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


The chalky grassland of Coombe Bissett Down offers a wealth of wildlife to its visitors: its steep valley slopes are peppered with vibrant wildflowers, such as selfheal, eyebright and devil's-bit scabious, which are flitted between by butterflies of browns and blues; small armies of bees add to the buzzing chorus of beetles and bush crickets; and mewing raptors circle lazily in the sky – high above the flocks of titmice and finches that sing from the scattered hawthorn shrubs. The reserve’s mammals, however, are not quite as conspicuous.

I spent the last two months rummaging through the scrub and hedges of Coombe Bissett Down in an attempt to get an insight into the lives of Britain’s wild mammals. With the assistance of a trail camera (and blind luck), I was able to capture a few of the reserve’s more elusive inhabitants along with some fascinating behaviour that I have never seen before. Mammals are much more social and habitual than I had expected, and some individuals had quite distinctive personalities. What struck me most, however, was the diversity of mammals that I was able to photograph in just one reserve.

European Roe Deer (Capreolus capreolus

During the 18th century, roe deer were extinct through most of Britain, but they have since been successfully reintroduced and are now widespread among landscapes of mixed woodland and fields. They are crepuscular, which means that they are most active at dawn and dusk, and it is relatively easy to see them – I have seen them multiple times at Coombe Bissett Down – but usually at some distance where they are grazing or running away. The deer also proved particularly difficult to capture with a camera trap as they spend a lot of time in open fields where there are no convenient trees to strap a camera onto. That said, a small tree at the edge of a wooded region of the reserve showed signs of ‘fraying’ where a male deer had stripped the bark off by rubbing his antlers against it; luck would have it that a male decided to mark his scent there one night. 

Roe marking, Oliver Davies 

Roe deer have scent glands on their forehead, hind legs and feet, which they use to establish breeding territories and convey information about sex, age and status of the individual. This male’s antlers will shed in late autumn, immediately start growing again, and be fully formed by the following March.

Roe herd, Oliver Davies 

Unlike fallow deer (Dama dama), which congregate in large herds sometimes 100 strong, roe deer are usually seen alone or in small family groups. They also bark like a dog, which acts as an alarm call.

Stay tuned for more wildlife footage from Coombe Bissett next week!