Springtime at Fontmell & Melbury Downs

Fontmell and Melbury Downs can appear bleak in March but by May the first butterflies are appearing. Here are our top ten things to look for as spring advances.

A view of the grassy slopes of Fontmell and Melbury Downs on a sunny day

Admire the archaeology

Views of the archaeology are at their best in late winter and early spring. The short, close turf and low slanting sunlight make this a great time of year to put your archaeologist head on and go hunting for banks and ditches that are the only remaining visible signs of past civilizations on the high downs. Look for impressive Bronze Age linear earthworks crossing the landscape - or for subtle scoops on the slopes which are Second World War defenses.

A close up of early purple orchids in the grassland

Ogle the orchids

Many species of orchid grow here but the early purple orchid is the first to show. Its bright purple flowers are often to be seen growing alongside the butter yellow cowslips.

A pale green brimstone butterfly resting on the purple flower of a spear thistle

Bountiful butterflies

Marsh fritillary butterflies overwinter as caterpillars, surviving winter frosts and wet weather by spinning silk nests on the ground. The butterflies are some of the first to appear on the downs in spring, their wings like orange and yellow stained glass. They're just one of an amazing 35 species on the downs. On a sunny day in May it's possible to see small blue, green hairstreak, brimstone (pictured) and more.

A close up view of a gorse bush in flower on the Golden Cap Estate

See and smell the gorse

Gorse blooms all year round but is a most welcome sight in early spring when there are still few flowers around. Watch out for the prickles and stick your nose among the yellow, coconut scented petals for a delicious foretaste of summer.

Looking across the grassy downs on a lightly clouded spring day

Sunshine and shadows on the slopes

High points on the downs offer spectacular views of changeable spring weather. April showers and sunshine create dramatic light on the slopes - a great opportunity for landscape photography.

Pale yellow cowslips at Fontmell and Melbury Downs

Drifts of cowslips

Cowslips are among the first wild flowers to appear on the downs, where they often grow in drifts.

A red kite in flight in a bright blue cloudless sky

Bird watching

Skylarks fill the downs with their trilling song as they begin marking out their territories. These unremarkable looking small brown birds sing as they fly higher and higher, till they are just a tiny speck in the sky. As ravens start their courtship displays you may see them performing elaborate aerobatics as they show off to a potential mate. They can even fly upside down. Birds of prey are frequent visitors to the downs. Buzzards circle as they soar on thermals to rise up in the air. Red Kites, marked out by their distinctive forked tails, are becoming an increasingly common sight.