Alice Holt Forest And Bentley Station Meadow
Site feature providing more detailed description, photos and other information for the butterfly observer.
Photo 1 - View East Along Main Track In Straits Inclosure With First Observation Tower Visible
Alice Holt Forest is a large and varied woodland complex managed by Forest Enterprise.
Good visitor facilities including a visitor centre and marked trails for walkers and cyclists.
Stronghold for Purple Emperor in NE Hants, but also good populations of other woodland species including White Admiral, Silver-washed Fritillary and Purple Hairstreak.
The adjoining Butterfly Conservation reserve of Bentley Station Meadow provides complimentary meadow habitat and species.
As indicated in the title, this site feature actually covers two adjoining areas in NE Hampshire, namely Alice Holt Forest and Bentley Station Meadow. In combination, they provide a varied spectrum of butterfly habitats and species, but can, of course, be visited separately. Note that Bentley Station Meadow is not to be confused with Bentley Wood, which is ~40 miles to the west and the subject of a different site feature!
Alice Holt Forest, despite its address being Farnham, Surrey, is actually mainly in Hampshire. It is a remnant of the ancient forest which colonised large areas of Southern England after the last ice age. Today the forest is managed by Forest Enterprise, whose sympathetic management ensures timber production, wildlife and visitors can co-exist in harmony. Whilst some areas of the forest remain as coniferous plantations, other areas of mixed and deciduous woodland provide the perfect complement - indeed our native oak predominates in some areas and perhaps is one reason why Alice Holt remains a stronghold for Purple Emperor. I must also mention that the forest retains 'very special place status' for me, being one of the first large woodlands I visited in Hampshire whilst based at, what was then, the Royal Aircraft Establishment (long before the internet!). It was also the first place I encountered several key woodland species, including the Pearl-bordered Fritillary, which is sadly, no longer found in 'Alice'. I might even go as far to say that Alice Holt was a catalyst to my interest in butterflies and therefore responsible, at least in part, for this website!
Alice Holt Woodland Park (map) is the area that many visitors to the forest head for, not least because of its informative visitor centre (including cafe), waymarked trails, picnic areas and pleasant woodland walks. If it's butterflies on your mind however, areas of the forest away from this visitor hub are likely to be more productive. Key woodland species such as White Admiral, Purple Emperor, Silver-washed Fritillary and Purple Hairstreak are found in several of the inclosures.
The Straits Inclosure at the extreme southern end of the forest is one of its best butterfly locations, despite being compact with just one main gravel track (Photo 1). It also provides one of the best chances of encountering the Purple Emperor at a low level. There is limited parking at the entrance (map) and occasionally forest operations restrict access. For the woodland species mentioned above, late June through to mid-July is the best time to visit (although late June maybe just too early for Purple Hairstreak). Silver-washed Fritillary and White Admiral have usually done well here in recent years and should be conspicuous along the main track and in the secondary rides.
Areas where rides join or where there are abundant bramble flowers are especially good, for instance close to the first observation tower. Purple Emperor can also sometimes be seen in the canopy but usually require much more patience. Locations to be especially vigilant for them include the section close to the entrance, around both observation towers and areas where the track is usually damp, such as near the Forestry Commission trailer just before the first observation tower. Other good Purple Emperor locations within Alice Holt Forest include Goose Green Inclosure (Emperor assembly point close to the old car park at SU805416) and Abbots Wood Inclosure (assembly point close to the car park at SU810410).
Back in Straits Inclosure, the oak trees along the track are also home to Purple Hairstreak, best seen in the morning or late afternoon flitting high in these oaks. The wood also boasts good populations of commoner woodland dwelling species providing interest at other times of the year. These include Speckled Wood, Peacock, Comma, Brimstone and Red Admiral. A partially circular walk can be made by following the main gravel track to its end at the second observation tower. Instead of returning to the entrance via the same route, a detour along more grassy rides can be made by returning only as far as the first observation tower. Then take the grassy ride running NE by bearing left at this tower. After about 400 yards turn right at the cross tracks. This second grassy ride returns you, in a further 400 yards, to the main gravel track, close to the entrance gate.
Bentley Station Meadow (map) is a small Butterfly Conservation reserve which adjoins the northern end of Alice Holt Forest and forms part of a larger site of special scientific interest (SSSI). The reserve is easily reached from Bentley village by crossing the railway immediately east of the station (using the pedestrian crossing point). Once across the railway, follow the track east into the Lodge Inclosure of Alice Holt, which soon reaches the main entrance to the Bentley Station Meadow reserve on the right. The reserve consists primarily of a strip of the ancient meadow (Photo 2 below), running due south from the railway with small areas of open woodland and an eastern boundary of the woodland edge. A path runs through the middle of the reserve from north to south. Despite its modest size, this combination of habitats results in a good variety of butterfly species, with around 30 species recorded over a period of a few years.
Photo 2 - Bentley Station Meadow
Species you should reasonably expect to see from a good exploration of the different areas of the reserve, and depending on the time of the visit, of course, include nettle feeding Nymphalids (Peacock, Red Admiral and Comma), Blues/Coppers (Common Blue, Holly Blue, Small Copper), Browns (Ringlet, Meadow Brown, Gatekeeper, Small Heath, Marbled White, Speckled Wood), Skippers (Large, Small/Essex) and Whites, including Orange Tip and Brimstone. In July you should also see Silver-washed Fritillary which breeds in the reserve. White Admiral is not unusual visitors and Purple Emperor are also occasionally seen, bearing in mind the proximity of the forest and the availability of sallow, the emperor's larval foodplant, within the reserve itself. You may even encounter Dark Green Fritillary in the meadow areas although it's not clear if the species is breeding here.