Coombe Bissett Project

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Supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund

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

The Coombe Bissett Down Project (CBDP) was funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

The three year project involved an initial land purchase that doubled the size of the original reserve, and started 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 was an enhanced visitor experience, with new opportunities for people to enjoy and learn about this spectacular site. Visitors are now able to follow the new signs and waymarked routes around the reserve, and enjoy the views from a series of new benches. A programme of events also took place from lambing sessions to art classes, wellbeing walks to searching for shieldbugs.

Download our project leaflet

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. Take a look at our seasonal spotters sheets to see which species you can find; Spring/Summer, Autumn/Winter.

People have 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. Our flock of hardy Herdwick sheep and light footed Dexter cattle crop the grass, maintaining the chalk downland habitat as a part of the reversion process

Photograph of sheep at coombe bissett down

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:

Image of walking trails on a map of coombe bissett down nature reserve

With the NLHF supported project visitors had the opportunity to get more involved with the nature they came here to enjoy, this was through surveying, our training and event days or volunteering in a number of roles. This 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] 

Butterfly monitoring on Coombe Bissett Down nature reserve is carried out weekly from April 1st every year by teams of volunteers walking a set route and recording species and numbers present in twelve sections.

Covid 19 Lockdown started on March 23rd, with “Stay at Home” restrictions for us all, though not for the butterflies! Living in the village, we were able to visit on foot to carry on the survey, and also make many other visits as part of our “daily exercise.” We would like to share with you here some of the interesting and beautiful butterflies that were seen during this time until restrictions were eased in mid-May.

Early Birds

Overwintering as an adult the brimstone is a harbinger of Spring, the male bright yellow and the female creamy white in flight, large, flying high and very obvious.

At rest both have pale green underwings, blending with the foliage;

Brimstone at rest

Also hiding overwinter are the gorgeous peacock and small tortoiseshell, well known as garden butterflies. Sadly we saw few of the latter and are hoping for more from later broods;

Small tortoiseshell

Mid April

By now the orange tip had hatched, small with rapid uncertain flight, the male with flashy orange wing tips. The first of “the blues”, the holly blue, was seen in small numbers mostly in the hedge row near the car park. Bright blue upper wing, powder blue below with dark spots;

Holly blue

A couple of green veined whites were spotted; more may have been missed as their markings are difficult to identify on the wing;

Green veined white

Late April

A pleasant surprise was to find a green hairstreak on the western side of the valley;

Green hairstreak

These have previously been an occasional finding but we then saw several in various locations over the next few weeks. On the wing dark, but with a give-away flash of green; hard to pick out when settled.

Early May

This was initially cold and disappointing, but we had a big surprise when colourful fritillaries were seen in substantial numbers on the west facing lynchet slopes. A quick thumb through the guide suggested marsh fritillary, confirmed by the photos;

Last year a single pair of these was recorded here for the first time since 1997!

At the same time a good number of the more humble but rather disparagingly named dingy skipper were found, flying low and looking very moth like.

Dingy skippers

Mid May

By now the atmospheric “blues” were hatching on the west facing slopes, mostly the violet- blue common blue, with the white undivided upper wing margin;

and also a few of the deeper blue Adonis Blue, black veins dividing the white margin;

In both of these species the female has a brown upper wing, with its own more restrained beauty;

An even more elusive relative of the dingy skipper , The grizzled skipper , having been briefly seen on one occasion caused considerable stress in our attempts for a photo.

Eventually we achieved this, having been deceived on several occasions by the Mother Shipton moth;

Grizzled skipper

Mother Shipton moth

The small heath showed as an orange flash on the wing, but at rest always modestly folds these, looking quite workmanlike;

Small heath at rest


Common blue were pairing up by the third week of May to continue the life cycle;

Common blue mating

Beauty does not last

Colours fade and wings crumble;

Orange tip



Common blue

Marsh fritillary

We hope that this will encourage you to visit and look!

~ Mike and Sue Garlick

For a pocket-sized guide to identifying butterflies, see our field identification guide available from our shop.