Butser And Oxenbourne
Site feature providing a more detailed description, photos and other information for the butterfly observer.
Photo 1 - Looking East Along Rake Bottom Towards Butser Hill
Butser Hill and Oxenbourne Down are fine examples of chalk downland within the South Downs and are part of the Queen Elizabeth Country Park.
The hills and valleys within the Butser complex provide an excellent area for walks, with stunning views from the highest point on the South Downs.
Butser Hill has good populations of Duke of Burgundy, Green Hairstreak, Grizzled and Dingy Skippers.
Oxenbourne Down specialities include Silver-spotted Skipper, Dark Green Fritillary and Chalkhill Blue.
Butser Hill and Oxenbourne Down are two specific areas within the Queen Elizabeth Country Park selected for this feature. The Country Park lies within the South Downs National Park and straddles the A3 London-Portsmouth Road in SE Hants. Butser Hill itself is a very prominent landmark, being the highest point on the South Downs and also the location of a TV transmitter.
Parts of Butser Hill have special designations, including a National Nature Reserve, Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and Scheduled Ancient Monument, reflecting the historical significance, particularly in respect of the iron and bronze ages. Butser Hill summit can be approached the part of the way by car, taking a minor road signposted from the main A3. There is refreshment kiosk close to the summit which is open in season, but more extensive visitor facilities are provided at the Queen Elizabeth Country Park Visitor Centre on the other side of the A3. The summit is worth a visit in its own right and provides magnificent views over Portsmouth and the Solent to the Isle of Wight. Walks can be made in various directions from it, providing a spectrum from gentle downland slopes, steep valleys to semi-ancient woodland - and an iron age hill fort.
Oxenbourne Down has the designation of Local Nature Reserve and lies about 1 mile south of Butser Summit as the crow flies. It comprises chalk downland, a remote and sheltered valley and semi-ancient woodland. It is most easily accessed from close to the bottom of a slip road which joins the A3 heading north, where parking is available.
Butser Hill and the various valleys which cut into its flanks contain a number of notable areas for butterflies. However, recognising that the terrain comprises some steep slopes and changes in elevation of several hundred feet from the valley floor to summit, I choose just two areas to cover in this site feature, providing excellent examples of the valley floor and chalk downland habitat.
The first is the steep-sided valley called 'Rake Bottom' (Photo 1 above and arrowed on map), also known as 'Grandfather's Bottom'. The Rake is the slope running north-west from Butser summit, and Rake Bottom is the valley cutting into the hill from the west. The valley is home to numerous butterfly species, including 4 of our less common ones, namely Duke of Burgundy, Green Hairstreak, Grizzled Skipper and Dingy Skipper. The flight periods of these species all overlap, so in theory at least, they can all be seen during the same visit with mid-May being the best time.
Whilst one can approach Rake Bottom from Butser Hill summit by descending the Rake (or from West Butser as mentioned later), an alternative is to approach along a track from the north (limited parking at entrance). After ~1km walk south along the track, a wooden gate provides access to the valley.
Any of the 4 species just mentioned may be first encountered in small numbers along the path or close to it, in the grassy margins with cowslips or around the bushes of the lower slope. It is only after the track turns due east, towards Butser (top Photo) that one reaches the most productive part of the valley floor. Look for Dingy and Grizzled Skippers again on the lower levels of the open chalk downland slope on the left, whilst the bushes and scrub close to the valley floor are a good place to look for Green Hairstreak. Duke of Burgundy also favour this area and can sometimes be found at the edge of the path along valley floor and on the lower slopes to the left, where the bare chalk meets the vegetation (Photo 2 below). According to flight period, look out too for Brown Argus, Common Blue, Small Heath and Nymphalids such as Peacock.
Photo 2 - Chalk Scrub Close To Valley Floor Favoured By Duke of Burgundy
The second area of Butser Hill I have chosen is West Butser (located here and see Photo 3 below), which is a fine area of downland and hedgerow within easy access of Butser Hill main car park (parking charges apply). From the farthest end of the car park, head through two gates, turning left after passing through the second one and on to West Butser slope. The key species here are actually much the same as Rake Bottom (so Dingy and Grizzled Skippers, Green Hairstreak and Duke of Burgundy), however their abundance can vary significantly compared to the valley environment. The best area tends to be in the shelter of the hedgerow as one descends the first couple of hundred yards down the slope. One can continue right down the slope, eventually reaching Rake Bottom, but I can vouch for the fact that it is a very strenuous walk back up!
Photo 3 - Chalk Downland Habitat Looking North From West Butser
The speciality species of Oxenbourne Down, in contrast to the areas of Butser Hill just described, are Chalkhill Blue, Silver-spotted Skipper and Dark Green Fritillary. In addition Grizzled Skipper, Dingy Skipper, Duke of Burgundy and even Green Hairstreak are also present. Oxenbourne Down is thus a good summer, as well as spring destination.
There is parking in a generous turning area (here) close to the bottom of a northbound slip road on to the A3, a quarter mile past the Hampshire Hog Pub. Just beside a private road providing access to a few houses, a path leads up some steep steps to a rickety gate (here), providing access to the slope of Oxenbourne Down. After negotiating the gate, head up the main path for about 100 yards until the down starts to flatten out towards the shrub/tree line (see Photo 4 below). In spring Grizzled Skipper and Dingy Skipper can sometimes be found in this area, usually in small numbers. In summer Chalkhill Blues can be very numerous, especially on the lower slopes, whilst Silver-spotted Skippers favour the areas of shortest turf (including the path), although numbers have been generally low for the last few years. Common grassland and hedgerow species are also present including Common Blue, Meadow Brown, Gatekeeper, Marbled White and Nymphalids such as Peacock, according to flight period.
Photo 4 - Oxenbourne Down Has Silver-spotted Skipper, Dark Green Fritillary And Chalkhill Blue On The Wing In Summer
Continuing up the path beyond the Silver-spotted Skipper area, one goes through a gap in the hedge (here and shown left centre in Photo 4). The large meadow which opens out is a good place for Dark Green Fritillaries which feed on the yellow flowers of Hawkbit in late June and early July. For a longer walk, and possibly only for the more hardy (protect yourself from ticks!), there is path forking left just after the gap in the hedge which then makes its way north-west above the valley known as Wascoombe Bottom to one of the remotest areas of Oxenbourne Down. After about a mile the path opens out (here) but remains sheltered by bushes and trees on either side. Dingy Skipper and Grizzled Skipper are sometimes found here too. The cowslips present in this area also support a small colony of Duke of Burgundy and Green Hairstreak can be found amongst the shrubs. The return can be made by retracing steps or by descending to the valley bottom through little used paths (steep slope!) and then tracking back south-east along the valley floor, exiting along the private road (which is also a permissive path) previously mentioned. This remote area sometimes provides some butterfly surprises, but in principle look out for any and all of the species mentioned so far, especially towards the head of the valley. In summer I have seen a few patrolling Dark Green Fritillaries and Silver-washed Fritillaries in the valley floor. However, the steep path down to the valley and the valley floor itself can become overgrown during summer, as tall vegetation crowds in, so spring is my preferred time for this circular walk.