Bin Combe walk, extreme butterflying
near West Luccombe, SomersetRoute details and mapDownload as a print friendly PDF
This one is tough, very tough. The habitat is tall, dense bracken on steep slopes where there are no paths, but this is by far the best place to go in pursuit of the rare heath fritillary butterfly. Welcome to the world of extreme butterflying near Dunkery Beacon in the north of the Exmoor National Park.
- Bus stop
Start: Dunkery Beacon car park, grid ref: SS905410
From the car park, head left along Dunkery Hill lane. Go past the vehicle barrier, near a twisted moorland hawthorn bush, and cross rough heather on your left to reach the little valley of Bin Combe. In partnership with the Butterfly Conservation Society, we've done a massive amount of work to conserve the heath fritillary on Exmoor. The secret is in robust bracken management.
The heath fritillary was first discovered on Exmoor in 1982. It has strongholds in the combes, or steep valleys, radiating off Dunkery Beacon. The best is Bin Combe, but you could also try Hanny, Aller and Sweetworthy Combes. This rare orange and brown butterfly flies from late May to early July. The best time to see it is mid-June, and it's most visible in sunny, warm weather. They fly throughout the combe though tend to be scarcer in the upper reaches. There are few other butterflies, but you may see a green hairstreak, small heath, or the occasional small pearl-bordered fritillary along the stream.
Follow the east side of the stream at the top of the combe and walk downhill. Stay on this east side throughout your walk. You'll hopefully begin to see heath fritillaries about 272yd (250m) into the combe. Keep a look out for adders here.
There is a vague path at first but once you pass a rock outcrop, near the start of the woodland, the path vanishes. Don't worry, this is normal for Bin Combe, just stick to the lower slopes and continue downwards.
Heath fritillaries tend to be best sighted in the lower combe, but vary in location from year to year. They also live in gorse glades. As livestock grazing has declined, we keep bracken growth in check by burning it off in February. This encourages plants like cow-wheat (a parasitic plant on bilberry), with its yellow-lipped flowers. The heath fritillary breeds on the plant, so it's essential for the butterflys survival.
Turn left on to a clear but rough track towards the bottom of the combe, near a stream crossing. Follow this path north-east. You may see dark-green and small pear-bordered fritillaries here. Also, check the tops of gorse bushes for little Dartford warblers.
During the Second World War, these moors became a military training ground. Few Exmoor ponies survived this. Locals later came to the rescue and helped re-establish the breed. This hardy breed has roamed Exmoor since ancient times. Its stocky build and tough coat enable the ponies to graze on the moors throughout the year, though they are herded annually and the foals are branded. Today there are thought to be just a few thousand of them worldwide.
At a crossing of paths, take the rough stone track back uphill to the twisted hawthorn and the road. Keep an eye out for Exmoor ponies and red deer grazing the open moorland.
Once you've had your butterfly fix at Bin Combe, explore the surrounding moorland, much of which is cared for by us. On the opposite side of Dunkery Hill Lane, the moorland rises up to Dunkery Beacon. It's about 0.75 mile (1.2km) walk from the car park, via a good path. From Dunkery Beacon, the highest point on Exmoor, there are superb views across to Wales on a clear day. You may spot birds of prey, such as merlin or hobby, hunting over the heather. Also, keep watch for Dartford warblers and enjoy the song of skylarks whirling up above.
End: Dunkery Beacon car park, grid ref: SS905410
- Trail: Walking
- Grade: Hard
- Distance: 1.5 miles (2.5km)
- Time: 1 hour
- OS Map: Landranger 181; Explorer 9
Challenging walking conditions not always on paths, some moderate to steep slopes, some loose scree surfaces. The area is heavily infested by ticks, so take precautions, like wearing long trousers tucked into socks and carefully checking yourself immediately after your visit. EASIER OPTION: Halse Combe (0.5 mile (0.8km)), heath fritillary can be found on the slopes around Floras Ride, the path along the west side of Halse Combe. Its gravel surface makes it suitable for adventurous pushchairs and wheelchairs.
- How to get here:
By foot: 2.5 mile (3.2km) uphill walk, north-west from Wheddon Cross, on hilly countryside paths
By bus: 398, Tiverton to Minehead service, alight at Wheddon Cross
By car: turn off B3224 at the Blagdon Cross junction, take the minor road across Dunkery Hill towards Luccombe and park near the summit of the road
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