Article for the DWT Magazine Winter 2006 (John Wright)
The Dorset Wildlife Trust reserve at Stonehill Down includes chalk grassland, scrub and semi-natural ash, hazel and oak woodland on the Purbeck Ridge. The rich chalk flora and associated butterflies provide the major interest, but the site also boasts superb views over Poole Harbour and Purbeck. Current management focuses on scrub control to prevent loss of grassland and removal of selected sycamore trees within the wood to create structural diversity.
I started visiting the reserve in January 2005 but each walk still produces surprises and new records. This article focuses on highlights through the seasons but already 66 species of birds, 28 butterflies and a large number of flowering plants have been recorded.
January and February can be bleak on the downs but in the woodland, creamy-white spikes of toothwort, a parasitic plant, start to appear on hazel and field maple stumps as early as February. Resident woodland birds including nuthatch, blue tit, great tit and the increasingly scarce marsh tit are also much in evidence.
Late April and May is the time to enjoy the spectacular carpets of ramsons in the ashwood and to look for early purple orchids on the downs and in the wood. Linnets and yellowhammers are now commonly seen on the downs and migrant chiffchaff and blackcaps have settled in the woods.
As spring turns to summer and buzzards, plus the occasional sparrowhawk and hobby appear overhead, the downland plants and butterflies demand our attention. Bee orchids, common spotted and pyramidal orchids number several hundreds in total whilst birds-foot trefoil, horseshoe vetch and common rockrose attract the attention of first generation common blue, adonis blue and brown argus butterflies.
High summer brings marbled whites, meadow browns and gatekeepers in profusion but also a few silver-washed fritillaries and migrant clouded yellows. The downland turf continues to yield a wide variety of fascinating plants too numerous to mention but culminates in good displays of autumn felwort and autumn ladies tresses.
August and September signal migration for many summer migrants and as swallows and house martins wheel overhead, a careful search of the downland, quarries and woodland edge can yield wheatears, yellow wagtails, willow warblers, redstarts, whitethroats, spotted flycatchers and even a pied flycatcher. By now much of the ash woodland looks bare as the ground flora has died back, but high above in the canopy small resident woodland birds patrol for insects and form into mixed flocks for the coming months.
By autumn butterfly numbers are dwindling and most downland plants have finished flowering but many other birds are passing over or settling in for the winter including wood pigeon, skylark, meadow pipit, pied wagtail, redwing and siskin.
Within the wood resident tawny owls call, occasionally woodcock are found in damp areas, badgers prepare for winter and no doubt the resident foxes are aware that the supply of downland rabbits is declining.
Next spring or summer, why not have a walk over Stonehill Down? You will soon discover that there is much more to enjoy than superb views!