Wytham Woods - The Laboratory with Leaves

Wytham Woods lies some four miles from the City of Oxford in the UK. Whilst only a short distance to travel if you are driving, there is a world of difference between the stunning architecture of the City of Oxford (City of Dreaming Spires, and unfortunately of building works too) and this 1,000-acre estate. Their website https://www.wytham.ox.ac.uk/ tells us that it includes ancient woodland which dates to the last Ice Age. Imagine, 35,000 – 60,000 years ago, Woolly Mammoths, Steppe Mammoths and Straight-Tusked Elephants probably roamed this land. There is also semi-ancient woodland dating to the seventeenth century and then modern plantations from the 1950s and 1960s. Other habitats include limestone grassland with its unique plants, and a number of ponds.

In 1939 the woods became known as the ‘Woods of Hazel’ after the death of the daughter of the then landowners, the Ffenell family. In 1942 the Ffenells donated the land to Oxford University, and since then it has become a world-renowned place of research. It truly is a ‘Laboratory with Leaves.’ Research programmes here have run continuously, many dating back to the 1940s.

The woods are open to the public by permit and remain open from dawn to dusk. The title of The Laboratory with Leaves is evidenced as you walk around. Some of the practical aspects of this include colour coded bird boxes; trees similarly marked and some beribboned; logs laid out with holes drilled into them as part of fungal research; and more. The woods are especially recognised for two areas of research, although many more take place. One of these has been a long running study of the European Badger (Meles meles), about which more later.

Another is The Wytham Tit Project which is a long-term population study of two UK woodland bird species - Great Tits (Parus major) and Blue Tits (Cyanistes caeruleus). These are common birds of woodland and often-seen garden visitors in the UK. Further details about this and the many other research projects is available via the Wytham Woods website.

Having briefly introduced this amazing place, I will now share what it’s like to be there as a visitor and wildlife enthusiast, including a particular focus on my favourite mammal, the European Badger. But first, some words to help you in imagining the woods:

Come! Walk with me a while and breathe deeply.

Let me share with you the peace and wisdom I feel in this place.

Trees are all around us,

breathing oxygen into the air,

whilst secretly communicating with one another underground.

Walk with me the steep hill.

Pause for breath as we look out over the sheep grazed fields.

There is a grassy track

leading away, and out of sight.

What mysteries might lie there, beyond our view?

Watch with me, as leaves of yellow and gold

float to the ground,

enriching the soil where they come to rest.

Imagine the sound as they rustle and crunch beneath your feet.

And looking up, see them shower you with gold.

Rejoice with me!

We reach the top of the hill

and there before us, in all its refurbished glories rests

The Chalet.

An unexpected sight: this was once a hunting lodge.

Pause here with me,

because this is where my story begins.

High in the woods

where we meet to write and chat,

before venturing out again, into the wild.

And so: imagine an early afternoon on a sunny autumnal day. For me, here in England, this means sunlight that is richly warm in colour – not the overhead brightness of a summer day. Blue sky – yes. Fluffy, white clouds – maybe. The sun sits lower in the sky and glows rather than burns. It filters down through the trees, providing varying patches of light and shade.

Although a single-track road rises through the woods, it does not detract from the surrounding beauty. In fact, it means I am able to walk the hill easily, not having to watch my step, and allows me to focus instead on the trees, plants, birds, and butterflies around me. Yes, they are all there. For the ornithologists amongst you, here are some of the birds that accompanied me on one visit (this was in August 2023, so not quite into autumn):

Great Tit and Blue Tit; Long Tailed Tit; Robin; Spotted Flycatcher ( a summer visitor from Africa); Common Treecreeper; Linnet (a bird of open country and farmland, both of which surround the Wood); Chiffchaff (another summer visitor); Wren; Nuthatch; Jackdaw and Carrion Crow.

Beech tree leaves
PHOTOGRAPH BY Eileen C Anderson

I love these woods in all seasons, and as each season arrives, so it becomes my favourite. Autumn is extra special, however. Leaves in all shades of yellow and gold. Some still green, some already brown, a few tinted red. And as the season progresses and the leaves fall, their colours transform the woodland floor. Amongst the many well-known trees in Wytham Woods, the Beech presents a stunning spectacle with green, then butter yellow leaves turning to a rich, bronzed, dark gold as the season progresses. On a breezy day, leaves whirl as they fall, and their glories continue until the first hard frost - at which point those that remain tumble to the ground, and we are left with the bare and beautiful architecture of so many mature trees with denuded branches. The immature Beech trees seem able to retain their leaves, displaying a somewhat crispy coat of brown in the late winter.

Denuded branches
PHOTOGRAPH BY Eileen C AndersonEileen C Anderson

The scent of Autumn here is so alluring. Rich and earthy. Stepping into the spaces between the trees, I reach out and touch the bright green mosses coating the shaded side of the trees. Sniffing it rewards me with the richest, lushest damp scent. Is this the scent of chlorophyll? My fingers sink into its gently textured softness.

Resting one ear up against it’s trunk, and blocking my other ear, I listen in to the very life of a Beech tree – what I imagine to be it’s beating heart. It is actually the movement in the internal xylem, transporting water and mineral salts from the roots up to other parts of the tree. Never should anyone think that a tree is just ‘a large wooden stick!’

The Chalet (pictured at top) is a refurbished hunting lodge, set at the top of a hill, in the middle of the woods. It is a workspace and hub for researchers and visitors, and I have been privileged to join a writing group that meets there. We use the Chalet as our base, wander into the woods to seek inspiration (easily found) and to write. The previous Writer in Residence [1] has encouraged us to submit stories and poems inspired by the woods to be published later this year in a Woodland Anthology. Having put forward some examples of each, I have yet another reason for loving these woods and their living inspiration.

And now, to the really quite famous occupants of the wood. Badgers. So famous are they, that not only are they the subject of a myriad of scientific papers, but they also have an entire book written about them [2].

The European Badger is a legally protected mammal in the UK. It has been and continues to be the subject of persecution, examples of which range from the vile pursuit of badger baiting to the blocking of sett entrances, trapping the badgers in their homes, where they will suffocate to death. Bizarrely, for a protected animal, in certain areas of the UK, badgers are killed under licence (The Cull) as part of the Government’s strategy to eliminate Bovine TB (bTB). Even though research shows transmission of infection is from cattle to cattle3. Thankfully, those living in Wytham Woods are protected from all of these activities.

However, rather than focus on the negative aspects of being a badger, let me tell you more about them, including something quite extraordinary.

Badger claws
PHOTOGRAPH BY Eileen C Anderson

Our (usually) black and white striped badger lives underground in a sett, comprising tunnels and chambers, dug out using their amazing claws. In Wytham Woods badgers have been studied continuously for some 30 years, and in addition to accurate GPS recording as part of the research project, their setts are named in a much more colloquial way. Examples include Firebreak; Thorny Croft; Brogden’s Belt; Great Oak and Singing Way. Intriguing names, just like their occupants. The life histories of some 1,823 badgers have been monitored [2].

For those of you who may not be especially interested in the science and biology of these charismatic creatures, suffice to say that they are nocturnal mammals, have low vision, but excellent hearing, and a powerful sense of smell. Whilst I have joined badger watching evenings organised by Wytham Woods, the cautious ways of these animals mean I have yet to see any there, despite their relatively high density. The badgers I have seen include occasional visitors to my own garden, recorded on trail camera. I am privileged to have also experienced ‘up-close and personal interactions’ with some when trapping and vaccinating them under licence. This is usually on private land, with an invitation to do so as part of a county-wide project to protect them against bTB. On these latter occasions badger demeanour varies from sleepy and quiet, to irate and snorting!

It is wonderful to vaccinate a healthy badger, knowing that it is now protected against the infectious disease of bTB, and then release it back to the wild. Some saunter out of the cage trap and trundle off. Others bolt as if late for their train. For a chunky, low-to-the-ground animal, they are surprisingly fast moving! We ensure they all make their way safely back to their sett or a nearby connecting entrance.

And now to some amazing science and biology. Badgers can and will mate at any time of the year, and early autumn (September) and late winter (February) are much favoured times. There is no pairing for life with this species and the boars (male) will travel some distances across others’ territories to reach sows (females), whom they find especially attractive just after they have given birth, which is usually in February. Territorial fights between males, and resulting injuries are common. And the sows are not averse to travelling and seeking out varied male companionship too.

So – over a twelve-month period, a sow can mate with many different boars. Each fertilised egg is then held in suspension and not embedded into the uterus until December in each year. This delayed implantation is known as embryonic diapause and Cubs are born some 53 days after implantation (so usually from February through March). They emerge above ground as spring weather arrives and natural food sources become more available. It also means that mating doesn’t have to take place when badgers are naturally less active during cold winter weather (when they don’t hibernate but rest in torpor) and allows the new generation the whole of spring, and summer into autumn to grow and develop. The process of holding more than one fertilised egg in suspension is superfetation and as well as potentially increasing the litter size, mating with different boars increases the gene pool.

As I write this in February 2024, I am hopeful that there will be a new generation of cubs born this month in at least some of the Wytham Wood setts. And I like to imagine them coming above ground in a few months’ time, and as dusk falls and the gates to the woods close, I feel confident that they will be exploring and foraging alongside their mothers as they learn how to live their lives as badgers.

My final words are really part of my wish list. Wytham Woods hosts pottery kilns and a print studio. I have visited neither and would like to do so. The pottery kilns are two, traditionally built Anagama kilns. This is a Japanese term for an ancient type of cave-like pottery kiln brought to Japan from China in the 5th Century. The structure comprises a firebox at one end and a flue at the other, with no division between these components and the pottery to be fired. The Wytham Woods website provides more information including the fascinating way in which the first kiln was built – making a woven willow tunnel covered in hessian, with fireclays – which then remained after the flammable material was burned off. I will be looking out for firing events and paying a visit.

The Wytham Studio was set up in 2012 in the wood by Robin and Rosie who tutor printmaking at Oxford’s Bodleian Library Bibliographic Press amongst their other works. There is a press dating from the 1850s there as well as presses of other types and sizes in a workshop in central Oxford. A very covetable print of badgers in the wood is showcased in their shop (https://wythamstudio.co.uk) and I will be watching out for one of the courses that they run – although my artistic skills would be very severely stretched if I was able to attend!

A view of Oxford from Wytham Woods
PHOTOGRAPH BY Eileen C Anderson

I hope that this piece of writing offers you a sense of the real and natural richness in this remarkable area of Oxfordshire. Highly valued and protected by the University whilst buzzing with scientific and artistic activities. And full of wildlife. Stand with me as I look out over one view of the city of Oxford from the bottom of the hill in Wytham Woods!


1. Alice Little - Writer in Residence 2020-2023. alicelittle.co.uk

2. The Badgers of Wytham Wood -David W. Macdonald & Chris Newman. Oxford University Press (2022)

3. The Badger Trust. Tackling Bovine TB Together: Towards Sustainable, Scientific, and Effective bTB Solutions. January 2024

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Eileen C Anderson

Eileen is fortunate to have enjoyed two quite different careers. The first as a microbiologist in the NHS. The second as a specialist in Human Resources, working consecutively in the public, private and charitable sectors. Now happily retired, she is a Trustee of, and the Education and Outreach Lead for Oxfordshire Badger Group, striving to promote the protection and conservation of badgers. She is also an amateur archaeologist, perhaps mirroring the excavating skills of badgers! A lifelong scribbler, she now tries to put meaning behind the combinations of words she loves to create.