Just a short drive from the beautiful historic city of Winchester lies Martin Down. This nature reserve makes a lovely day’s outing and allows the visitor to glimpse at what the countryside in this part of Hampshire, England was once like.
Although one of the largest areas of chalk grassland in the country, Martin Down represents a small remnant of the downland which once covered the chalk soil of southern England. The site includes grassland habitats, together with scrub and woodland supporting a wide range of downland flowers, insects and birds.
Chalk downlands are as we know them because of man’s activities over hundreds of years. Neolithic farmers cleared woodland for cultivation and these cleared areas were grazed by animals and, over time, became the grassland we know today. The downlands were usually not enclosed and, traditionally, sheep grazed the downs by day and were moved to arable fields at night. Common grazing rights existed on many downs: These ‘rights’ still exist on Martin Down to this day.
It is because downland went unploughed for centuries that a unique habitat allowed species of plants, insects and animals to thrive here and nowhere else. The plants found on Martin Down include the horseshoe vetch, chalk milkwort, salad burnet, dropwort, rockrose, burnt-tip orchid, dwarf sedge and field fleawort. As well as plant, an outstanding range of butterflies is found on the down, from the silver-spotted skipper and Adonis blue on very short turf to the dark-green fritillary and marbled white in the longer grassland.
Downland is ideal habitat for ground-nesting birds like the skylark and grey partridge. On other farmland, the number of hares has severely declined but they are found in large numbers on Martin Down.
But it isn’t only the grassland that is of interest in Martin Down: scrub is an important and valuable habitat on the reserve. The large areas of scrub make excellent nesting sites for birds such as warblers and nightingales. The scrub is where you’ll also find Duke of Burgundy, silver-washed fritillary and white admiral butterflies.
The downlands of southern England only exist because of ancient farming practices, mainly by grazing sheep. The grassland would soon disappear if it weren’t for the sheep. In fact many downland plants are specially adapted to flourish despite being grazed: cowslips have a rosette of leaves close to the ground to ensure their survival under grazing.
Some areas are grazed only in winter, and a long grassland develops, whereas others are harder grazed and remain shorter and more herb rich. Scrub in the grassland is controlled to prevent herb-rich grassland from being lost. The woodland found in Martin Down was, and still is managed. Each year trees were coppiced and pollarded to provide firewood and various construction materials.
If you are staying in or around Winchester it really is worthwhile taking time to visit Martin Down. There are many paths criss-crossing the down and you can plan out a route, long or short. Hampshire, and much of the South, owed its wealth in times past, from sheep farming. Exploring somewhere like Martin Down allows the visitor to understand what it was that moulded the look and feel of the many towns and villages in Hampshire.