Bonchurch Down is a downland paradise with many species of flora and fauna. A walk along the rutted footpaths created by sheep and goats over the years can be good counts of Adonis Blue, the occasional Wall Brown and good counts of Dingy Skipper, especially in the bowl shaped pits , where species of butterflies and moths can reach 20-30 species on a good day in the summer months.
Bonchurch Down and Wheelers Bay
Isle of Wight
Along from Ventnor is Wheelers Bay, where the rock falls have now been held back by new concrete bastions all along the coastal region. If you walk along this area especially 'hop' over the fence there will be excellent counts of Glanville Fritillaries in the early summer, with their foodplant Ribwart Plantain scattered all along the base of the cliff edges. Other Bays along the coast where the Glanvilles are common are the Horseshoe Bay, Monks Bay, and the Landslip.
Glanville Fritillaries are very common in the Ventnor Bonchurch region of the Isle of Wight. Look especially for mating pairs, where you can easily study and photograph these splendid butterflies.
Ribwart Plantain grows in profusion along most of the coastal regions of the Isle of Wight, look for the caterpillars of the Glanville Fritillary in the early spring on a warm sunny day where they will bask, and then feed on the leaves of the plant.
The Adonis Blue is very common along the footpaths on downland on Bonchurch and Ventnor Downs. Their foodplant Horseshoe Vetch can be seen covering most of the downland in the spring, and is helped by the goats grazing keeping the sward in check. Thousands of this specie can be seen flying on a good day in May or August. Females are brown in colour and the males a very Azure Blue colour almost metallic when seen flying.
Holm Oaks are an evergreen tree, but are not native to the UK but they have done well on the download in and around Bonchurch and Ventnor, these were planted by the Victorians, but have now overtaken a lot of our native flora, so they are kept in check by the goats.
It'll take more than one visit to admire Adonis blue butterflies on Bonchurch Down, witness the wonderful show of bluebells or the blooming heather of Luccombe Down, spot our herd of feral goats or look up for buzzards and ravens soaring over the steep slopes, but you can always try.
Look out to the sea from Ventnor Downs
The Ventnor Downs rise steeply above the Victorian seaside town of Ventnor. With the sparkling sea below and the holm oak trees which have colonised the south facing chalk slopes there's almost a Mediterranean flavour to the landscape.
From the highest point on the Isle of Wight on Luccombe Down at 787 ft (240m) above sea level, there are fine views in all directions. Look east to Sandown Bay and Culver Cliffs, with Portsmouth behind.
Feral goats are used at Ventnor to help control scrub on the steep chalk slopes. In particular they keep the holm oak in check. If you get lucky enough to spot one and see a goat kid on its own, it's best not to approach as the mother will not be far away. Please also keep your dog under close control or on a lead in order to avoid the goats being chased and harmed.
Goats help to restore chalk grassland on the Ventnor Downs
Chalk grassland under threat
The spread of the holm oak poses a serious threat to the chalk grassland here, causing butterfly and insect populations to dwindle. We had to find a means of control.
Trees and scrub were removed in the 1980s but a longer-term solution was needed to prevent re-growth – holm oak doesn't respond well to herbicides.
A documentary on how feral goats decimated a Spanish holm oak wood provided the key. Why not use goats to control holm oaks on Ventnor Downs?
Goats vs holm oak
In 1993, seven feral goats were brought from the Valley of the Rocks in Devon to start a new life here. Today, there's a small breeding herd with a good appetite for bark stripping and browsing new growth.
Year by year, we hope to see the return of special chalk grassland plants, butterflies and insects.
The largest holm oak wood in northern Europe can be found on Ventnor Downs on the Isle of Wight but it proved invasive.
The holm oak, Quercus ilex, is one of the few evergreen oak trees in the country but it is not a British native. It was introduced from the Mediterranean in the 1600s and brought to Ventnor in the 19th century by the Victorians, who returned with many exotic plants from their travels abroad.
The holm oak proved to be invasive. Its spread across Ventnor Downs is thought to have been assisted by jays collecting and burying acorns.
The tree thrives in the unusually mild climate at Ventnor and copes well with the dry chalk soils and its exposed coastal location – its glossy leaves are resistant to salt winds.
The history of the Holm oak
It was known to the Romans, who used its hard wood to make cartwheels and wine casks, and to the Ancient Greeks who honoured people with crowns made from holm oak leaves.
Today, it is one of the top three trees used in truffle orchards. The holm oak gets its name from its spiny, toothed leaves. These resemble holly leaves – 'holm' being an old word for holly.
The glossy leaves of the drought-resistant holm oak, ideal for Mediterranean conditions
Kestrels and other birds of prey hover over the downland looking for their prey, this well worth looking out for.
Goats do a good job keeping the grass and other flora the right height for the Adonis Blue and also keeping the Holm Oaks in check.
The foodplant of the Adonis Blue the Horseshoe Vetch covers good areas of the downland, and here it has spread due to the goats keeping the sward down.
The Green Hairstreak can be seen in and amoungst the scrubby areas of the downland, and along the sea front at Ventnor and Wheelers Bay.
The Dingy Skipper can be one of the most common of the butterflies seen on the chalky footpaths from Bonchurch along to Ventnor. Sometimes in a good year you may be lucky to see a partial second brood in August, but these are not common.
A look over the coastal route showing Sandown, and Shanklin in the distance, also these grassy areas in the foreground hold much flora and fauna, here I have seen several Wall Browns flying in the past, but alas these seem to have disappeared over time.