Coombe Bissett Project

Supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund

Download our project leaflet here

Coombe Bissett Down nature reserve is a 70.6 hectares chalk downland valley south west of Salisbury. 

The Coombe Bissett Down Project (CBDP) is funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. The three year project has involved an initial land purchase that has doubled the size of the original reserve, and the start of a programme of work to revert one of the newly purchased arable fields back to species-rich chalk downland. A key objective of the project is an enhanced visitor experience, with new opportunities for people to enjoy and learn about this spectacular site. Visitors will be able to follow the new signs, and waymarked routes around the reserve and enjoy the views from a series of new benches.

In addition we have a programme of events that will take place throughout the year, from lambing sessions to art classes, Walking for Health to searches for shieldbugs.

From May to September there are wildflowers to be found, from cowslip and harebells to kidney vetch and Devils-bit scabious. These attract lots of butterflies including adonis blue and dingy skipper. Yellowhammer, skylarks and whitethroat can be heard singing from scrub or overhead and kestrels hover over small mammals below. Take a look at our seasonal spotters sheets to see which species you can find; Spring/Summer, Autumn/Winter.

People have also had a close relationship with this site for many years. There have been artefacts from the Neolithic Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age and Roman period on Coombe and the surrounding downs. Steep slopes on the site are patterned by medieval terraces called strip lynchetts which were used for grazing. We have a flock of hardy Herdwick sheep and light footed Dexter cattle that crop the grass, maintaining the chalk downland habitat as a part of the reversion process. Why not try writing your own haiku poem to show us what the reserve means to you?

Visitors can come here to enjoy the sweeping views, bask in the beauty of nature and the sound of birdsong. To keep our birds happily singing we ask that dogs are kept on leads and any waste is cleared up. There are many lovely walks of varying difficulty around the site.

With the new NLHF supported project visitors have now got the opportunity to get more involved with the nature they come here to enjoy, this can be through surveying, our training and event days or volunteering in a number of roles. This large site couldn’t be maintained without a wonderful team of volunteers, please take a look at our volunteering page for more opportunities.

To keep updated with improvements to the reserve and to join our official Friends of Coombe Bissett Down group, email us at [email protected] 

 

Picture: Cowslips (C) Barry Craske

In 2018 and 2019 I carried out bird surveys of Coombe Bissett Down for the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust. Alas the third year of the planned survey in 2020 was cancelled due to Covid restrictions.

In both years I carried out two sorts of surveys:

Firstly, breeding bird surveys. This involved four visits of between five and six hours each carried out between April and June. This involved walking the whole reserve and plotting on a plan the location of all birds seen or heard. At the end of the season, the data from all visits is collated, and a plan for each individual breeding species is created showing the location in which they were recorded over all four visits. This methodology is known as territory mapping and seeks to provide a best estimate of the numbers of pairs of each species breeding on the reserve.

Secondly, winter bird surveys. This involved carrying out a survey of about four hours each in November and December of each year. It is a simple count of the numbers of birds seen and heard on the reserve together with some overflying the reserve.


What do the results show?
With regard to breeding birds, in 2018 there were considered to be 22 species breeding on the reserve and in 2019 there were 26. Total species recorded in the breeding season, including some overflying were 42 and 40 respectively. Some species like red-legged partridge, pheasant and skylark were recorded but are not included in the species breeding as their territories are very difficult to plot; that said, skylark and pheasant are very likely to breed somewhere on the reserve. Breeding species recorded were very much as anticipated and show what a rich habitat the reserve provides. It was particularly pleasing to record 10 pairs of yellow bunting (yellowhammer) in 2018 and 12 in 2019. Blackcap was also particularly well represented with seven pairs in 2018 and 12 in 2019. We tend to think of blackbirds as garden birds, but the combination of thick hedges and short grassland on the reserve are clearly much to their liking with 16 and 19 pairs recorded in the survey years. The reserve is also clearly important for common birds such as robin, wren and dunnock, and the agricultural buildings hold a thriving colony of about 10 pairs of house sparrows. Single pairs of buzzard, green and great-spotted woodpeckers also nest on the reserve with a small number of pairs of whitethroats and chiffchaffs.


In winter, the total number of species recorded were 40 in 2018 and 42 in 2019. Once again it was very pleasing to record good numbers of yellow buntings with a maximum of 53 birds in November 2019. Linnets also peaked in that month with 51 birds recorded, most being in a single flock feeding on thistle seeds. The large number hawthorn bushes on the reserve are a magnet for winter thrushes which feed on their berries. In November 2018, 497 fieldfares and 220 redwings were recorded, but a month later these numbers had dropped to 61 and 50 respectively, probably as a result of most of the berries having been eaten. Large numbers of blackbirds also frequent the reserve in winter; in contrast numbers of song thrushes are always very modest. Large numbers of birds seem to briefly visit the reserve in winter, it is a common sight to see large numbers of rooks jackdaws and woodpigeons on some occasions but very few on another. In November 2018 I counted several flocks of feeding starlings totalling 670 birds, the following month there were none! Of the scarcer winter species, two wintering blackcaps were recorded in December 2018, two brambling in November 2018 and six corn buntings in December 2019. Finally of course, to warm the heart of any winter birdwatcher, red kites are increasingly being recorded over the reserve.

Above: Fieldfare, Pete Blanchard

Banner: Red kite, Dave Kilbey