Nature at Culham Station


Oxford Ragwort

The opening of the Didcot to Oxford branch of the Great Western Railway did not only provide ease of movement for people and goods, but it also facilitated the spread of an invader.

Oxford Ragwort
© Crown copyright, GB Non-native species secretariat
Oxford Ragwort by Platform 1 at Culham
Oxford Ragwort by Platform 1
Oxford Ragwort
© Crown copyright, GB Non-native species secretariat
Oxford Ragwort by Platform 1 at Culham
Oxford Ragwort by Platform 1

At the very end of the 1690s a species of plant was brought over from Sicily and introduced into the Oxford Botanic Gardens. Over the years the plant became established and thrived to the extent that within 100 years it had 'escaped' and could be found growing on the city walls and in the masonry of colleges. This led to the plant being given the common name of 'Oxford Ragwort' as it is distinct from the larger native 'Common Ragwort'.

The plant was first found on the slopes of Mount Etna and is a hybrid of two species Senecio aethnensis and Senecio chrysanthemifolius only found in Sicily, each growing at different altitudes. This yellow flowered plant Senecio squalidus is a member of the Daisy family and all parts of the plant are poisonous, with the sap burning bare skin. Its seeds float on air currents like the Dandelion so it was inevitable that they would slowly spread from their intended home.

Originally growing on the volcanic ash slopes of Mount Etna, the plant found an ideal home in the ballasted railway trackbed. Seeds would be swept along by the air currents from passing trains and they also got whisked far along the track after entering carriages and wagons. Eventually spreading throughout most of the UK rail network it can now also be found on building sites, roadsides, waste ground and wherever a suitable habitat can be found. Keep an eye out trackside any time between April and October and you should spot the escapee from Oxford.

Home for our Swift family

Our Swift family

Right in one corner, under the overall roof above the disused platform, is a small hole where the boarding has warped. Just visible inside is a nest and during the summer we often see a bird flying in or out. At first we wondered what type of bird it could be - either a Swallow, House Martin or a Swift as they are all pretty similar at first sight.

We have decided it is a Swift family who have chosen the Old Ticket Office as their summer home as they like to make their nest high up in holes in old buildings sheltered from the sun and rain. From there the birds are able to drop into the air from the nest entrance. This spot certainly fits the bill. Swallows and House Martins make their nests out of mud attached to the surface of a wall sheltered under the eaves.

Swifts migrate from southern and equatorial Africa and only spend a few months (April or May to August) with us in the UK. They are a true dweller of the air as they eat, preen, mate and can even sleep in the air, only nesting to raise their family. Pairing up for life, they would typically lay two or three eggs each season. As Swifts can live for up to 20 years and they return to the same nest each summer we hope to see our welcome lodgers for many years to come.

Hops

Common Hop
Common Hop
Common Hop Common Hop

We were surprised to discover several Common Hop vines growing in the hedgerow down the road alongside platform 2. Its scientific name is Humulus Lupulus and, being a native plant, can apparently be found right across the country apart from some areas of Scotland. It flowers between July and September with green-yellow coloured male flowers growing in loose branching groups, whereas the female flowers are catkins, shaped like a cone. The male and female flowers grow on different plants and it is the female flower which develops into the fruit which is initially light green and turns to brown when it has ripened developing a distinctive scent.

Another climbing plant, White Bryony, Bryonia Dioica, can sometimes be mistaken for the Common Hop. However, White Bryony has distinctive leaves arranged alternatively whereas they are opposite each other in Hop. The fruit is also very different, being red and is poisonous.

We hope the gardeners employed by Network Rail to tidy the verges from time to time are not over zealous and clear these vines away, as Hop helps create dense habitat providing a small microclimate and valuable refuge for insects and nesting or roosting birds. The plant’s flower also provides nectar for insects.