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Compared with the photograph (below-right) this was the scene in the car-park in June 2021, compared with the scene in the car-park in 1984...my have things changed!

Bentley Wood

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The Pearl-Bordered Fritillary can be quite common along the rides and in the meadows created in the woodland over the years. Here a male is resting on Bugle in May.

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The main attraction to visit this site over the years has been the Purple Emperor butterfly. It can be seen in the main car-park where it is attracted by the cars and people watching the skies for any movement! Its also seen along the rides but stealth and a lot of patience is needed and always be prepared for disappointment.

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The Small Pearl-Bordered Fritillary is now one of the rarest butterflies in Hampshire and is very rare in Bentley Wood.

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The Argent and Sable Moth is a very rare moth and Bentley Wood is one of the few places where it can be found, laying its eggs on Silver Birch saplings.

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View along The Switchback from the car park, with the log book in the noticeboard  where you can see what has been seen and also log species seen, the banana skins are put on top of the notice board to attract the Purple Emperor although I've never known it to alight there 

 

Highlights

  • Large mixed woodland on Hants/Wilts border.

  • Nationally recognised for its importance as a butterfly site.

  • Every woodland species resident in central southern England is found in the wood, including Pearl-bordered and Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary.

  • Duke of Burgundy present in small numbers and a few Marsh Fritillary recorded in most years.

  • Known nationwide as a good site for Purple Emperor.

Description

Bentley Wood is large mixed woodland on the Hants/Wilts border - and yes, OK, so most of it is in Wiltshire! Its importance as a butterfly site is nationally recognised and reinforced through its designation as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). More than 35 butterfly species are recorded there regularly, including every woodland species resident in central southern England including, of course, the enigmatic Purple Emperor for which it is probably best known. There are also populations of Silver-washed Fritillary, White Admiral, Purple Hairstreak, Pearl-bordered Fritillary and Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary. In the case of the latter, Bentley Wood probably has the only remaining colony in Hampshire, although sadly now in low numbers. In addition, White-letter Hairstreak, Duke of Burgundy and Marsh Fritillary also retain a presence within the wood.

For visitors approaching from Hampshire, the Tytherley Road entrance is probably most convenient. The car park is reached after about ½ km drive along the track. To see the small fritillaries (Pearl-bordered, Small Pearl-bordered and sometimes Marsh Fritillary), go to the Eastern Clearing (map) by heading on foot 100 yards back down the track, then take the footpath bearing to the left into the clearing  The Pearl-bordered are first on the wing - from early May, with Small Pearl-bordered appearing typically in the third or fourth week. 

 

The populations of both Pearl-bordered and Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries have been declining in recent years, the status of Small Pearls, in particular, giving serious cause for concern. Pearl-bordered Fritillaries are found both in the clearing and also along some of the open rides in the wood. Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries favour the damper areas in the clearing, including the more recently cleared sections just to the north. Several Small Pearls seen during a visit would be considered a good outcome. Duke of Burgundy is usually recorded during May in very low numbers - look for them in the drier, more tussocky areas of the clearing.  In most years, a few Marsh Fritillaries are also reported from the clearing, perhaps as a result of sporadic breeding, or dispersal from nearby sites in Wiltshire.

 

 

If your visit is in July and aimed at the Purple Emperor, they are generally most active during the mornings, so be there early (eg 9 am). The end of June through until mid-July is usually the best period. Bright or broken cloud conditions with little wind seem to be optimum, but the species is unpredictable. The car park is a good place to wait since the males will occasionally swoop down from a nearby oak and do a circuit or two - sometimes landing briefly on a shiny metallic car or a tyre which has the remnants of dung on it! Visitors occasionally put well-ripened fruit on top of the visitor board to attract Purple Emperors - and with some success. Other productive Emperor locations (with some groundings) include the track - called the switchback - which heads west from the car park as far as the first major cross-tracks, and also the track heading south from this junction to Donkey Copsewhere there is also an assembly point for aerial views.

 

During Emperor time, Silver-washed Fritillaries can be common (late June and through July) and there can be an unusually high proportion of the normally rare female aberrant form, called valezina, where the golden-brown background colour is replaced by a greenish bronze. A few White Admirals can usually be seen during this period, intricately gliding along the boughs or pausing to feed on brambles.

 

There are several small colonies of White-letter Hairstreak around the wood, the best known being close to the Ralph Whitlock memorial. Turn right at the first cross-tracks on the switchback, continue through a slight depression and across another set of cross-tracks until the main track is about to turn right. There are several Elms facing you on this bend (map) which are home to a colony of White-letter Hairstreak. The memorial is a few yards down the minor track to the left where there are more elms (some diseased) and elm suckers, which are also worth a look for White-letter activity.

 

If your visit is not particularly aimed at a particular species, but simply because Bentley Wood is a unique woodland butterfly site, then exploring some of the different areas of the wood, each with its own characteristics, is recommended and can be very rewarding.

 Text Alan Thornbury

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Ralph Whitlock (1914–1995) was a Wiltshire farmer, broadcaster, conservationist, journalist and author of over 100 books.

Background and education 

Whitlock was born in Pitton, near Salisbury, Wiltshire six months before the outbreak of the First World War. He was the son of a tenant farmer, the eldest of three children. His family name is noted on the first parish register in Pitton, where his family had been shepherds and farmers since the early 1600s. Whitlock was later to chronicle the history of his native village in The Lost Village, which noted the changes in Pitton from the 1920s to the 1980s. A subsequent volume, The Victorian Village recounted 19th century life there.  Educated at Bishop Wordsworth's School, Salisbury, Whitlock had planned to attend university to study history but family circumstances during the Great Depression thwarted any such hopes and he followed his father into farming.

Whitlock's collection of correspondence, diaries and papers is housed at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre, Chippenham. 

Whitlock began writing for local newspapers in 1930 when he spotted a gap in the market, as the local press did not include coverage of his home village. Two years later was given a column in the Western Gazette which he continued to write for the next 50 years.  His local and regional newspaper writing led to further commissions. In 1944, Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald, editor of The Field, invited Whitlock to submit a series of articles on farming. This resulted in his appointment as farming correspondent, a position he held from 1946 to 1974. 

Later regular newspaper commissions included columns in the Daily Telegraph and, latterly, the Guardian Weekly.  Collections of his Guardian Weekly articles were published in two books: Letters from an English Village (1988) and Letters from the English Countryside (1992).

Whitlock occasionally wrote under the pseudonyms of Edwin Mould (in The Field) and Madge Reynolds (in a column "Madge Reynolds' Diary" in Farm & Country magazine in the 1960s).

Whitlock's most lasting legacy is his prodigious output of books. His first book, Peasant's Heritage (1947), charted his first-hand experience at farming; much of the book is a narrative devoted to his life as a farm labourer. Many titles were to follow, including books on species, history and folklore, textbooks, and series of children's books. His final title, O Who Will Marry Me? A Book of Country Love, was published in February of the year of his death.

Farmer and conservationist 

Whitlock began working in farming after leaving school in 1930, working with his father Edwin 'Ted'. The '30s was a tough decade for small-scale farmers. The Whitlocks shed their sheep, diversifying into vegetables, flowers, and chickens. Despite further expansion into dairy farming, 'the struggle was never ending' . All the income Whitlock earned from writing was ploughed into the farm yet the overdraft grew and, when his father died in 1963, he left nothing.

Four years after his father's death, Whitlock lost in a court battle with Wiltshire County Council and was evicted from the 50 acres he had farmed for 23 years. The land was divided up between neighbouring farms. Despite having a further 140 acres, he decided to retire from farming. 

Whitlock's knowledge of farming, forestry and conservation is reflected in his broadcast output which dealt with the then ground-breaking issues of conservation and sustainability. For instance, in 1950, he presented a series of five weekly programmes on the BBC Home Service (now Radio 4), titled The Changing Forest As two-thirds of Britain's woodlands had been felled to meet the war effort, Whitlock examined the work of the Forestry Commission and its aim to bring five million acres (approx. 2.02m hectares) into productive woodland over the next 50 years. The series covered the forests of Thetford Chase, the New Forest, Kielder, Rheola Forest, and the Lake District.

Whitlock was a founder trustee and honorary warden of the Bentley Wood Charitable Trust near West Dean, Wiltshire, a nature reserve which is a Site of Special Scientific Interest. The 665-hectare site had been acquired in 1983 through a bequest of Lady Colman .

In 1988 Whitlock was awarded a certificate of merit from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds for his conservation work. 

Head of a Pearl-Bordered Fritillary

1980's and High Brown Fritillary was still present

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Wych Elm trees in Bentley Wood are quite common so look for the White-Letter Hairstreak flying around the tree tops.

Eastern Clearing is now drying out and many of the species seen when this photo was taken in 1986 have since disappeared or are disappearing.  

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Marsh Fritillaries have been common in Bentley Wood especially on the Hampshire Border in the 1980's there was a very large colony there, which has since died out. They can still be found on the Wiltshire side of the border in certain meadows in the wood.

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The woodland Duke which feeds on Primroses is a rare butterfly in Bentley Wood. The Primroses grow in the gullies in the meadows and the Duke is found in the meadows on both sides of the border in very small numbers.

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There are several areas within the Bentley Wood complex where Wych Elms grow, and many of these have managed to survive the ravages of Dutch Elm Disease. However several trees have died off but have managed to sucker new growth with new branches where the White Letter Hairstreak Butterfly can survive. and lay their eggs . Look for the adult males flying around the lofty tree tops battling against each other, and normally early in the morning or in the evening warmth they will come down to imbibe on Thistle, or Bramble flowers.

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