Dunsbury Farm – protecting a butterfly paradise

In October 2015 the National Trust made its largest coastal acquisition in over 20 years. And it was right here on the Isle of Wight.

Dunsbury, made up of 165 hectares of attractive grass downland, arable land and woodland, lies just to the north of the picturesque Trust-owned Brook and Compton Bays. It was purchased with help from the Neptune Coastline Campaign which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2015 and has enabled us to safeguard an amazing 574 miles of our British coastline.

Our vision
This land is a crucial piece of the coastal jigsaw for the National Trust on the Isle of Wight. It means we can plan for the future of a coast which is eroding at a rate of 1.5 metres per year, allowing us to maintain access to this much loved part of the island, and to manage the land in a less intensive way, making it healthy and beautiful for the future.Up until 2019 Dunsbury was farmed intensively for vegetables, wheat and sheep grazing. Wildlife was pushed to the edges of fields.

Our plan is to allow nature to naturally heal the landscape in a process that is now commonly called “wilding.” This allows nature to spread from Compton Down and the Compton Coast across land that has been very poor for wildlife. Already we’re seeing butterflies like the Glanville fritillary spreading out from the coast and downs. In the winter there are larger flocks of linnets and goldfinches benefiting from the extra seeds.

Linnets thrive with extra feeding over winter
Linnets thrive with extra feeding over winter
Linnets thrive with extra feeding over winter
Glanville Fritillary butterfly
Glanville Fritillary butterfly
Glanville Fritillary butterfly

It starts with soil and water

The higher, sandy ridge was heavily grazed with sheep which prevented plants from flowering and seeding. The arable fields were on light sandy and clay soils leading down to the sea. Under vegetable crops they suffered soil loss when it rained, and the soil became deeply rutted and compacted during vegetable harvest. There was also a heavy reliance on artificial fertilisers and pesticide sprays.

In 2019 we stopped sheep grazing the ridge which immediately allowed plants to flower and attract butterflies and bees.

Cauliflower growing in 2019
Cauliflower growing in 2019
Cauliflower growing in 2019
2020 when deep rooting sow thistles are established in the early phase of the natural arable reversion to grassland
Musk Thistle
2020 when deep rooting sow thistles are established in the early phase of the natural arable reversion to grassland
Musk Thistle at Dunsbury
Musk Tistle
Musk Thistle at Dunsbury

And we sowed all the cauliflower and sweetcorn fields with low input cereals to get rid of the deep ruts and provide a starting point for green cover to establish in order to protect soil and water. We’ve allowed plants to naturally recolonise from the seed bank and surrounding land. The first plants to establish are hawkweeds, docks and thistles whose deep roots help break-up the compacted soil and slowly build up the lost humus layer, further helped by returning worms, insects and bacteria.

Grazing is the key

In 2020 we introduced Galloway cattle in low numbers from neighbouring Compton Farm. These hardy cattle can stay outside all year and do well on fairly rough grazing, allowing wildflowers to flourish. 


Cattle grazing is also crucial to the restoration of wildlife in the previous arable fields. The first thing we have had to do was to install a livestock fence round the outside and we started this in 2021. At the same time, we are removing some internal fences on the ridge to allow extensive, more natural grazing over a wider area. This is more like the extensive grazing of wild habitats by large herbivores like aurochs and bison before the days of farming. When the perimeter fence is completed and drinking troughs installed the Galloway cattle will be allowed to graze the lower “arable reversion” fields and the habitat will become more like coastal grassland, and scattered scrub will develop across the landscape due to the low numbers of cattle. This will provide a varied habitat that joins up the downs and coast to provide a much bigger and more joined up area for wildlife.


As bison, aurochs and other herbivores were part of natural world before farming, so are cattle and other farm animals just as important for driving natural processes and helping us restore what will become a landscape much richer in wildlife.

Measuring success

It’s important to know how this wilding project is progressing so we’re monitoring the vegetation changes, butterflies, breeding and wintering birds and hope to build up a record of other insects as they recolonise.

A male Glanville fritillary – a UK rarity but often sighted on the Isle of Wight
A male Glanville fritillary enjoys the sun
A male Glanville fritillary – a UK rarity but often sighted on the Isle of Wight