About the site
Martin Down is 350 hectares of unspoiled chalk downland where flowers and insects flourish and rare birds sing.
The insects are attracted to the ancient sweeping grasslands that have dozens of different species of wildflower. Birdsong comes from cuckoos, yellowhammers, skylarks and even turtle doves.
Although the landscape is not dramatic – a gentle rising vista of open meadows, scrub and ancient hedges - it feels ancient. The great Bokerly Ditch runs along one side while mysterious mounds and dells hint that this was once a populated area in forgotten ages. Now sheep have the run of it.
Vernditch Chase, to the north of the A354, is ideal for picnics among the orchids.
The wildflowers flourish because most of the site was not ploughed in the past. The ancient chalky soils still support a huge range of flowers that have evolved to eke a living from nutrient-poor soil. Grasses, which dominate most of our fields, struggle to compete. This colourful landscape was once commonplace in southern England.
Scabious and knapweed give Martin Down a purple haze in high summer and draw crowds of insects to their blooms. Knapweeds resemble thistles without the prickles – once they set seed, birds such as goldfinches and linnets plunder them. Butterflies, such as small skipper, love the field scabious and sheep’s-bit scabious.
Martin Down is a haven for orchids: at least eight species of these exotic flowers grow here. Some such as fragrant orchids stand tall in the glades of Vernditch Chase, while burnt-tip orchids sit in the grass and need careful finding. Frog, green-winged and greater butterfly orchids all thrive here too.
The pasqueflower is an early Easter arrival (pasque comes from ‘paschal’, meaning Easter). It has a deep purple bloom. Another May beauty is milkwort with its tiny blue flowers flecked with white.
This vast dyke snakes along the western edge of Martin Down, defining the Dorset/Hampshire border. It was perhaps built as a boundary in the Iron Age but fortified in the 5th or 6th centuries AD against invading Saxons. There is also a huge sculptured mound within Martin Down, but this is no burial or fort. It was part of a Second World War rifle range.
With so many wildflowers, it is not surprising that butterflies and bees are common here. On sunny, windless days, you can find many different species. Gems to spot include the adonis blue (below), dark green fritillary, small copper, small blue, grizzled skipper and marsh fritillary.
This is the place to see and hear classic farmland birds, which have declined elsewhere, such as yellowhammers, whitethroats and skylarks. With luck you might even spot a covey of grey partridges crossing the bridleways. June or July is a good time to see turtle doves, as this is one of the most westerly sites for the species. In May, look for cuckoos singing from the hawthorns near the car parks and Bokerley Ditch.
Central Area Office, Crabwood Depot, Sarum Road, Winchester, SO22 5QS
Phone 01962 860948