Magdalen Hill Down

Site feature providing a more detailed description, photos and other information for the butterfly observer.

Photo 1 - View looking West Along Original Unimproved Chalk Downland Part Of Reserve


  • Nature reserve managed by Butterfly Conservation.

  • The original western section of the reserve consists of a rare fragment of unimproved chalk downland.

  • The reserve has been expanded through subsequent acquisitions of arable land to the east and north, which are being returned to flower-rich downland.

  • 34 species of butterfly recorded on the reserve, which has important breeding colonies of Green Hairstreak, Chalkhill Blue, Brown Argus and Small Blue, as well as a small colony of Grizzled Skipper. 


Magdalen Hill Down is located just 2 miles from the historic city of Winchester (click here for location map) and was once the site of the city's ancient fair. The reserve is one of 3 in Hampshire managed by Butterfly Conservation, the others being Bentley Station Meadow and Yew Hill. The original western part of the reserve, comprising steep south-facing slope of unimproved chalk downland (Photo 1), was acquired by Butterfly Conservation in 1989. The steep slope has never been intensively farmed (hence "unimproved") and now careful management is ensuring it remains one of Hampshire's best downland butterfly locations. The eastern extension and north down were acquired in 1995 and 2004 respectively and both are being returned from arable farmland to flower-rich chalk downland, accompanied by a return of their butterflies. A tree belt running north-south separates the original reserve from the eastern extension. The north down, which forms the north facing part of the reserve, benefits from any easy access path, suitable for wheelchairs.


The reserve has several access points for the visitor. The original reserve can be accessed from the north via a footpath opposite St Swithin's School (parking on the verge) or from the south, which allows direct access to the bottom of the steep slope (park in the lay-by on A31 opposite the Chilcomb turn). The eastern extension can be accessed via the track leading up past the cemetery (map) and then west to the original reserve or to the north down. There is a small car park opposite the cemetery in this case. This is the route I normally take, so will describe areas of the reserve in the order they are reached from this entrance.

Photo 2 - Eastern Extension Of Reserve Now Returned To Flower Rich Downland

As you reach the top of this track and the entrance to the reserve, the flower-rich grassland of the extension is in front of you (Photo 2 above) with a path running east-west along its edge. Looking to the right you will see the tree belt which separates the extension from the original reserve. On the grassland of the extension, species such as Meadow Brown and Marbled White are to be found in summer, when the extension is covered by a carpet of downland flowers and long grass. In spring, whilst the grass is short, cowslips are predominant and there are fewer butterflies, however, Dingy Skipper is recorded here. On the path heading towards the tree belt, Brimstones are usually conspicuous in spring along with patrolling Nymphalids such as Peacock and Red Admiral. Green Hairstreak and Orange Tip are also sometimes seen here. Close to the northern end of the tree belt (actually on the north down), there is a chalk pit (here and Photo 3 below) which has abundant kidney vetch and a colony of Small Blue.

Photo 3 - The Chalk Pit On North Down Supports A Colony Of Small Blue

Moving down the tree belt at the western edge of the extension, lookout again for Green Hairstreak (particularly at the lower end). There are several places where one can cross through to the original part of the reserve. As you emerge onto the western side, the steep south-facing down stretches out in front (Photo 1). Whilst not obvious from this vista, the down contains a mosaic of habitats managed for the various butterfly species.


The sheltered lower slopes in particular, contain important breeding areas for Brown Argus, Chalkhill Blue and Green Hairstreak. Not surprisingly, the local areas in the mosaic where their larval foodplants flourish (e.g. common rockrose for Green Hairstreak and Brown Argus, horseshoe vetch for Chalkhill Blue) are also good locations to see these species. Green Hairstreak can sometimes be disturbed by walking close to the bushes along the bottom of the slope, where they perch on foliage or in the scrub. Chalkhill Blue also tend to favour the more sheltered lower slopes, where horseshoe vetch is plentiful. A few Grizzled Skippers and Small Blues may be seen here during their respective flight periods, the former favouring the rougher areas and the latter most likely to be seen in areas where kidney vetch is present. These more specialist species can of course also be found in company with commoner species during their respective flight periods, including Common Blue, Small Heath, Meadow Brown and Marbled White, as well Brimstone and Nymphalids such as Peacock.


Whilst the lower slopes probably represent the best single area on the reserve, the higher slopes are by no means devoid of their share of butterflies, including common grassland species, Chalkhill Blue and mobile species like Brimstone and the Nymphalids. The bronze age round barrows along the crest of the original reserve provide a reminder of Magdalen Hill Down's very long history.

© Copyright Alan Thornbury's Hampshire Butterflies 2020