Rainbow over Otmoor wetlands Oxfordshire, with starlings flying in centre.

How we helped save a precious wetland from roadbuilding – twice

A protected wetland site in Oxfordshire, Otmoor has twice in the past 40 years been threatened with destruction. That is until Friends of the Earth got involved.
  Published:  11 Oct 2018    |      4 minute read

In 1829 an Oxfordshire landowner, Sir Alexander Croke, tried to enclose and drain the wild wetlands of Otmoor.

Fearing for their livelihoods, local people revolted. 1,000 of them walked the 7-mile circumference of the moor, destroying every fence and drainage bank they came across. When 41 of them were arrested and taken to Oxford, local people attacked their escort with stones and bricks, and the prisoners escaped. 

Fortunately the area was never completely drained: the wonderful patchwork of ditches, rivers and floodplains which makes up Otmoor was saved for future generations to enjoy.

View of Otmoor from the village of Beckley: green trees and shrubs are dotted across a countryside landscape
View of Otmoor from the village of Beckley
Credit: Celeste Hicks/Friends of the Earth

Modern day assault on Otmoor

In the early 1980s the government announced it wanted to extend the M40 motorway from Oxford to Birmingham.

The proposed route would have sliced right through Otmoor. 

The government intended to use compulsory purchase to secure the land.

Local people were once again fiercely protective of their wetlands – as their predecessors had been nearly 200 years previously.

This time their methods were not violent. But they were no less radical.

Alice's Meadow

The late Joe Weston from Wheatley Friends of the Earth, and Chris Church who is today a campaigner with Oxford Friends of the Earth local group, had an ingenious idea.

They bought a patch of land that lay directly in the firing line. The field, between the villages of Fencott and Murcott, belonged to a local farmer.

They then decided to call their field Alice's Meadow, a reference to Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass. The book is said to have been partly inspired by the chessboard-like field pattern of Otmoor.

The original plan of Alice's Meadow on Otmoor in Oxfordshire, divided into 3,500 plots
The original plan of Alice's Meadow divided into 3,500 plots
Credit: Anna Weston

Joe and Chris divided the meadow into 3,500 individual plots, which they sold to supporters for a couple of pounds each. Many of these buyers sold the plots on again, making it hard to trace the owners. Any attempt at compulsory purchase would have been almost impossible.

Finally a planning inquiry recommended that the M40 should avoid Otmoor because of its unique habitats and it was re-routed a few miles to the east.

RSPB Otmoor

That brilliant campaign led to the wetland being saved for nature and people. In 1997 the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds acquired the land and carefully restored it to a patchwork of wet meadows, wetland and reedbeds.

Wooden RSPB sign at leafy entrance to Otmoor Nature Reserve.
RSPB Otmoor
Credit: Celeste Hicks/friends of the Earth

Today the site attracts a wide variety of wading birds such as curlew, snipe and lapwing, all of which have been in decline in the UK. It's also a top site to spot otters.

And perhaps most importantly, Otmoor is one of a small number of sites in the UK where the endangered turtle dove continues to breed successfully. Turtle doves have declined by 91% in the UK since 1997.

Turtle Dove on branch at Otmoor wetlands, Oxfordshire.
Turtle Dove
Credit: iStock/CreativeNature_nl

Otmoor also links up with a number of important wildlife corridors, including the neighbouring ancient royal hunting ground of Bernwood Forest. Here you might see brown hares boxing in early spring, or the rare black hairstreak butterfly.

Rainbow over Otmoor wetlands Oxfordshire, with starlings flying in centre.
Starlings and a rainbow over Otmoor
Credit: Danny Chapman/CC02 via flickr

The third Otmoor insurrection

But even with such recognition of its importance, the story was not quite finished for Otmoor.

In 2016 the National Infrastructure Commission floated the idea of an Oxford-to-Cambridge expressway. It suggested that a new road could ease congestion, improve east-west connectivity and open up large areas of greenfield land for housing. 

Out came the maps again. And again Otmoor was in the firing line.

Joe Weston, who following the Alice's Meadow campaign, went on to become a lecturer in urban planning at Oxford Brookes University, had sadly died in 2011.

Chris Church of Oxford Friends of the Earth addresses public meeting on No Expressway Alliance.
Chris Church Oxford Friends of the Earth
Credit: Celeste Hicks/friends of the Earth

But Chris Church was ready to lead the charge again. "I just thought, Oh no, not again. How could they be so stupid?" he says.

Oxford Friends of Earth worked with and supported a local group called Save Otmoor which had formed to fight the Expressway driving through the wetlands. The campaigners went door-to-door alerting local people. Schoolchildren drew pictures to show how much they loved the site, and protest placards sprang up everywhere.

Save Otmoor garnered local support against the expressway in all 7 villages which form a ring around the wetland: Fencott, Murcott, Charlton-on-Otmoor, Oddington, Noke, Beckley and Horton-cum-Studley.

Save Otmoor sign on grass verge along country lane
Save Otmoor sign on grass verge along country lane
Credit: Celeste Hicks/Friends of the Earth

In September 2018 the government made a surprise announcement that its preferred route was Corridor B. This was a route broadly aligned with a proposed new east-west rail line. As yet it's not clear whether it will pass east or west of Oxford.

Mercifully, Otmoor was ruled out as an option. 

Not here, not anywhere

But despite this success, the fight against the expressway goes on.

Two days after Corridor B was announced as the favoured route, the No Expressway Alliance was launched. This group includes Oxford Friends of the Earth, the Campaign for Better Transport, local politicians and Save Otmoor.

They argue that the road is simply unnecessary, and that any route will cause terrible damage.

The only consultation we will get is where do you want this road. No-one has asked us if we want it.Chris Church, Oxford Friends of the Earth

The alliance argues that Corridor B could threaten other precious landscapes such as the Thameside water meadows and Wytham Woods. In fact the Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust says Corridor B is the most damaging option of all, putting 20 nature reserves at risk.

Alice's Meadow on Otmoor today. Looking over gate into field with horse.
Alice's Meadow today
Credit: Celeste Hicks/friends of the Earth

A government consultation into the route of the expressway is expected to be launched in the coming months.

But alternatives to road-building exist, such as moving forward with plans for an east-west rail link. The No Expressway Alliance will continue to campaign against any plans to build a new road and you can find their petition against the proposals here. 

At the same time, on Otmoor a new campaign has started to declare the wetlands an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Otmoor at dawn. Looking across wetlands. Flooded ditch leads from foreground to horizon.
Otmoor in the dawn light
Credit: Danny Chapman/CC02

Local groups supported by People's Postcode Lottery

The dedicated work of Oxford Friends of the Earth and all our 150 plus local groups in England and Wales has been helped by the generosity of players of the People's Postcode Lottery. To date they have contributed £4,924,309 to support us.

Roadbuilding, nature and climate change

Forty years after the beautiful wetlands of Oxfordshire were saved from tarmac, it's hard to believe that today's government continues to rely on roadbuilding to solve housing and congestion problems.

With major roadbuilding schemes threatening other national treasures such as Stonehenge, it's time to ask the government to invest in better public transport. Building more roads will not help us to meet our commitments to tackling climate change.

Will you help us to campaign for better transport?