Winter conservation at Stockbridge Down

A winter view across Stockbridge Down, Hampshire, with livestock

A chalk hill supporting grassland, areas of scrub and partially wooded margins, the habitat diversity of Stockbridge Down is hugely beneficial to local wildlife. Work carried out over winter, by Area Ranger Cat Hadler and countryside volunteers, helps sustain this special landscape.

Clearing back overgrown hazel scrub allows regeneration and fresh growth for ground flora. This benefits the Down's important butterfly population, which includes duke of burgundy and pearl bordered fritillary - two species which are rapidly declining in the UK and considered a conservation priority.

A rare Pearl Bordered Fritillary butterfly
A butterfly nestles on meadow flowers
A rare Pearl Bordered Fritillary butterfly

Butterflies thrive in coppiced areas with open glades, with ground flora such as cowslips and violet – the seed bank of which lies where we're clearing back the scrub. The resulting blooms attract bees and other invertebrates as well as butterflies. 

The team who care for this area will also be cutting and treating sycamore, a species considered inappropriate for chalk grasslands, and swiping back bramble. This can spread out from scrub edges onto chalk grassland, and eventually reduce the grassland area, so it's important to keep it in check.  

Swiping around juniper trees also helps keep back any scrub regrowth that may threaten to overshade. Juniper is in decline in Southern England, so the Stockbridge population is of high importance.

Conservation grazing

Our Wiltshire Horn sheep graze on the western slope of the Down all year round, but winter is when the flock can really get to work on a particular grass species. Brachypodium grass tends to dominate the landscape with thick tussocks, but it generally won’t be grazed at other times of year as there is so much other food to eat.  

Before anything else is growing, this grass gets an early flush of growth in late winter - early spring. At this time of year it becomes palatable to the sheep, meaning they'll control it most effectively.

Commoner cattle graze the main down as part of common rights, and help keep the scrub regrowth in check. Whereas sheep nibble grass right down to the ground, cattle rip up tufts with their tongue. This creates a less uniform sward, with tussocks as well as short grass areas, which is good for different species.