Dorset hillfort is the ideal home for nature

National Trust wildlife adviser Simon Ford tells us more about the rich wildlife that can be found at the newly acquired Hambledon Hill in Dorset:

“Hambledon Hill sits high above the River Stour in south-east Dorset. It has been cut from a steep chalk escarpment and the deep ramparts have provided the ideal environment for many species of plants and animals to thrive. They have also protected the wildlife from being lost to the plough. With 360 degrees of deeply incised banks, this has meant that whatever the weather, there is always some shelter from the elements.

A beautiful bee orchid caught in the summer light at Hambledon Hill. Credit: National Trust Images/Ross Hoddinott

A beautiful bee orchid caught in the summer light at Hambledon Hill. Credit: National Trust Images/Ross Hoddinott

The mix of species is very diverse, but includes characteristic chalk downland plants such as horseshoe vetch, harebell, common rockrose, squinancywort, salad burnet, common milkwort, small scabious, wild thyme and stemless thistle. Early purple, bee, pyramidal, common spotted and autumn lady’s tresses orchids have been recorded as well as notable species such as felwort, dwarf sedge, early gentian, bastard toadflax and meadow saxifrage.

Twenty-eight species of butterfly have been recorded including Adonis Blue, Chalk-Hill Blue, Brown Argus, Dark Green Fritillary, Grizzled and Dingy skipper, and Green Hairstreak. Glow worms are frequently recorded and there are records of white legged damselfly.

Brown hares are commonly seen and the grassland has a good population of skylarks, buzzards, kestrels and meadow pipits, while the scrub attracts blackcaps, white-throats, chiff chaffs and willow warblers.

The site is so important that it has not only been declared a Site of Special Scientific Interest but also a National Nature Reserve.

To ensure the site continues to be of top nature conservation value, the priority will be to maintain the correct grazing and to stop scrub from dominating the steep hillside.”

Dorset jewel adds to the National Trust’s hillfort crown

The spectacular Hambledon Hill, one of the finest Iron Age hillforts in Dorset, has been acquired by the National Trust.

Hambledon Hill in West Dorset is a site rich in human and natural history. Credit: National Trust Images/Ross Hoddinott

Hambledon Hill in West Dorset is a site rich in human and natural history. Credit: National Trust Images/Ross Hoddinott

Built over 2,000 years ago, the massive earthwork defences overlie one of the most significant early Neolithic landscapes in Western Europe, dating back almost 6,000 years, and is a place that half of British butterfly species call home.

Standing at almost twice the height of the White Cliffs of Dover and taller than the Gherkin in London Hambledon Hill occupies an area of land the size of 50 football pitches. From the summit of the hillfort you can see across three counties – Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire – and get a real sense of its prehistoric strategic importance.

Jerry Broadway, a National Trust volunteer working on Hambledon Hill, said: “When I come here I feel like someone would when they go into St Paul’s Cathedral.

“When there is no-one else around and I sit on the top of the hill looking at the view I feel very privileged. And to play a small part in looking after the hill is a good feeling.”

This is the first hillfort acquired by the National Trust in Dorset for 30 years. The Trust now cares for seven hillfort sites in a county which is internationally renowned for these special historical places.

Simon Ford, National Trust wildlife adviser, said: “The beauty of a magical place like Hambledon Hill is the combination of a rich natural and archaeological story that goes back thousands of years.

“Wandering around a site whose human history predates Stonehenge and takes you back to the early days of farming makes the heart skip a beat.

“The sound of a skylark ascending above the rich grassland and sight of a cloud of Adonis Blue butterfly in flight touches the soul. This is a place where you feel totally connected to the world around you.”

For the last three decades Hambledon Hill has been owned by the Hawthorn Trust and carefully managed by Natural England as a National Nature Reserve. The purchase by the National Trust is being funded by a Land Purchase Grant from Natural England and with money from a legacy left to the Trust for the countryside in Dorset.

The National Trust portfolio of hillforts in Dorset includes Badbury Rings, Lamberts Castle and Pilsdon Pen. The Trust also owns Hambledon Hill’s nationally important neighbour Hod Hill. Together they tell the story of the beginnings of farming, the need for defence and the arrival of the Romans’ in Britain.

Hambledon Hill has escaped the advances of agriculture over the centuries meaning that its archaeological features remain well preserved and clearly visible on the ground. Causeway enclosures on the hill date back to the dawn of farming 5,500 years ago and the story of this remarkable place is continued through the Bronze Age and Iron Age.

Mat Carter, Natural England’s Area Manager for Dorset, said: “Natural England is delighted that the National Trust is the new custodian of Hambledon Hill National Nature Reserve.

“The Hill is a much-loved feature in the Dorset landscape with outstanding archaeology and wildlife.

“We know that the Trust will be an excellent steward of this important site, and will welcome people coming to enjoy the area’s natural beauty and its abundant wildlife.”

Designated a National Natural Reserve in 1992, twenty-eight species of butterfly, including the Adonis Blue, Dark Green Fritillary and Green Hairstreak, have been recorded here. This nationally important chalk grassland site is also home to at least five species of orchids, such as the Autumn Lady’s Tresses, glow worms, brown hare and a good population of kestrels and meadow pipits.

Partnership brings new hope for birds of prey in the Peaks

One of the UK’s most iconic birds of prey – the peregrine falcon – is showing signs of recovery at a key breeding site in the Peak District thanks to the partnership between leading conservation bodies, volunteers and stakeholders to protect these birds.

The peregrine was almost brought to extinction in the 20th century but initiatives to revive its fortunes have been encouraging and numbers are doing well in most parts of England.  For many years though the north east Peak District has been a black-spot for peregrines, and birds of prey generally.

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New garden created by an army of volunteers opens to commemorate First World War

A new half an acre garden of reflection created by 60 volunteers over the past eight months, opens today at Sandham Memorial Chapel in Hampshire, marking the centenary of Great Britain’s intervention in the First World War. Continue reading

Turning water into light

Andrew Sawyer, Property Curator at Cragside, explains how they’re recreating history with the return of hydroelectricity:

Cragside Curator Andrew Sawyer

In 1878 a miracle was performed at Cragside in Northumberland when Lord Armstrong turned water into light to make it the first house in the world to be lit by hydroelectricity.

He achieved this by lighting arc lamps, for his picture gallery, with power derived from a neighbouring brook.

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Hydropower returns to Cragside and lights up history

A new Archimedes screw at Cragside in Northumberland will harness the power of water to relight this grand Victorian house just as its previous owner Lord Armstrong did back in 1878. Continue reading

Rare bee-eaters breeding on National Trust land on Isle of Wight

A rare bee-eater on the Isle of Wight; part of a breeding pair. Credit: Andy Butler

A rare bee-eater on the Isle of Wight; part of a breeding pair. Credit: Andy Butler

A pair of colourful and rare bee-eaters that have set up home on National Trust land on the Isle of Wight have become only the third record of this European bird to breed successfully in the UK in the last century.

Bee-eaters, which would normally be found nesting in southern Europe, were last recorded breeding in the UK in 2002, when a pair nested in a quarry in County Durham and two young successfully fledged. Before that, two pairs were recorded raising seven young in a Sussex sand-pit in 1955.

Bee-eaters, with their kaleidoscopic plumage, are one of the most beautiful birds in Europe.

The bee-eaters, which were discovered on the Island in mid-July, have set up home in the sandy hills of the Wydcombe Estate on the south of the Island in a small valley where the soft ground, rolling landscape and stream access provides ideal conditions for their nest burrow. The burrow could be up to three metres long.

Ian Ridett, National Trust Isle of Wight Ranger, said: “We have set up a 24-hour surveillance operation around the site to protect these rare visitors, as any unhatched eggs could be a potential target for egg thieves.

“We have had incredible support from the RSPB, Isle of Wight Ornithological Group and our volunteers and staff, some of whom have travelled from the mainland to help.

“The hot temperatures since spring have helped an above average arrival of bee-eaters, with more than ten seen along the south coast since May. With rising temperatures, the varied landscape and bountiful supply of insects on the Wydcombe Estate was obviously enough to tempt the bee-eaters to nest here.”

The adult birds have been spotted delivering food into the nest which indicates that the eggs have hatched. The chicks will not leave their underground nest site for another fortnight or so, so the number of chicks hatched is still not known. Bee-eaters traditionally lay clutches of four to nine eggs, and the first chick sighting is eagerly anticipated.

Matthew Oates, National Trust nature and wildlife expert, said: “The bee-eater is arguably the most stunning bird on the British list; it looks tropical.

“It’s really exciting to have these bee-eaters breeding on National Trust land, and we are pulling out all the stops to help the chicks safely fledge, whilst keeping the public up-to-date with their progress. As our climate changes it’s likely that we’ll see increasing numbers of new visitors on our shores.”

Keith Ballard, the site manager at the RSPB’s Brading Marshes reserve on the Isle of Wight, said: “It’s the stuff of dreams to have a rare nesting event like this on the Isle of Wight; and it’s looking like the initiative by the National Trust rangers to make the nest site safe is going to lead to success for these birds.

“There was a very real threat that these nesting birds could have been targeted by egg thieves, so it’s been quite a nervous period over the last 12 days. It has been a pleasure for the RSPB staff and volunteers to help with this operation.”

Further information on the Wydcombe bee-eaters can be found on Ian Ridett’s blog or by calling the estate office on 01983 741020.

A designated public viewing point has been identified overlooking the birds’ favourite feeding area so that visitors can get the best possible sightings of the exotic looking creatures. This will be carefully managed though, as the birds’ wellbeing and welfare takes priority.