Landscape and environment

The parish of West Overton with Fyfield is pear shaped with the pointed end to the North. Bisecting the pear centrally is the River Kennet valley running West to East. Dry valleys cut into the chalk on either side of the river lead north west up to West Overton and Fyfield Downs and south west towards West Woods. Somewhat protected within the river valley folds, where there was also a reliable water source, lie the three villages West Overton, Lockeridge and Fyfield. The landscape is controlled to a large degree by the nature of the soil and the pattern of agricultural use.

The South
The high ground to the South is dominated by the West Woods on an area of clay with flints which in the past presented difficult cultivation conditions. However around West Woods, particularly to the East and West of the parish some of this land of clay with flints has been made over to cereal cultivation since the 1940s, mainly winter wheat. Many of these fields have wide margins with maturing oak and mixed shrub producing a landscape reminiscent of the late 19th Century. This landscape is well illustrated when walking the Huish track from Lockeridge to the West Woods and the Wandsdyke path to the Shaw House Area. The richness of the vegetation around the cultivated fields provides a varied habitat for flora and fauna. However, in addition, the cultivated fields support quite large numbers of sky larks and some grey partridge together with a few pairs of  lapwing, although numbers of these species have been reduced over the last decade by a preference for winter wheat over spring wheat cultivation. The fields leading up to the Woods from the valley village settlements (particularly Lockeridge) are of less stiff clay and are useful for stock rearing.
Between West Woods and West Overton extensive indigenous hedgerow planting has recently taken place around the field margins, together with some blocks of deciduous treees including two broad belts of several acres.

The North
To the North of the river valley the landscape is of a more open downland nature with few trees and hedge boundaries. Towards the Northern limits of the parish are Overton Down and Fyfield Down, which support sheep, although much of Overton Down is put down to winter wheat. Overton Down forms a part of the Avebury World Heritage site and is of archaeological interest. Its Western boundary lies along the Ridgeway Path. The Fyfield Down area is a National Nature Reserve extending to some 600 acres. Part of the reserve forms a dry valley on the high plateau of the upper chalk containing large numbers of sarsen stones, the most spectacular geomorphic feature on Fyfield Down. About 25,000 of these large stones are present. The large variety of lichen which grow on them is of national importance. The brown flinty loam soil forms a thin layer over the chalk and, being devoid of nutrients, supports a flora of typical chalk loving species such as meadow saxifrage, but in areas of pure chalk outcrops at the surface there is a rich and varied flora including early gentian, chalk milkwort, rock rose and some species of orchid.  These in turn provide food for butterflies  such as the chalk hill bluebrown argus, and small copper.  The rich variety of predators including short and long eared owls, buzzards, sparrow hawks and an occasional merlin, ultimately depends on the high numbers of small mammals such as voles and wood mice.  Other birds of interest seen on migration include whinchatswheatears  and, occasionally, the rare mountain blackbird – the ring ouzel.  A few yellow wagtail breed on the Down together with increasing numbers of the nationally scarce tree sparrow.
In the fold of the sarsen valley is Wroughton Copse, a small wood of mixed native trees dominated by oak with a hazel  understorey, supporting ground flora of bluebellsand primroses, reminiscent of West Woods. This pattern of flora and associated fauna is found to some extent in Totterdown Wood on the clay with flint summit at the Northern boundary of the parish.  Delling Copse is mainly a conifer plantation but is important as a roosting site for the rare and elusive long eared owl.
Land between the river valley and the open downland to the North is mostly cultivated, being put down to winter wheat with some oil seed rape.  There is grazing land with a milking herd to the East. This part of the landscape is dominated by the North Farm complex.

The River Valley
The landscape of the narrow valley settlements is quite different from the open downland to the North. The alluvial clay deposits of the river offer richer grazing. There is a rich pattern of vegetation along the river valley with hedgerows and a large number of native trees. Overton has an interesting wet area of shrub and willow known as the Withy Bed which attracts a good variety of warblers  in summer. Further East, between Overton and Lockeridge, Stanley Copse has mixed native deciduous trees including some oak with a hazel understory. Again this wood offers good cover and nesting sites for a number of bird species including the greater spotted woodpecker, tree creeper  and tawny owl. Further along the river valley to the East is Lockeridge House. The gardens and open area of native shrub and trees, amounting to some four acres each side of the river, offer an excellent habitat for a variety of wildlife, especially birds. Along towards Lower Fyfield there is another block of wet shrub forming a withy bed which again had a good number of breeding warblers in summer.
Recently in the areas to the North and South of the river valley between Stanley Copse and the sewage works at Lower Fyfield, the land management has changed with land being taken out of cereal production. In these areas traditional grassland has been re-created and more than a mile in total of hedgerows have been established along the fence lines. In addition over half a mile of hedging has been restored, using the old layering technique, with gap planting. Many native trees have been planted in the hedgerows and beside the river. A feature which will have considerable impact on the landscape in the future, is a plantation of fifteen acres of deciduous woodland on the Northern slope of the valley up to the A4. This change in land management to more traditional wildflower meadows, adopting a low input – low output regime is already having a beneficial effect on the wildlife, with grassland species such as the skylark breeding and hedge nesting song birds including the linnet and goldfinch establishing in good numbers. There will also be some reduction in the amount of nitrogen leaching into the river.

Mike Russell