A conservation charity has warned ‘once it’s gone, it’s gone’ as it pleads with ramblers to help protect one of the county’s ‘ancient natural gems’.
Worried that the ‘very special’ Stoke Woods, near Bicester, could be damaged ‘irreparably’ by ‘trampling’, the Woodland Trust wants to stamp out the problem.
The 400-year-old wood is home to uncommon plants and animals, including the bird’s nest orchid, tawny owls and the purple emperor butterfly – but the sensitive habitat would become spoiled if rare flora is walked on.
Much of the vegetation is highly sensitive to damage and, while the Woodland Trust says it welcomes many visitors to the site, it is asking people to stick to paths.
Assistant site manager Philip Munro said: “If trampled on this delicate environment can be damaged irreparably.
“This wood really is a very special place on the doorstep of Bicester and we are lucky to have it.
“We welcome people to visit to enjoy this precious environment and there are several new way-marked trails that we have introduced to help visitors explore the site.
“We do ask that visitors help us protect the wood by sticking to the trails so the rare flora won’t be damaged.”
Fencing has also been installed in certain areas and signage regularly installed and replaced when removed in a bid to halt incursions.
Stoke Wood, which has around 10,000 visitors a year, has carpets of bluebell in the spring – a key indicator of ancient woodland – and a wide variety of bird and butterfly species.
Mr Munro added: “Once it’s gone, it’s lost forever.”
The 35.5ha site also provides important habitats for invertebrates, such as the ‘very strange’ and ‘extremely elusive’ Bird’s-nest orchid.
A Woodland Trust spokesperson said improvements have been made already and they think “activity is now limited to a few persistent people”.
The trust, which described the wood as a ‘rare natural treasure’, is carrying out restoration work at the site to remove non-native species to allow more light in and encourage native flora to grow.
Actively involved in the work are a group of five volunteers who meet once a week to carry out maintenance work such as path care and coppicing.
Ancient woods, covering around two per cent of the UK’s land area, are the country’s richest land-based habitat for wildlife and homes more threatened species than any other.