.

Losses in England have been so great that the BSBI have felt it important to highlight the dire straits in which some wild flowers are in England, hence the new Red List.

The Catchment of the Lye Valley North Fen
Catchment map

This map shows Surface and Groundwater Catchment Limits combined (thick black line) on a street map for the Lye Valley North fen area. This is the ground area within which rainwater falling on the soil, infiltrates and moves down into the limestone aquifer (store) to later emerge as special calcium-rich water in the springs which feed the Lye Valley SSSI and LWS fens (northern part of old Hogley Bog).

This map is drawn by J. Webb from a street map and the calculated catchment limits in the hydrological report of Curt Lamberth carried out for Oxford City Council (2007)*. 

Surface water travels through the top layers of the soil, ground water travels in the limestone at a deeper level. Obviously surface water feeds down into groundwater after a time.

The limit lines for the two types of catchment are slightly different but they have been combined for simplicity and because they are both important. Please see Lamberth’s original report* for the separate catchments.  He has checked this map for accuracy and states that the surface water limits are indicative only and has suggested a probable extension (red dashed line) of the groundwater limit, but as yet the data is not available to prove this.

Do you live within the catchment limits? If you do it is important what you do with your garden areas.  If you want to help save the Lye Valley wetland, it is important not to pave over either front or back garden, because the soil in these areas will feed water to the springs. If you pave it you prevent rainwater entering the soil and this will deprive the springs, eventually (even if your paving has a tiny effect, imagine the combined effect of all the gardens in your street paving their green areas).
Paved areas, roads, pavements (hard surfacing) shed rainwater into surface water drains which pour out into the Lye brook to erode the stream banks and cause the fens to dry out. 

Within the catchment area all green spaces, gardens and road verges are vitally important because they are freely permeable to rainwater. The playing fields of Wood Farm School and Peat Moors recreation field are particularly important as they are big green areas. But all green back gardens, allotments etc. are also important.

Within the catchment, all verges should remain green and uncompacted i.e. not parked-on or tarmacked. The springs need every drop that currently infiltrates because many of them have already dried up as a consequence of previous housing development.

Areas of wildlife interestAreas designated for wildlife importance in the Lye Valley
Key: SSSI – Site of Special Scientific Interest (National designation & national importance)
LWS – Local Wildlife Site (wildlife of county importance)

Videos of the Lye Valley during heavy rain

The stream

The source (grating) and the contribution from road run-off (stream from right)

The cascade (among trees near the source)

Constitution of the Friends of Lye Valley (PDF)

Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘Inversnaid’

Friends of Lye Valley, 2013–2020