Friday 3 June 2016

The Lady and The Monkey 2nd June 2016

A chat with Adam last night at an Oxonbirds social evening in the Duke of Monmouth on the Iffley Road resulted in my taking an hour's drive south the next day to BBOWT's Hartslock Reserve which is near Goring on Thames to view a rare orchid, namely the Monkey Orchid. There is also to be found there the equally rare Lady Orchid  but not apparently this year as the heads of the two plants that emerged were nibbled off possibly by deer and even if they had survived they would have bloomed by now and probably gone over  as they come out in April. Even rarer than these two orchids are hybrids between the two and Hartslock is thought to be the only site in the UK where such hybrids occur. This is a comparatively recent phenomenon and is thought to have first occurred in 2006. There are however several records of  the Monkey Orchid hybridising with the Military Orchid in the 19th century when both were relatively common in the Thames Valley and there is an isolated contemporary record where a Monkey Orchid hybridised with a Man Orchid in Kent in 1985 and, so I am told, the same thing has happened again this year.

The Monkey Orchid is widespread in Europe occuring through central France and the Mediterranean but in the UK it has always been restricted. Their range never extended much beyond the hillsides on the north bank of the Thames from Goring to Caversham. This area lies on the southern end of the Chilterns and has been difficult to farm, being steep and having poor thin soils which allowed the orchid to survive but over the years increased pressures from agriculture and expanding local towns has caused a huge decline in suitable habitat so it is only now known from two sites, Hartslock and another site in east Kent. There was one other colony found in 1974  at Spurn Point in south east Yorkshire but that was last seen in 1983 when the colony was lost to coastal erosion. The orchid grows on open chalky soils in well drained, south facing grassland or on the edges of woodland, precisely the habitat that is found at Hartslock.

To get to Hartslock Reserve is not straightforward as the reserve is at the end of a narrow lane and the local farmers have complained about visitors cars blocking access so you are required to park some 1.8km distant from the reserve and walk in from Goring via footpaths. So I parked at the dead end of a road called Manor Lane and walked along a narrow footpath and then through a farmyard guided by the map on my i-phone until I came to a steep track running up the side of a wooded slope which in turn led to a tiny gate which gave access to Hartslock Reserve, eleven acres  of unimproved sloping chalk  grassland on which the orchids grow and are protected by volunteers and BBOWT (Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust)
Hartslock Reserve is the patch of green between the trees at the top of the slope
The walk to the reserve was not unpleasant winding as it did through banks of Cow Parsley, such an ugly name for so delicate an umbellifer and I much prefer the old country name Queen Anne's Lace. The tiny white flowers bunched at the end of individual thin green stems like globular constellations of tiny stars, grew in rampant spilling profusion below the hawthorn and field maple hedges enclosing the footpath and the air was suffused with the pungent scent of the white flowers and also that of the flowering hawthorns.

A Common Whitethroat cheerily sung from the depths of the hedge and a Lesser Whitethroat expressed its displeasure with its 'teeth and wet tongue' tacking call of annoyance. I turned from the path I was on to another which led me sharply uphill and a huge bracket fungus caught my eye. looking like a pile of papadoms that would be more at home in an Indian Restaurant  than layered on a tree trunk.

I went through a gate and laboured up the steep hillside. Stopping for a rest I turned and looked back and below me lay the River Thames and Goring Gap, a view of considerable beauty. So beautiful indeed that the whole area has been designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

River Thames and Goring Gap viewed from Hartslock Reserve
I walked further, up and over the brow of the hill and entered the tiny reserve via another gate and soon was among the orchids growing in some profusion on the steep slope before me. The swathe of hybrids in one particular corner were all too obvious and a great sight to see but the Monkey Orchids were less obvious and took me a while to locate but in the end I found them too.

Monkey x Lady Orchids

Monkey Orchid
The hybrids in some cases were large, cylindrical clusters of mauve, pink and white almost blousy in the profusion of clustered flowers at the end of the stout green stem. 

Monkey x Lady Orchid
The Monkey Orchids were more discreet and this year are stunted in their growth due I am told to the comparative drought and cold winds of this Spring.

Monkey Orchid
Tucked discreetly away under the overhanging trees and beyond the hybrid orchids were a couple of White Helleborines, yet to come into full flower but showing bulbous white buds ready to open any day now.

White Helleborine
It was good to see and enjoy them all in this secluded, unprepossessing little reserve. 

Another triumph for BBOWT.


  1. Ooh, I'm gripped by the White Helleborine - I missed it when I was there!

  2. Hi Ewan.
    The Man/Monkey hybrid you mention has apparently re-appeared this year in Kent!!