Spring on Stockbridge Down
The slopes and hedgerows of Stockbridge Down are scattered with blossoming flowers in spring and summer. We carry out conservation grazing here using both commoner owned cattle and our own flock of Wiltshire horn sheep. Grazing helps prevent scrub and dominant grasses from taking over the chalk grassland areas. The result is a landscape rich in different plant species - a haven for butterflies like the silver spotted skipper.
Our sheep graze the western slopes, separated from the cattle by a strip of yew woodland. The sheep are looked after by our area ranger, Catherine Hadler, and a community of volunteer ‘sheep lookers’ - vital to our conservation grazing practices. These volunteers check the flock daily and report any issues such as injury or illness to the ranger.
Being part of the local community, they also help spread the word about why we graze and act as ambassadors for the management of the site. Stockbridge Down sees a high number of dog walkers, so our sheep lookers can help inform these visitors about our sheep grazing, to help avoid incidents.
Grazing helps prevent scrub from taking over the chalk grassland areas, and also reduces the dominant grasses. This allows an increase in the wildflower and herbage layer to occur, leading to greater diversity of plant species.
Thanks to careful management, Stockbridge Down hosts an absolute spectacle of wild flowers during the spring and summer months. Blackthorn and hawthorn produce clusters of pretty white blossom in spring. The grassy slopes change colour as different plant species emerge: yellow with birds foot trefoil, horseshoe vetch and kidney vetch; purple with knapweed, wild thyme, and scabious; pastel blues and pinks with milkwort.
Rarities like round headed rampion and orchids pop up sporadically. Later in the year, the heady scent of marjoram is thick on the air as these deep purple flowers burst into bloom.
Wildflowers are vital as a nectar source for insects and as a larval foodplant for butterfly and moth caterpillars. Stockbridge Down is home to many varieties of butterfly, including duke of burgundy butterfly whose larvae require cowslips or primroses; pearl bordered fritillary which requires violets; grizzled skipper which feeds on agrimony and wild strawberry; and silver spotted skipper whose larvae feed off the sheep’s fescue grass.
This is why it's so important to ensure there is not just a few dominant grass species but a whole array of grasses and wildflowers for all invertebrate species to benefit from. We can only achieve this variety with a grazing regime.
The Down's hedgerows burst with blossom in spring, too, providing yet another important food source for local wildlife. Blackthorn is one of the first wild blossoms to appear – small white flowers with pink anthers set in thorny scrub. A little later comes hawthorn, or ‘May’.