Fontmell and Melbury Downs butterfly walk
Melbury Abbas, Shaftesbury, DorsetRoute details and mapDownload as a print friendly PDF
A walk over the largest of the National Trust's chalk downland holdings, over a series of combes along the west-facing escarpment south of Shaftesbury, overlooking the Blackmore Vale. This is one of the richest areas for butterflies in the UK, with some 35 species occurring annually, including marsh fritillary, chalkhill and Adonis blues, and silver-spotted skipper. This is also a rich chalk grassland flora and exposed to the west wind.
- Bus stop
Start: Small National Trust car park, grid ref: ST886187
Bear right and gently downhill, aiming to the left of the white chalk quarry in the middle distance. Gradually drop downhill, past myriad ant hills, to join the main cattle track heading to the bottom of the combe head.
Currently the best area for marsh fritillary, which flies from late May to late June. Also good for small heath and common blue.
From the National Trust Fontmell car park, take the narrow fenced-in path that leads south, parallel with the road edge, towards Blandford. Skirt to the right, all the way round the beech copse, and head for the stile and gate at the combe head, below the road. Turn right and cross a stile to walk along sheep tracks along the upper slope of the south-facing slope of Fontmell Down, keeping high up.
This is the best area for silver-spotted skipper, though the colony isn't strong, flying during August into mid September. Most are seen close to the fence line. Adonis blue is common here, and there are modest numbers of chalkhill blue, common blue, dingy skipper and grizzled skipper. You won't need to drop down into the combe bottom.
55yds (50m) past a lone yew tree, cross the stile, bear left and walk to the cross dyke. (Alternatively, you can carry on along the Fontmell south-facing slope, below the fence, go past a block of scrub, turn right, cross a gate and head for the cross dyke). Turn right up the cross dyke, head over to the north side, veer left by the finger post, and enter Clubmans Down (north) by the footpath gate.
A general interest area for short turf butterflies and flowers. Rather exposed on windy days.
Head for the narrow gap between hawthorns and brambles in the lower combe head, following the main cattle route. Then take the lower of the two cattle tracks on to the south-facing slope of Clubmans Down. This walkway starts close to the bottom fence, winds past bushes and through narrow glades, out on to the open down. Follow this path, and none other, as it heads across this hot south-facing slope, towards a yellowing conifer tree. In the far corner of the paddock, this path curls up to the right, to a stile in a narrow gap in a dense scrub block.
A very good slope for Adonis blue and brown argus in early and late summer, with reasonable numbers of chalkhill blue in August and common blue, marbled white and other butterflies. You may well see a clouded yellow patrolling the lower slope here in late summer.
Turn right up the stony track, then 110yds (100m) past the end of the grassy bank on your left, turn left into a small gap in the thick hedge that leads to a stile onto Compton Down.
The mown grassy bank is good for many butterflies, including small blue and green hairstreak, which are rather elusive on the main downs, marbled white, gatekeeper and chalkhill and Adonis blues.
Turn left and take the main cattle path that runs just above the thick hedge, continuing along the same contour line when the hedge drops away. This will take you round the corner from the south-facing slope on to the west-facing slope. Carry on along the same elavation, about a quarter of the way up from the slope bottom. Eventually a lynchet terrace will appear. Either make for this or walk just above it, before entering the lower combe that separates Compton Down from Melbury Hill.
A good stretch for Adonis, chalkhill and small blues. A few marsh and dark green fritillaries, and an abundance of marbled white, meadow brown and ringlet. Look out for skylarks and meadow pipits overhead.
By the cattle trough in the combe bottom, bear left and slightly uphill. Then stay on or just above the band of more level ground, with dark green grass, that forms a vague path along the slope bottom. Explore the minor combes in the lower slopes here, before retracing your steps, then heading up the tractor track. Two-thirds of the way up the hill, fork off right along a small cattle track below scattered hawthorns. This will take you back along the upper slope of Compton Down, eventually leading to the stile back out on to the stony lane.
Look for peacock butterflies and small tortoiseshells around the nettle patches near the cattle trough in the combe bottom. The lower slopes of Melbury Hill are superb for blues, especially for the Adonis blue. Look out for clouded yellow in late summer too. You don't need to climb up Melbury Hill - the butterflies will come down to you. Look out for dark-green fritillaries on the walk back along Compton, they often favour the upper slopes.
End: Small National Trust car park, grid ref: ST886187
- Trail: Walking
- Grade: Moderate
- Distance: 3 miles (4.8km)
- Time: 5 hours
- OS Map: Landranger 183
Chalk downland escarpment with steep slopes, though the walk avoids steep ascents. The route has few paths, mainly following sheep and cattle tracks, often hard on the feet. Covers Fontmell Down, Clubmans Down, Compton Down and Melbury Hill. Dogs are welcome if kept under close control or on a lead.
- How to get here:
By bike: North Dorset Cycle Way passes through Shaftesbury and runs just south of estate, passing through Fontmell Magna
By bus: Wilts & Dorset 182, Shaftesbury to Compton Abbas and Fontmell Magna; D2d Nordcat 83, Shaftesbury to Compton Abbas. Walk up byway from East Compton to join walk
By train: Gillingham station, 8 miles (12.8km)
By car: From Shaftesbury head south on B3081 and follow signs to Melbury Abbas. Car park on right at top of Spread Eagle Hill, just before left turn to Compton Abbas Airfield
- Telephone: 01672 539167
- Website: http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/fontmell-and-melbury-downs/