A Flying Visit to Some of Wiltshire's Nature Reserves
There is a podcast to accompany this post that can be accessed here: Podcast
Wiltshire is a very large, rural county. The population density of the Wiltshire unitary authority area (so excluding Swindon) is around 1.4 persons per hectare, which is much lower than the 4.1 for England as a whole. So when we use the word rural, we do really mean that there is a lot of open countryside. Two thirds of it lies on chalk, with lots of downland and wide valleys.
While there has been a lot of house building in the urban areas of the county, a lot of the open space is protected from urbanisation. Most of Salisbury Plain, a chalk plateau some 300 square miles in size is owned by the Ministry of Defence and used for military training. This prevents it from being developed, which allows for nature to take charge across the plain, but also protects its rich archaeological heritage - there are 28 Neolithic long barrows on Salisbury Plain alone.
But there are also several critical areas of land that are designated nature reserves. Some of these are National Nature Reserves overseen by Natural England. Others are locally managed by Wiltshire Wildlife Trust. And on top of this we have two RSPB reserves. We will try to explain what all these designations means, and highlight a few of them which are really worthy of a visit.
National Nature Reserves (NNRs)
Natural England is a public body sponsored by Defra, which is responsible for ensuring that England's natural environment is protected and improved. As part of its remit it has the power to designate areas of land as national nature reserves. In their own words, these areas "were established to protect some of our most important habitats, species and geology, and the provide 'outdoor laboratories' for research." Importantly, they are also open to the public and they encourage visitors to connect with nature and be inspired by the landscapes. Additionally Natural England is responsible for the designation of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) and for ensuring that landowners conserve them in a favourable condition.
There are currently 225 NNRs in England, and 6 of them are in Wiltshire - Langley Wood, North Meadow in Cricklade, Parsonage Down, Pewsey Downs, Prescombe Down and Wylye Down. Here at Hidden Wiltshire we are fortunate to have one of our own team, Paul Timlett, who works as a volunteer for Natural England in Wiltshire. Here are his thoughts on his three favourite NNRs:
I have worked as a volunteer for Natural England in Wiltshire since 2018. Whilst based at Parsonage Down, within earshot of the A303, we carry out work at each of the six National Nature Reserves in Wiltshire. Some require more attention than others. The work we volunteers do is extremely varied.
I’ll start with probably the most well-known and most visited of the six NNRs in Wiltshire – Pewsey Downs. This is the largest of the reserves covering over 300 hectares, encompassing the famous landmarks of Milk Hill, Walkers Hill and Knap Hill as well as the Alton Barnes White Horse.
As we all know Milk Hill (295 m) is the highest point in Wiltshire, closely followed by nearby Tan Hill (294 m) just a metre below it. This, for me, makes it such a striking place to visit. It won’t surprise anyone to hear that the views are simply breath taking. Whether on a clear sunny day, with the autumn mist blanketing the vale below, or in the middle of a tempest it is always memorable. It’s said you can see the Isle of Wight to the south and the Brecon Beacons to the west up here. I’m not so sure but the views do seem to go on forever.
But there is ancient history here too. Anyone who has seen the Hidden Wiltshire video will know that man has been present here since at least the Neolithic period, settlements and burial mounds peppering the south facing escarpment. Wansdyke carves its way through this landscape, its deep trench occasionally harbouring snow long after the melt as it lies in dark shadow for much of the day. To this day we are still not certain what Wansdyke is for or who built it. After the White Horse, and sitting above it nearby, Adam’s Grave atop Walker’s Hill is a monument most will recognise even if not be able to name. No visit here is complete without a photograph sitting on top of this Neolithic burial chamber, not forgetting it was also the site of battles in 592 and 571 AD.
But there is something else here. Something that is the reason behind Pewsey Downs designation as an NNR and SSSI. It is one of the finest remaining areas of chalk downland in the country playing host to many rare species of plant. In spring and summer it is carpeted with orchids such as burnt-tip, frog, fragrant, pyramidal, early purple, common spotted and bee. I have seen all of these and there may be more. But the rare and tiny, almost impossible to find early gentian can be found here if you are very lucky. It is also home to the internationally rare marsh fritillary, the adonis blue and the chalkhill blue butterflies.
The land up here is farmed by a number of farmers, some of whom have been here for generations. A lot of the land is owned by New College Oxford and several if not all the farmers are tenants. You will find cattle and sheep here, as well as arable crops in the vale below. This landscape is also a popular place for those that make crop circles. I recall sitting on top of Milk Hill photographing hang gliders suspended in the air above a huge crop circle close to Stanton St Bernard. I saw another from my vantage point on Knap Hill looking down into a field east of Alton Priors. Whatever your views about them, those that make these circles presumably choose the location because of the views of their handiwork offered by the surrounding heights and perhaps even a mystical connection with the ancestors. Unless of course it’s aliens.
Next, we’ll look at an NNR in the extreme south west of the county close to Dorset – Prescombe Down. I have a soft spot for this place, but beware - the ticks love it too. It is a small reserve comprising chalk downland deeply incised by a series of coombes (or bottoms as we are fond of calling them at Hidden Wiltshire). I first discovered it early on in my time at Natural England, before I even knew it was a Natural England reserve.
Unlike Pewsey Downs, Prescombe Down requires a little more effort to reach. The nearest village is Ebbesbourne Wake to the south, whilst to the north is the ancient Old Shaftesbury Drove from where I accessed it on one of my first walks away from home after the relaxing of the lockdown in May 2020. It was a roasting hot day as I tramped along the droveway. I then descended towards Prescombe Down, on the final leg of my walk back to the car in Ebbesbourne Wake, passing through a gate at the top of Church Bottom. As I stood in the late afternoon light marvelling at the sight below me, and taking advantage of a little shade from the hedge row through which the gate provided access, I was enchanted by a combination of sounds – a cuckoo, two tawny owls calling to each other in the trees at the head of the coombe and, bizarrely, a small gathering of guinea fowl in the coombe below. This is one of those rare places in the south of England where there are no human sounds. I could have stayed forever.
Dropping into valley bottom you follow it south, the valley rising steeply on both sides and behind. As you progress down the valley you pass a rectangular enclosure and whilst listed as an ancient monument no detail is recorded. Reaching a gate at the end coombes head east and north west in front of you, whilst ahead and steeply upwards a bridleway heads on back to Ebbesbourne Wake.
If I had pursued the coombe to my right (north west) at the aforementioned junction I would have discovered a lost world, one in which I have since worked for Natural England cutting back scrubby hawthorn. At the end of the coombe, a long walk from the junction, an abundance of early gentian together with the occasional orchid can be found in spring. I have yet to see the gentians but I’m told they are unmissable. The reserve is also noted for insects, especially butterflies such as the marsh fritillary, dark green fritillary, grizzled skipper, dingy skipper and adonis blue. It is grazed by both cattle and sheep and Natural England has agreed a grazing plan with the farmer in an effort to reduce the spread of the hawthorn scrub. Whilst clearing scrub we have found slow worms here, and I have twice seen goshawks in the trees at the top of the coombes close to the droveway whilst we worked on the valley side below.
Whilst Prescombe Down is open access land there is a highly active shoot here, so access is frequently restricted.
Last but not least we come to the reserve I know the best – Parsonage Down. This is the base for a number of the Natural England staff as well as several of us volunteers and is where I work the overwhelming majority of the time. Parsonage is an almost unique area of chalk downland in that much of it has not been ploughed for centuries. It covers an area of around 188 hectares (480 acres) and unlike the other reserves it is a working farm staffed by Natural England employees. Here you will find the oldest registered herd of English Longhorn cattle in the country. A relatively docile but curious breed, the most perfect specimens have horns that curve round to almost meet in front their nose. It is also grazed by sheep. A balanced carefully managed grazing regime is critical for the 150 recorded species of wildflower. It is one of the most important sites in Europe for the burnt-tip orchid. I have also seen frog, bee, early purple, pyramidal, fragrant, green winged and common spotted orchids in abundance here. And let’s not forget the early gentians that can also be found here. Whilst in much smaller numbers than Pewsey Downs and Prescombe Down I have actually managed to find them at Parsonage.
The birdlife is also very special at Parsonage. I have seen stone-curlew nearby, ring ouzels, goldcrest, barn owls, short-eared owls, great bustard and many many other species. But my favourite is the hen harrier. A little while ago I watched as a magnificent male quartered a field specially planted to attract them, playing home as it does to their favourite dishes of voles, shrew and field mice. All of this is remarkable when one considers the proximity of the A303 whose presence is ever heard. But despite that, Parsonage Down is probably the least accessible of the reserves. The farmyard means there is no access other than via a pedestrian gate two miles away at the western end of the reserve next to the byway that passes Yarnbury Castle. For this reason it is rare to find any visitors on the reserve.
Aside from the wildlife and botany the reserve is home to many species of butterfly, the largest numbers of which can be found at the at the top of the reserve, in an area called Castle Barn. As you enter via the access gate you will find an almost alien landscape covered in thousands of anthills.
They are home to their own little ecosystems and in the spring are covered in thyme and rock rose. Castle Barn was also home to prehistoric man, there being the remains of a small Iron Age settlement and a Celtic field system here where Romano-British pottery has been found.
When I first started working at Parsonage Down one of our first tasks was to restore a dew pond on Castle Barn that had become overgrown and dried out due to a leak. The work is not quite finished but a new liner means that it is once again filled with water. This is my favourite place on the reserve. The A303 is still evident but more distant so with the wind in the right direction this can be a haven of peace and tranquility, where the presence of our ancestors can almost be felt. The area was characterised by its stunted trees amongst which the cattle and sheep grazed freely. We have now fenced this off allowing the trees to recover and in a few short years the area has been transformed, with a dense understorey developing providing cover for many song birds and mammals such as muntjac, fox and badger as well as roe deer. For me this is a very special place, and even in the most appalling weather I am just grateful to be here, taking shelter under the corridor of ancient beech trees by the dew pond.
Wiltshire Wildlife Trust (WWT)
There are 46 Wildlife Trusts in the UK, all of which are independent charities operating under the umbrella organisation of the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts. Wiltshire Wildlife Trust was founded in 1962, with a drive to protect local wildlife and natural habitats. They manage over 40 natures reserves in Wiltshire today, with a diverse set of habitats. Wetland, woodland, meadow and chalk downland. As part of managing the land, they have a couple of farm bases. Blakehill Farm is the farm base for the northern reserves, Coombe Bissett Down for the southern reserves.
Some of their reserves have been reclaimed to nature from their industrial past, although visiting them today you might never know. For example, Penn Wood near Calne was a sand quarry in the 1930's, then a landfill site before being returned to pasture for grazing in the 1950's. Today it has been planted with 10,000 saplings and in the coming years will grow into an impressive woodland. Langford Lakes in the Wylye Valley is a wetland haven for birds, with several hides from which you can glimpse the wildlife. During the 1960's and 70's the site was used for excavating gravel.
One particular favourite nature reserve though is Morgan's Hill. This wonderful chalk hill has a great show of wild flowers in the summer, and is home to many native conifers. The views from the top are outstanding, and it is the perfect place to watch a summer sunset with clear skies.
This hill is south west of Calne, and can be easily spotted for miles around, as two radio masts sit on the summit. It was originally the site of a Marconi wireless station, but today the current radio masts work for Wiltshire Police. Another local landmark near the summit is the large clump of beech trees known as Furze Knoll. This clump is so prominent I often use it as a landmark from which I can get my bearings while wandering in the local landscape. It can be seen from many miles away in multiple directions. If you ever wander into the knoll, particularly at dusk, I wonder if you would feel the same oppressive, creepy atmosphere that the Hidden Wiltshire crew did when recording a podcast up there. We couldn't wait to get out.
But if you reach the summit, just sit for a while and contemplate the view, and you will be able to see a timeline of human history stretching back thousands of year. At the northern edge of the hill a Roman road snakes diagonally across the landscape. Follow its straight lines into the distance and you will be taken to the ancient wonder of Silbury Hill.
Across the valley you will see Calstone Down, and on the summit of the hill is the shape of an Iron Age hillfort known as Oldbury Camp. The southern boundary of the Morgan's Hill nature reserve is marked by the medieval Wansdyke, which if followed west will take you to the NNR of the Pewsey Downs which has already been written about above.
To the south of the hill, the land flattens to a plateau which was the location of the Battle of Roundway Down in 1643. This took place during the First English Civil War, when a Royalist cavalry force won a victory over the Parliamentarian army. So much human history in one sweeping landscape that surrounds the nature reserve.
Another WWT reserve that I have found fascinating is Blakehill Farm in the north of Wiltshire, near Cricklade. In another example of change of use, this location used to be an RAF base between 1944 and 1952 before being returned to agriculture. During World War II, the airbase was home to Dakotas, carrying troops and equipment to France. Then in 1967, GCHQ set up an experimental radio station which was used until the 1990's. While there is no trace of this at ground level, drone images from above show that the runway and radio mast locations was be seen as crop marks in the hay.
(NB: drone shots taken with permission by WWT - read their drone policy here)
The farm itself is huge. WWT have converted the land back to hay meadow and pasture, and on their website say "on this one reserve we are meeting more than 45% of the government's 10 year target for restoring hay meadow in England !". Walking across its vast, flat plain it feels slightly desolate, but the knowledge of its past, and the fact that this space is now a haven for wildlife makes it interesting.
Adjacent to Blakehill Farm is Stoke Common Meadows, a parcel of land that forms a connected habitat and extends the range of the site. It is possible to enter the reserve from this side, which is something I would recommend. It takes you along Stoke Common Lane, before turning right to head through a small wooded area, before you come out on the meadows. Here, I spent an age with my camera. There was an abundance of wild flowers and invertebrates. Butterflies and Damselflies. The sheer size of this reserve means that you can spend hours here just wandering and wildlife spotting.
A few miles north of Blakehill Farm is the Lower Moor farm complex, another huge area that contains several nature reserves with lots of connected habitats. Parking is at Lower Moor Farm, and from this location you can access Clattinger Farm, Oaksey Moor Farm Meadow and Sandpool nature reserves. There are three lakes, and multiple brooks and ponds. Being a wetland, this reserve is another haven for wildlife and birds, but as with Langford Lakes, the lakes were created by gravel extraction in the 1970's. It really is wonderful how these industrial sites have been reclaimed for nature and are now protected for the future by WWT.
This article is only scratching the surface of the WWT nature reserves, and I really recommend that readers try to explore some of them themselves. Doing so will take you to every corner of the county, From Upper Waterhay in the far north in the Cotswolds, to Landford Bog in the far south in the New Forest.
RSPB Reserves in Wiltshire
Wiltshire has two RSPB Reserves within its boundaries, both sit in the south east of the county very close to the border with Hampshire. These two reserves are the Winterbourne Downs and Franchises Wood. A further RSPB location associated with Wiltshire is that of Garston Wood. However, although this wood is right on the border, it is technically in Dorset. That said if you wish to stay in Wiltshire and birdwatch at that location, you can see many species if you take what is a lovely walk along the Shire Rack and the footpaths through Chase Woods.
Of the two Wilshire RSPB reserves the Winterbourne Downs holds a special place in another team member’s heart. This year Elaine has started volunteering there and is a regular visitor to the area helping a PhD study on winterbournes and how they influence our feelings. If you are not already aware, a winterbourne is a river that only flows in the winter and early spring. Here the River Bourne only flows for part of the year and it gives rise to the name of the reserve. Elaine is often found waxing lyrical about the wonderful views of this ephemeral river and ancient landscape that she observes on her visits. This is what she has to say about the Wiltshire RSPB reserves.
The Winterbourne Downs is around 200ha of new chalk grassland, this extends around much of the village of Newton Tony. The reserve itself is a working farm and on my many visits to the reserve area, I often see the local herd of sheep being expertly moved from field to field to maintain the health of the flock and habitat of the reserve. The careful and dedicated work of the RSPB staff and volunteers is allowing wildlife to flourish in this bridge between Salisbury Plain and Porton Down, the two largest areas of semi natural chalk grasslands in the British Isles. Many species of birds can be seen here including lapwings, corn buntings and the stone curlew. Alongside the bird species special chalk banks have been established and planted to encourage populations of butterfly and moth species. When I am able to, I love volunteering here, as everyone is so friendly and committed to helping wildlife. It is great to be able to play a small part in that. So far I have helped with plug planting some of the native plant species where the populations need a boost. This has included hairy violet and round headed rampions. It is hoped that by enriching the flora in this way will improve the Winterbourne Downs as a habitat for all kinds of wildlife.
Some of the volunteering extends to nearby estates and I have been involved in chopping back shrubbery in order to create habitat mosaics for nationally rare species of insects such as the previously mentioned marsh fritillary and the scarce forester moth. It is great that the landowners here want to be able to help wildlife and it is brilliant to be able to help in that endeavour.
Whether volunteering or just visiting, the reserve offers a lovey walk around the perimeter and there is always lots to see. From a vantage point on the walk you are offered wonderful views of the downs and the Bourne River. The river is a true winterbourne here and adds to the beauty and intrigue of the place. On my visits I often marvel at the most recent and still white chalk bank, built especially for butterfly conservation, and I consider what the chalk downland’s Iron Age hillforts would have looked like when freshly made. Their banks gleaming white for all to see, no wonder the ancients held this area in great reverence. The hill in the distance is known as Tower Hill and there are a number of ancient earthworks, tumuli and barrows located in the area. Indeed a number of interesting head and beaker burials have been found locally. As you walk around you are able to make out Quarley Hill and possibly even Danebury Hill and Figsbury. Although some are in Hampshire, they all have hillforts on their summits. As always when walking in Wiltshire you are never far from a reminder of prehistoric man’s presence and a sense that they are benevolently watching you on your travels.
The PhD study requires me to regularly be at Newton Tony and the Winterbourne Downs reserve. I always look forward to these visits and never tire of the wonderful views and ancient landscape and there is always the possibility that I might finally get my chance to see the amazing stone curlew. I definitely hope to be visiting the reserve and volunteering for a number of years to come.
I am not so familiar with Wiltshire’s second RSPB reserve. Although mentioned as a wooded area in the Doomsday Book the reserve at Franchises Wood was only acquired by the RSPB in 2018 and is relatively new to them and me. The RSPB is still in the process of cataloging the plant and wildlife species on this 1000 acre site and so there are many areas that are off limits to the visitor.
In contrast to the chalk downs, this reserve offers a varied woodland habitat and sits in the north of the New Forest, near Redlynch. The bird species that you can see include hawfinches, firecrests and wood warblers. Alongside an impressive population of toads the reserve also has an important collection of lichens. As with Winterbourne Downs this reserve will also act as a natural bridge, this time between Wiltshire’s internationally important Langley Wood and the New Forest.
Currently, it is possible to undertake a lovely circular walk around the reserve through a number of varied forested areas. From the more recent conifer plantations to the medieval woodland, we had a lovely walk there on a visit to the reserve in the autumn. Although we did not see or hear too many different bird species, we lost count of the number of different varieties of fungi that we observed including boletes, milkcaps, parasols, sulphur tufts, puffballs, elfin saddles and amanitas. Although my identification is not expert there were definitely many species to keep well away from. The walk was lovely, and the late October sunshine showed off this beautiful corner of Wiltshire perfectly, yet another contrast to the Wiltshire countryside.
With all of the diverse areas and sacred landscapes there is little wonder that with the help of these reserves Wiltshire seeks to maintain these for future generations with the hope that they too will enjoy these ancient habitats and diversity of species. From the county flower of the burnt-tip orchid to the shy stone curlew there is so much to see and enjoy. We hope this blog will inspire you to visit a few of them.