Shipton Bellinger

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

Photo 1 - Hedgerow Along The County Boundary Has Been Very Productive For Brown Hairstreak

Highlights

  • The best site for observing Brown Hairstreak in the county (but note that Ash die-back disease is prevalent in the area which may negatively affect populations)

  • Many common species as well as occasional sightings of Chalkhill Blue, Dingy Skipper, Adonis Blue and Dark Green Fritillary, due to proximity of chalk downland.

  • There are also sightings of Wall in most seasons, which may be breeding in the vicinity.

  • Unusual site on Crown (MoD) land comprising a network of tracks with thick hedgerows, scrub and woodland edge, making for easy walking and pleasant vistas.

  • The site seems to do well for butterflies despite lacking protected status (e.g. as nature reserve) or visible environmental management programme.

Description​

The village of Shipton Bellinger is tucked into the far north-west corner of Hampshire, close to the Wiltshire border. It is also situated close to the rolling chalk downland expanse of Salisbury Plain and its large military training area. The site described in this feature is on Crown (MoD) land just to the west of the village, and consists of a network of tracks with thick hedgerows, scrub and woodland edge bordering arable farmland, sometimes referred to as 'the roughs'. It does not have any special conservation designation (e.g. such as a nature reserve) nor a specific boundary, nor obvious environmental management programme, which, in a way, enhances its appeal.

 

Shipton Bellinger is one of two main locations in Hampshire where the elusive Brown Hairstreak can be found, and is probably the best single location in the county for this species, at least from an observation point of view. Brown Hairstreak are actually distributed in very low density over several square miles encompassing the Tidworth, Shipton Bellinger and Cholderton areas. Thus they could be encountered anywhere in the area where the habitat includes abundant blackthorn in hedgerows or scrub, some tall trees (especially Ash) and nectar sources such as brambles. The best time to visit for this butterfly is during August, starting with the first males early in the month, followed a few days later by the first females. Egg-laying activity commences during the second or third week and runs on until at least the middle of September. The flight period tails off during mid/late September when faded individuals can still be seen.  At Shipton Bellinger, which is approximately in the middle of this area, there are several particular places to look for the species, all within a few minutes' walk from the village. There is parking in a small car park here (opposite the village hall) where there are some recycling bins.

 

From the car park take the track heading due west. I use the word 'track' here rather loosely since there are actually two parallel tracks, the main one and a subsidiary one, with a wide, thick hedgerow between them. Along the main track there are occasional trees or groups of trees, including a few Ash trees which are especially favoured by Brown Hairstreaks. They spend most of their time here, well above eye level, just perched on a leaf, feeding on aphid honeydew or on sap around the buds, occasionally flitting around the boughs. The Ash trees are also usually where mating occurs. Sadly some of the Ash trees are affected by Ash die-back which is reducing the level of foliage, initially at the extremities, but may eventually engulf some trees. The subsidiary parallel track, which branches left from the main track after ~ 300m, provides a better chance of seeing individual hairstreaks low down (well the odd one if you are lucky!) especially in the sections where there is abundant blackthorn interspersed with bramble flowers to feed on.

 

At the end of the subsidiary track, a detour can be made into a field with tall Ash trees along the eastern boundary (here). Brown Hairstreaks are present in these trees too (binoculars needed) and they do occasionally descend, usually from the sunnier side (depending on the time of day) to bask on low vegetation, feed, or in the case of females, lay eggs.

Returning to the main track, continue along it until you reach a T junction, then turn right on to the chalky track and head for the gap in the tree line. The hedgerow on either side of this gap, but mainly running north from it (Photo 1 above and arrowed here) has been one of the most productive locations for Brown Hairstreak in recent years. It has abundant brambles, attracting males in particular, plenty of blackthorn along the northern section for egg-laying and is backed by tall trees. This wooded margin marks the county boundary which thankfully is not respected by the butterflies!

 

As indicated previously, Brown Hairstreaks are distributed at low density in the general area, so a search should not be limited to these specific locations and they are recorded in other areas nearby. Examples include the scrub on the left approaching the gap in the tree-line here (see Photo 2 below looking back from the tree-line) and also in scrub/hedgerows bordering tracks at the western end of the cross-belt here.

Photo 2 - Blackthorn Scrub Favoured By Brown Hairstreak

 

A visit to Shipton Bellinger should also result in a good variety of common butterflies, including Brimstone, Red Admiral, Comma and Peacock which all enjoy the abundant nectar sources. In addition to common species, Dingy Skipper (in spring), Adonis Blue, Chalkhill Blue and Dark Green Fritillary are sometimes recorded around the site, but in low numbers and not every year, suggesting their breeding sites are in nearby areas of Salisbury Plain. Brown Argus, on the other hand, do appear to breed on the site in small numbers. 

 

A mention must also be made here in respect of the Wall Brown, which is now probably Hampshire's rarest butterfly. There are a few sightings recorded from the Shipton Bellinger area every year, often by observers looking for Brown Hairstreak during August. It is believed that the species may be breeding, at least sporadically, in the vicinity, either on the site or on Perham Ranges just to the east of Shipton Bellinger village.

© Copyright Alan Thornbury's Hampshire Butterflies 2020