The Trap Grounds is almost the last remaining wild open space along the Oxford Canal between the city centre and the northern suburb. It lies between the canal and the railway line, immediately south of the Frenchay Road canal bridge (grid ref. SP 503081). An information board marks the entrance to the site, at the start of a track called Frog Lane.
The Trap Grounds consists of three acres of reed bed (a rare fragment of a type of wetland habitat once common around Oxford) and four acres of scrubland – formerly waste-ground, and now a rich mosaic of wildlife habitats. The name (in recorded use since at least 1832) may derive from the practice of trapping birds here … or the making of eel traps from willow withies … or the parking of pony-drawn traps during the eighteenth-century races on Port Meadow … or the dumping of night-soil from the ‘traps’ or privies of university colleges. Or it may be a corruption of the designation ‘Extra Parochial’, which denoted the site’s exemption from the payment of church tithes.
The Natural History of the Trap Grounds
This pocket of urban wilderness supports a remarkable diversity of wildlife. At least 35 species of bird breed on the Trap Grounds, including seven types of warbler, nesting among the reeds and on the adjacent scrubland. The reed bed supports one of the largest colonies of Reed Warblers to be found within the city boundary. It is one of the few places in urban Oxford where cuckoos breed. One particular cuckoo returned to this site for eight successive years, laying a world record of 25 eggs there in 1988. The rarest resident bird is the Water Rail, an elusive creature less often seen than heard: lurking in the reeds, it occasionally gives vent to a series of grunts, yelps, and squeals, known as ‘sharming’. It does not breed anywhere else within the city boundaries, and there are only three known breeding sites in the whole county.
In grassy places on the Trap Grounds scrubland lives Oxford’s only known breeding colony of Viviparous Lizards, which may be seen sunning themselves on piles of stones in warm weather. They share the site with Slow Worms and Glow-Worms. Grass Snakes live in the damp vegetation, sometimes emerging to sunbathe on the banks of the Castle Mill Stream, which bisects the Trap Grounds. Much less easy to spot is Nesticus cellulanus, a rare spider recorded only once elsewhere in Oxford (in the cellar of the Mitre Hotel in the 1920s).
The importance of the Trap Grounds has been known to environmentalists for many years. Birds have been ringed here since the 1930s, and the scrubland and reed bed have been studied intensively. But by the mid-1990s the reed bed had been invaded by scrub willows and was in danger of drying out, and the scrubland was being used as an unofficial rubbish tip. Oxford City Council, which owns the site, lacked the resources to maintain it. Despite its somewhat unsavoury aspects, the site was greatly valued by local dog-walkers and bird-watchers.
In Autumn 1996, a newly constituted group called The Friends of the Trap Grounds mobilised about 50 local volunteers, supervised by trainers from Oxford Conservation Volunteers, to begin clearing the invasive willows from the reed bed, bringing light and air to the reeds. Small grants from local Trusts paid for the training, tools, and insurance. In Spring 1998, volunteers created a path along the bank of the stream, linking it with an existing path to make a twenty-minute circular walk through several different types of habitat. Tons of rubbish, including a dead caravan, were removed from a filthy swamp, and snowdrops, primroses, and bluebells were planted along the stream. Maintenance work has continued regularly ever since then: the task of keeping paths clear of brambles and rubbish never ceases. Nor does the need for public education: guided walks and lectures are organised, and pupils from local schools are helped with GCSE and ‘A’ Level projects that use the Trap Grounds as a case study.
In Spring 2000, £1500 was donated by Oxford Preservation Trust and Unipart Ltd. to pay for the excavation of a pond on the reed bed. Swans have nested and produced cygnets there every Spring since 2001. The Friends planted hazels, willows, alders, and buckthorns on the banks. In 2001 an information board was erected on the canal towpath, explaining the history of the site and illustrating some of its wildlife.
The Threat to the Trap Grounds
Despite all this, in 2004 planning permission was granted for the construction of 45 houses on the scrubland and a road across it, to add to the total of almost 2000 new houses and flats which have been built along a two-mile stretch of the ‘canal corridor’ since 1997. This development would have contravened the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981), which protects Common Lizards, Slow Worms, Water Voles, and Pipistrelle and Noctule Bats. It would also have contravened the UK Biodiversity Action Plan (1995), with its commitment to protect Priority Species that include Trap Grounds residents and visitors such as Reed Bunting, Linnet, Bullfinch, Turtledove, Song Thrush, Spotted Flycatcher, Skylark, Buttoned Snout moth, and Water Vole. Furthermore, the development proposals threatened many of the species targeted for conservation in the Oxfordshire Biodiversity Action Plan, compiled by the Oxfordshire Nature Conservation Forum (ONCF); among them are Glow-worm and the Banded Demoiselle damselfly (both ‘flagship species’). The Oxfordshire Biodiversity Challenge, compiled by the Berks, Bucks, and Oxon Wildlife Trust (BBOWT), lists 100 key species that are ‘of conservation concern’ in the county, among them 11 birds recorded on the Trap Grounds: Kingfisher, Linnet, Nightingale, Reed Bunting, Sedge Warbler, Skylark, Snipe, Song Thrush, Spotted Flycatcher, Teal and Turtledove; plus three orchids (Pyramidal Orchid, Twayblade, and Bee Orchid). Other Oxfordshire target species include Scarlet Tiger moth and Emperor moth, which breed on the scrubland. Much of this rich diversity of wildlife would have been lost if the scrubland had been developed. (For a full list of the most threatened species, see ‘Trap Grounds Species of Special Conservation Concern’.)
The Town Green Campaign
On behalf of the local community, Catherine Robinson (Secretary of The Friends of the Trap Grounds) successfully argued at a public inquiry in 2002 that the Trap Grounds is a Town Green under the terms of the Commons Registration Act (which affirms the right of local people to the continued use of unfenced land for recreation, once it has been thus used as of right for at least 20 years). Oxford City Council appealed to the High Court, but the appeal was rejected. In 2005 the Council appealed to the Court of Appeal, which found in the Council’s favour on a technicality. The court’s restrictive interpretation of the law effectively rendered invalid any future attempt to claim land as a Town Green or Village Green anywhere in the country. The case was therefore referred to the House of Lords. After a five-day hearing in 2006, the law lords ruled in favour of the Friends of the Trap Grounds. It was a historic verdict, in that it clarified the law and has opened the way for other groups to claim similar open spaces for community use.
Oxfordshire County Council accordingly registered the scrubland as a Town Green in September 2006. In February 2007 the Executive Board of Oxford City Council acknowledged the registration and voted to work together with local people to manage the Trap Grounds for wildlife and recreation. In June 2007 the campaign to save the Trap Grounds from development was recognised with an award presented by the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE).
The reedbed is officially a Site of Local Importance for Nature Conservation, and the County Council has urged the City Council to extend this designation to cover the scrubland also. The Friends of the Trap Grounds want the entire site (reed bed and scrubland) to be designated as a Local Nature Reserve. This would make it eligible for grants to guarantee its continued use for undergraduate and postgraduate scientific study, and enable the site to serve as an outdoor classroom for local primary and secondary schools, of which there are several within walking distance, and one on its very doorstep.
The Trap Grounds also has potential for the creation of a ‘Green Gym’ scheme, whereby local doctors’ surgeries prescribe voluntary conservation work, rather than pharmaceutical medicines, to patients in appropriate cases.