BBOWT’s Homefield Wood Reserve occupies about 20 acres of the eastern end of the larger Forestry Commission’s Homefield Wood, and is listed as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). The Military Orchid (Orchis militaris) was found growing there in 1947. At that time, the Military Orchid was thought to be extinct in Britain, having formerly been found across the Chilterns, with records from Pangbourne across to near Luton. A naturalist, J.E. Lousley, had stopped at Homefield for a picnic and went to explore the area, where he found 18 flowering plants. He was reluctant to give the exact location for fear that collectors might remove the plants. He did send a postcard to a friend saying that “the soldiers are back in their home field”.
By the 1960s, English Nature, as it was then called, was involved, and BBOWT subsequently took over the management of the site. When I first knew the reserve in about 1990, there were only a handful of plants, growing in a small area that was surrounded by a rather unattractive 8-foot high fence. Every year we would record each individual plant, the number of leaves and flowers, measuring their location from a fixed grid. From this we learned that some individual plants flower for 15 years or more. A small area of immature Beech trees had been cleared in 1985, and the first Militaries flowered there 10 years later. This area is where most of the Militaries now grow. The grassland area near the entrance to the reserve saw its first flowering plant in the mid-1990s. We now regularly have over 150 plants there.
Until the early 1990s, the site was “secret”, though not a very well kept one. It was decided to go public and to have an open day. This was rather too successful, with cars blocking the local lanes, and some complaints from local residents. For a number of years we had a summer warden, who would live in a caravan from early May to late July. They were there to monitor and protect the orchids and to show visitors around.
Since that time, the Military Orchid has increased in number, and grows across a much larger area of the reserve. By 2010 there were about 150 flowering Military Orchids, and from 2013 the numbers increased rapidly, reaching 1,000 by 2018. The hot, dry summer of 2018 and drought and late frosts of 2020 took their toll, with about 300 plants flowering this year. However, there looks to be many more plants that we hope will flower next year.
We manage the reserve to maintain areas of open grassland with some scrub. Part of the reserve is wooded, and we are thinning areas to make new glades for the benefit of plants and insects. The grassland areas are grazed by sheep in the autumn and early winter, with some selective mechanical cutting of scrub regrowth in the summer.