The various topics indexed below were written in 2001-2 by Paul Smith, a local retired farmer with a deep interest in the local wildlife and their habitats. in 2002. As the years go by, they provide a valuable local bench-mark against which local people can judge change.
The 8000 acres that lie within the parish boundary are hilly and on a variety of soil types overlying chalk, chert, upper greensand and various Jurassic sands and clays. The state of the wildlife has mirrored the fortunes and state of farming over the years. Best suited to livestock farming with small fields - fewer larger than twenty acres - each surrounded by earthen high banked hedges topped with hazel, hawthorn, and up to ten other species. It being the policy that these hedges were cut and layered, ideally, every seven years and that single leaders of tree species be left, these hedges had trees sprinkled along their lengths. These were chiefly of beech, oak, ash, sycamore, fir and holly. There also were numerous cider apple orchards.
In 1919 the six outlying farms of the Cricket St Thomas Estate in Winsham Parish were sold off - just before the farming recession of the 1930's began. This signalled the rapid proliferation of wild life - both fauna and flora - over the largely agricultural parish. The Winsham village housing , farmsteads and the five hamlets (Purtington, Whatley, Bridge, Ammerham, Chalkway) were mostly of local stone - many with lime mortar bonding - and thatched roofs. Ideal wildlife habitats.
The inter-war years undoubtedly saw the apex of wildlife. The trees were often ancient with hollow branches and trunks. The hedges were often overgrown with wide verges with honeysuckle and climbers. The meadows and field corners were often left to flower. Hay was the main crop. The arable land was weedy and the water courses were left to their natural development. With a vertical fall of some 600ft and a rainfall variation said to be from about 29 to 35 inches per annum there were numerous eco-climates and mini-habitats in sheltered spots. A limiting factor was, however, the alkaline nature of the soils due to the chalk topping and the flash flooding of the water courses from higher up.
During World War 2 much of the area was ploughed up to grow corn crops or sugar beet. Farmers were paid grants to destroy rabbits with cyanide gas or shooting. Land girls were brought in to replace men in the forces.
After 1945 there was a real effort to vastly increase all branches of farming. The scientific development in all aspects was rapid. With new fertilisers, insecticides and herbicides, more vigorous plant varieties were developed. It was the making of silage - to largely replace hay that, with three cuttings in one season, turned our meadows into almost wildlife deserts. Large herds of cattle compacted the meadows. Heavily sprayed winter wheat or barley did the same for our arable land. The flail hedge cutter, with the clearing of so many hedgerow trees, limited a useful habitat. Very many hedges were totally removed. This, and myxamotosis, decimated the rabbit population. Finally, some old woodland was reclaimed as pasture or replanted with softwoods. New farm buildings of steel, asbestos and concrete lacked wildlife habitats.
Despite all this, much remains and there is generally now a better understanding of wildlife. For example, in 1974 a long strip of 2000 mixed trees were planted under the 'New Landscapes' scheme on Windwhistle farm. Winsham had also gained a Wild Tree and Plant Nursery, with two lakes. Some gardens also encourage birds and butterflies.
So, today, the best way to examine our Wildlife is to look at the different main habitats - watercourses, road and lane verges, woodland, buildings and undeveloped farmland. Here we shall meet mammals, birds, amphibians, insects, plants and fungi.
More information can be found in the 'Farming in Winsham' section.
All Winsham's watercourses are on private land and there are few public viewing sites. The river is unsuitable for boating although it has been tried by canoe.
The River Axe, from the Cheddington area to Seaton, forms the southernmost boundary of the parish. It has a large catchment area and a fall of only about fifty feet over three miles. The Jurassic soils through which it flows are very soft and variable which makes for much meandering. South of the Wild Flower Nursery this almost forms an ox-bow as it turns back on itself. The river is subject to rapid flash-flooding, especially over the road below Winsham bridge.
Trout used to be regularly seen underneath this road bridge and salmon have been released further up. Carp have been washed out of the main lake, as have goldfish out of garden ponds. Minnows are at times plentiful and lampreys have been seen. The many small brooks and streams that join the river throughout its length must carry the usual population of small fish. Growing along the river banks are some fine plants of angelica, Indian Balsom and hemlock.
The main parish stream system cuts diagonally NE/SW. Starting from the springs beside the road, the Purtington stream flows under the road and to the old water mill pond below Purtington House. This pond, now overgrown, was used for the water wheel that powered a saw for timber cutting. From here it flows into a boggy ten acre area called Water Mead, now an SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest). Here the marsh orchids grow to over two feet tall over the peat and a great number of water plants, from marigolds to mares tails and great willow herb, supports numbers of birds, amphibians and insects. At its lower end is an interesting area of greater tussock sedge. Piped underneath this section is the channel that took another stream to the top pond at Cricket that was used to power the main hydraulic ram for the estate.
This second stream rises below Windwhistle Farmhouse. It flows through a small, soggy area known as 'the weir' that once powered another ram. This area was noted for its golden saxifrage, marsh marigolds, figwort and mares tails. Willow tits nested there. Also seen here is the freshwater shrimp and eels. Then it entered a magnificent ancient woodland, now replanted, known as pool Copse. The pond was a home for mallard, teal and moorhens as well as frogs, toads and eels. Thirty years ago an escaped beaver caused havoc by blocking the exit so that Purtington Lane was repeatedly flooded. The old piping is now destroyed so that both streams join to form the lake system for the Cricket Wildlife Park.
Emerging from the park below the old heavy horse centre the stream crosses underneath the private road (public footpath) between Chalkway and Hollowells. Then under the bridge at Hollowells and down past the old mill, under the road at Whatley Bottom, on to the bridge in Leigh Lane, at the lower end of a watery meadow. On to another bridge below Ammerham and down to the Axe.
Amongst the other streams that join the Axe in the Court Street brook that starts from a spring near the pond below Stuckeys Farm off High Street. It flows down near the nursery, gathering some unusual plants, until it 'disappears' down a sink near the Malthouse. It resurfaces further along the road to flow under the garden at 'Wings', down parallel with Wynyards Lane, under the road to the Axe.
There are about eleven miles of public highways marking the boundaries, or internal to, the parish of Winsham. Their verges and banked hedges provide a varied range of habitats fully occupied by a large number of plant species with their attendant insects. With the present Council policy of only cutting hard back when the growth becomes a road hazard, usually in early August, there is a wonderful opportunity to observe the annual succession of dominant plant species. This is best achieved on foot (most lanes are single track for cars) or ideally, due to the steepness of some hills, by modern electric bicycle.
With the altering climate or recent years the marked difference, other than day length, of winter and summer is less well defined. So single plants, from a number of plant species, grace shelter spots. The record stands at 35 species on Boxing Day in 1956. Thus, throughout our winter we may expect to see in flower dandelions, yarrow, hogweed, wild strawberry, several hawkweed species, plantain and a single primrose.
The greatest joy of our lanes comes from the massed flowerings that mark the seasons. First come the snowdrops with the best display around Bridge and approaching Chalkway. These give way to a rather more universal flowering of primroses - rather less noticeable due to the displays of garden daffodils. The next display, about March, is of wood anemone. Best around Hollowells. Then come the bluebells, often glimpsed in the woodlands, but at their most striking along Cow Down Road opposite Leigh Lodge and Leigh Lane.
Around early May the great profusion of flowers begins. Red; led by red campion, herb robert, knapweed, red clover and common vetch. White; represented by stitchwort, white dead nettle, hedge bedstraw and 'donkey' daisies. Blue; by speedwell, tufted vetch, bugle, periwinkle, dog violet and the tallest remaining bluebells. Yellow; by ladies bedstraw, celandine, archangel, St John's Wort, buttercup and dandelion. Purple; by dove's foot cranesbills, vetches and mallow.
The 'rainbow' displays occur at selected spots throughout the parish. Examples are the Winsham road off the A30, Dorman Lane where it nears Lue Farm drive, Pye Lane and spots along Whatley Lane.
Gradually, as summer approaches, there is a great change as the white lace-like tracery of the beaked parsley takes over. The only plants that can compete are rosebay, foxgloves, hedge parsley, hogweed, nettles and bracken. When the verges are cut back, ferns and many flowers have a second flowering. Then, before the farmers cut the tops, there is honeysuckle, bindweed and various wild roses.
Several of the banks directly abut the tarmac and these often have special flowers, as in Colham Lane, of dove's foot geranium or wild strawberries. There are many other special spots like bur marigold (Leigh lane), wood garlic (Whatley Lane), mare's tails (Colham Lane), convolvulus at Street or the wild thyme on the pond wall in Purtington Lane.
It is worth mentioning that the lane with the greatest diversity of plants locally is the Headstock Road beyond the great quarry at Chard junction. This is due to the great Continental River that left the deposits. It also washed away the top layers of the Jurassic period to expose the extra remaining lower lias, similar to that of Lyme Regis.
Old maps confirm that there were a large number of small mixed woods, coppices or copses, within the parish boundary. These, with the high numbers of hedgerow and odd corner trees meant that Winsham could boast a rich and varied woodland ecology. Very many of the farmland trees have now gone but from viewpoints over the parish (along the A30 road, from Maudlin Cross and from the west end of Dormer Lane) it is evident that much is left.
Although the quality of the trees, like the very old ashes, oaks, poplars and cider apple trees have perished, many of the woodland habitats still remain due to their sporting value to the gun or foxhound.
From the top of the parish (near the A30) we have Eighteen Acre Copse - a bit of ancient woodland on chalk. Raided in both World Wars for timber, it contains such treasures as twayblade, herb Paris, fly and butterfly orchids, massed bluebells and ransoms. Also badgers and deer. The large rookery went around 1942 and a section was grubbed out forty years ago. There are many hornbeam trees.
Leading down the valley we have almost continuous mixed woodland (softwood and hardwood). These include the long strip of mixed trees planted in 1974. These run beside Pool Copse and pond, an ancient mixed wood now replanted with mostly larch. This area marks the top of the greensand and is noted for its badgers and fossils.
The other wood to the north of the parish is Lodge Copse, with the high radio masts. This was once a regular site to hear the song of the wood warbler.
Down in the valley, woodland is continuous to Cricket's Purtington Copse and up to Weston Ground Plantation, beside Dormer Lane and locally known as Badger's Glory. There is a continuous woodland and water corridor down past Chalkway to Hollowells where hedges lead down to the Axe. Thus a cormorant was seen fishing on a Winsham lake a few years ago.
Other wooded land is on the steep bank overlooking Lue Farm right along to Limekiln Lane. This leads on down below High Street with fine oaks and hedges down to the Axe near Winsham Bridge. This area was said to be once a regular spot to hear nightingales but is now known for its green and greater spotted woodpeckers, nuthatches and the occasional tree creeper.
Other parish woodland is the Queen Hill Wood above Leigh House and High Wood adjoining the Fosse way - known for its buzzards, roe deer and bluebells.
There are very few points in the parish that are not near trees or bushes or, indeed, water. This leads to a great variety of wildlife of all sorts. Nature is always evolving. With the roads, lanes and 25 labelled footpaths there need be never a dull moment for the nature lover.
So here is a list of a few special things to look out for in Winsham's woodlands - woodcock, wood warbler, grasshopper warbler, nightingales (several records), noctule and lesser horseshoe bats, purple hairstreak and pearl bordered fritillary butterflies; flowers include bee orchids, enchanter's nightshade, herb paris, wood sorrel and wood sanicle. Fungi include shaggy ink cap and boletus. All are on record as being seen in the parish.
See the Woodlands and Watercourses map above.
One of the 'achievements' of modern building techniques is to ensure that there is no room left for 'weeds', be they floral or faunal. So the old nooks and crannies are eliminated and the materials used, steel, plastic and concrete, are hard and unyielding. However, much old timber, thatched roofs and stone walls with lime mortar still linger in hamlet, farm and Winsham village. Likewise, good modern farmland, growing high production crops or grass with the aid of fertilizers, insecticides and herbicides leaves no room for wildlife. Here again much of the old habitat remains, so our Parish can still boast a high wildlife heritage. Further, there is a growing awareness of the interest and value of our native wildlife as a national asset. There are private nature reserves and protected trees. Many gardens encourage our birds, butterflies and other creatures with feeding stations, nest and bat boxes.
There are some sixteen farmsteads within the parish. Most are home to bats. Usually Pipistrelle and Long-Eared but Lesser Horseshoe, larger unidentified bats and a Noctule has been recorded. A few small parish rookeries have gone in recent years but we 'borrow' a few Ravens from Forde Abbey, or flying in from the South Coast. Buzzards nest in the Street area and in the woods towards Purtington, as well as using the hill thermals for amorous soaring displays. From the same source, Hobbies often hunt the swallows high over Winsham. There have been several recent reports of a Red Kite. As both the south coast and Bristol Channel are visible from Windwhistle, migrating birds - Fieldfares , Redwings and Geese - migrate over the Parish. Tawny and Barn Owls nest locally and Little Owls nest just outside the Village. Green and Greater Spotted Woodpeckers are common.
With pheasant shooting as a local sport - chiefly at Cricket, Midnell and Forde Abbey - there are also coveys of both Brown and Red Legged Partridges often seen in the lanes. Woodcock were in some woods.
With a wild flower nursery bordering the village, we are rich in butterflies. Brimstone and Small Tortoiseshell are seen throughout the year if weather permits. The two lakes also give us the chance of unusual Dragon and Damsel Flies. Dormice are common in this area. Hedgehogs breed in the village.
Common Lizards live in some old walls. Slow Worms are abundant in some damp gardens. Some very fine Grass Snakes live near the lakes. The numerous nest boxes in the nursery and at the end of Court Street area, plus the all year round feeding policy, attracts a number of various Finch species as well and all five Tits which include winter families of Long Tailed Tits. Nut hatches and families of Gold crests visit the gardens. The summer visitors appear to be less evident in latter years, although the Garden Warbler, White Throat and Lesser White Throat, the Spotted Flycatcher and the extra Blackcaps can all be heard. One Winsham garden claims a total of 51 species.
The decline in the rabbit population on the farmland means that, apart from sheep, the uncropped bits, steep banks or odd corners, now tend to progress to thistles, docks and to brambles. However the Quaking Grass, the Dwarf Ground Thistle, Good Friday Grass, Yellow Rattle and the tiny Pearl Wort may still reward a search.
Many of the old local stone walls remain in Winsham and throughout the parish. Those allowed to weather grow, from the joints, such plants as Wall Rue, Ivy Leaved Toadflax, Maidenhair Spleenwort, Valerian, Corydalis and Wall Pepper.
Just as we need skill and patience to fill our gardens with beautiful and interesting foliage and flowers, so it requires knowledge (and a certain amount of luck) to share our gardens with beautiful, interesting and tuneful birds. In both cases we have to be selective to know about the habits of each species.
Here are a few of the wide range of birds awaiting our invitation. Pride of place must go to a magnificent cock Pheasant gracing the lawn. There there are Green Woodpeckers coming for ants. The Great Spotted Woodpeckers will bring their chicks to a nut basket. Five species of Tits are here. Nuthatches always hang head down. There is a whole family of Gold crests in the village. Siskin, Sparrows and this year a Robin has been on the nut baskets. A great prize is a winter flock of mixed finches. Chiefly Greenfinch , Chaffinches and Goldfinch - feeding at ground level or low bushes - but joined, for safety, by the odd Brambling, Yellowhammer, Tree sparrow, Hedge sparrow or perhaps a Linnet. There are the avian rascals. The village Jackdaws, the Starlings, Magpies and the Crow that robbed an early garden Mistle Thrush nest this year. A Sparrow hawk pair seem always to include the gardens in its rounds. Once birds accept a friendly garden you never know when a bird book will be needed. There have been many rare visitors.