Winter at Fontmell and Melbury Downs

Looking east across Spread Eagle Hill at the former radar installation

Fontmell and Melbury Downs are a landscape at work and for you to explore during the winter months. Here, North Dorset Ranger Clive Whitbourn shares some of his highlights at these sites at this time of year.

When I head out onto Fontmell and Melbury Downs in winter it first appears that this is a subdued season; the flowering plants have finished their year and the turf braces itself for increasingly shorter, colder days. But look closer and you'll see that there is still plenty going on at these places.

Tree seedlings

The low winter light creates fascinating shadows across the downs
View across Compton Down looking south west

From a distance the blue-grey colour of the sward disguises tiny tree seedlings, which if unchecked morph into the chalk grasslands. The seedlings pose a major threat of existence to the grassland - turning it to woodland in as little as 20 years.

Conservation work

With this in mind it's the season for starting our conservation work parties, cutting, clearing, burning and where necessary chemically treating the cut stumps with herbicide.

Up in the air

Large flocks of goldfinch roam the open downland
A flock of goldfinch roaming the open downland on the wing

Large flocks of goldfinch, bullfinch and chaffinch gather to roam the open downland in search of seed heads to keep them going. If the light is low and bright the goldfinchs' yellow wing bars can literally flash as they change direction back and forth.

Look out for long-eared owls as they quarter over the grassland in the late afternoon and hen harriers which can make an appearance during the day.

Overhead another mechanised flying curiosity can often be seen; a tiger moth (biplane from the early 1930s) as it practises take offs and landings from nearby Compton Abbas Airfield.


Archaeological features can be seen on the wintry landscape of the downs
Lumps and bumps on the foretop at Fontmell Down (looking east)

When the sun sets with a distinctive orange glow I always marvel at the topography of the downs which really becomes textured when viewed from a distance. This is a good time to look for evidence of archaeological features as dusk's shadows often betray the presence of discreet features that go unoticed in daylight.

Clive Whitbourn
North Dorset ranger