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

 By Jeni Bell, Volunteer

Arguably one of the best views of Wiltshire Wildlife Trust’s Coombe Bissett Down nature reserve is only a little way from the car park, where the ancient strip lynchets (terraces that were cut into the steep chalk slopes for farming) rise from one side and rolling chalk downs fall steeply away to reveal fields below. From here the vista is a pleasant mix of scrub, grasslands and treelines accompanied by the squawks of rooks clamouring overhead, and if you’re lucky a kestrel sailing along your sightline in the breeze.

Recently there has been a new addition to the usual sights of this diverse reserve: in the recently acquired 17-hectare field to the north-west of the reserve, a snaking mound of chalk has appeared. This brilliant white structure that skims the skyline is Coombe Bissett Down’s brand new butterfly bank, a feature that will help to support some of the reserve’s rare invertebrates.

When planted, the gleaming white bank will be a fundamental food source not for butterflies themselves but for their larvae – who are rather picky eaters. Its chalk slopes are fantastic for early-succession wildflower species that like the bare chalk such as kidney and horseshoe vetch and birds-foot trefoil, all low-growing species that thrive on steep banks with thin soil and plenty of sunlight.

The sunshine yellow horseshoe vetch, for example, is a vital food source for the larvae of the striking Adonis blue. Dingy skipper larvae can feed on both bird-foot trefoil and horseshoe vetch, whilst the larvae of the tiny small blue feeds on fluffy kidney vetch flower heads. Ashley White, Reserve Manager at Coombe Bissett Down, is hopeful that the butterfly bank will encourage the reserve’s existing butterfly colonies to spread further throughout the site.

By supplying food sources for all stages of a butterfly’s lifecycle, the Trust hopes to create prime habitats for butterflies and their larvae to flourish.  

The bank was expertly constructed by MJ Abbot’s most experienced digger operator, ‘PJ’. A keen wildlife lover himself and no stranger to building butterfly banks (the Trust’s being his fourth!) he’s pleased to be able to give positively back to nature, something that he gets so much joy from.

      

As well as being rich in wildlife, these chalk downs have proved to be rich in history, and during the initial excavations of the butterfly bank an exciting discovery was made. Wessex Archaeology found what they believed to be evidence of an ancient strip lynchet – like the ones that terrace the upper stretches of Coombe Bissett Down. This fantastic find in the bedrock was thought to have formed between the Bronze Age and Roman period and proves that this area has been cultivated for millennia.

With the main construction now finished, a mixture of seed and plug plants will be used to adorn the chalky slopes to transform it into a buffet for caterpillars.

The Trust is inviting local residents and visitors to help sow and plant up the new butterfly bank, whilst learning more about the diverse range of species that can be found on their doorstep. Keep an eye on the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust’s website and social media pages (Facebook and Twitter) pages to find out more about the community events taking place on these marvellous downs and how you can be a part of giving the wildlife here a helping hand.

To volunteer at Coombe Bissett Down, please contact [email protected].