Green winged orchid drawing


Panoramic view of Portsdown


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Portsdown is a ridge to the north of Portsmouth  that runs from Bedhampton in the east to Portchester in the west.  It is an outlier from the chalk of theGeology of Portsdwon diagram South Downs (click on the picture right to see a diagram full size) and the south scarp face of the ridge is mainly open chalk down land.  The area from above the QA Hospital to north of Portchester is a Site of special Scientific interest (SSSI) and it is that area that this page will concentrate on.

However the SSSI is not the only interesting area.  Historically there is much of interest.  The most obvious such feature is the Forts built in the mid 19th century to defend the Portsmouth Dockyard and garrison from a potential attack by the French from the north.  These forts make useful reference points to locate yourself on the hill.  One of them - Fort Widley - accommodates the Countryside Conservation Project.

The whole of the area is accessible from the upper and lower borders.  The main car-parks are east and west of the George, by The Churchillian and west of Fort Widley.  Elsewhere there are lay bys along James Callaghan Drive.  Dogs are welcomed but must be controlled and in compartments where there are grazing animals should be kept on leads.

In the following paragraphs the areas of Portsdown are described working from east to west - which means compartments will be covered in reverse numerical order!.

Farlington Redoubt

This most easterly of the forts is now no more than a chalk pit used by 'Lift & Shift' as a waste recovery and recycling centre.  It is however surrounded by the western half of the Crookhorn golf course and it is in one corner of this that the only fly orchids in our area grow.  Unfortunately most of this area is not readily accessible and the orchid site may well have become overgrown.

Gilman Road which runs down the south face of the hill from between the redoubt and Fort Widley through the water works is worth a look in late June/July.  It's the one place I know about on Portsdown to see glow-worms.  There may well be others to discover elsewhere on Portsdown.

Fort Purbrook

The path that runs through the scrub south of this fort and just above the road is a great spot for wild flowers and butterflies.  In June there are thousands of pyramidal orchids, common spotted orchids and a few bee orchids to see.  It used also to be a good site for summer visiting warblers and you will still find breeding blackcaps and chiffchaffs.  The scrub clearance for the benefit of butterflies has however almost eliminated the once present common and lesser whitethroats.

Click here to see a list of the species I have recorded around the Fort.

The George

The grassy areas south of 'The George' should not be overlooked.  Sainfoin grows in the un-mowed area south of the car-park east of The GeorgePicture of autumn gentian and in the short turf here bastard toadflax flowers although it has become harder to find.  Orchids and, on the patch immediately south of the George, autumn gentian (right - Click on it to see it full size) are among the other flowers worth looking for.

Blackcaps, whitethroats and butterflies are also plentiful at the right time of the year.

Candy's Pit - the chalk pit diagonally across the roads at 'The George' is interesting for the view of the chalk strata.  This is the only place you get a north south cross section.  Recent management to open the area up should encourage some ground flora and butterflies and discourage vandalism and anti-social activities.

click here to see a list of the species I have recorded around 'The George'


Compartment 10

This compartment, which is the first of the SSSI, south of the burger van has been cleared of a lot of scrub on its eastern edge and is maintained by grazing cattle and sometimes horses as are the rest of the SSSI.  It is good for flowers and butterflies.  A small patch of rock rose by the gate at the bottom of the compartment has spread well since the site has been managed and raises hope of brown argus butterflies colonising the area.  This compartment also has, in a scrub cleared patch, the only common valerian found on the down so far.

Compartment 9

This compartment is one of the larger ones and it is readily accessible from the burger van car park by walking down the slope to the west and through the Falkland's Memorial Wood.  There were 256 trees planted here - one for each of the fatalities during the 1982 Falklands conflict.  I don't think anyone has counted them recently!  Recently the conservation volunteers have cleared a lot of the under-cover of scrub and we'd like to see the few bluebells present spread.

Once you have gone through the gate into the compartment there are extensive grass areas many of which are floristically species rich.  The gullies sloping diagonally down the down are hot spots for some of our scarcer flowers like bastard toadflax (right - click on it to see it full size.), autumn gentian and orchids.  The rest of the compartment has most of the typical down land flowers that are on Portsdown.  There is one little patch of dropwort on the slopes to the east which emerged in an area where scrub had been cleared and has done moderately well since.

The flowers attract insects so expect to find butterflies, moths and crickets in this and similar compartments.  As the seasons progress small and common blue, marbled white and other butterflies are present. The bird life is not over exciting but chiffchaffs, blackcaps and finches breed.

Click here to see a species list for this compartment.  If you have details of more records please let me know the species and date you recorded it.


Compartment 8

This smaller compartment is very like 9 but maybe not quite so good for flowers.  There has been a nice patch of bee orchids by the the kissing gate into the next compartment.  These flowered well in 2010 to 2012.

Click here to see a species list for this compartment.  If you have details of more records please let me know the species and date you recorded it.


Compartment 7

This compartment is squeezed into the corner between the previous compartment and Southwick Hill Road.  For may years it was the haunt of motor cyclists but fencing and scrub clearance has reduced this considerably.  The only known record of frog orchids on Portsdown was in this compartment in 1987.  Since we began clearing scrub in the compartment we have been looking for this orchid but much of the grass is possibly too long and frog orchids are notoriously difficult to find at the best of times.

Click here to see a species list for this compartment.  If you have details of more records please let me know the species and date you recorded it.


Compartment 6

Now we cross Southwick Hill Road into the central area of the SSSI.  This is probably our most problematic compartment suffering, as it does, a lot of vandalism etc.  It is grazed occasionally but this can only be briefly due to the risks of the animals being harassed.  So far there is not much evidence of attractive wildlife in the compartment but hopefully it will come with scrub clearance and control of those who misuse the area.

Compartment 5

This compartment was relatively late in being cleared of extensive scrub but the grassland is improving and it is worth a look for flowers and butterflies. 

Click here to see a list of species that I have recorded in this compartment.


'The Top Field'

The countryside project a few years ago took over the field that sits between James Callaghan Drive and the B2177 road to Southwick and borders the MOD radar test site.  This field was in arable farming use.  We are working to restore it to species rich chalk downland but will keep a small area under a pseudo arable management where 'arable weeds' can thrive.  There are arable weeds e.g. Venus's looking glass, rough poppy and field pansy in the field already and as the field is not part of the SSSI we are introducing some other weeds e.g. corn cockle.

Elsewhere some 'hay seeding' using mowings and seeds collected from the SSSI has taken place.  The major project so far has been to fence the field ready to introduce grazing and this is now complete.   Hedging has also been planted round the field perimeter.

The field is and will remain accessible to walkers - use the small car park by the roundabout - and as management develops will become a pleasant place to walk.  The views to the north towards Southwick and across the Forest of Bere syncline are good.

sheep are sometimes used to graze the large central area of this field.  This is the first use of sheep on Portsdown for probably 70 or 80 years. 


Compartment 4 

This large compartment is also one of the good ones.  To the west is an area which has always been species rich grassland and consequently is good for butterflies.  This was the reservoir in which chalkhill blue butterflies survived and have now began to spread outwards to areas that have been or are being restored.  In July you can now expect to see hundreds of these butterflies.  Further east it was until the early part of this century dense scrub but is now wide open with scattered scrub and rapidly recovering species rich grassland. 

Notable vegetation in the compartment includes some devils bit scabious on the top in the middle of the compartment; thriving betony to the west near the border with the next compartment and a couple of little junipers on the central lower slopes.

Bird-wise the path down the west end fence is about the best place to view the breeding peregrines in the Paulsgrove chalk pit.  It is also possibly the best site to look for yellowhammers.  Breeding stonechats have not been seen for some time now.

Click here to see a list of the species I have recorded in this compartment.

Compartment 3 & the chalk pit

The narrow compartment along the top of the Paulsgrove chalk pit is interesting and easy to explore - especially if you don't like the steep slopes!  It is different to most of the rest of Portsdown having significant amounts of gorse. It is good for warblers and finches.  It has held breeding stonechats in the past but nowadays there is more chance of seeing them in the chalk pit.

In 2009 and subsequently  early gentian (Gentiana anglica) has flowered in this compartment just below the cattle holding pen. Paulsgrove chalk pit One of the easiest places to find the rare bastard toadflax is the short turfed gullies running down the slope at the eastern end of the compartment.  These gullies also have a few orchids and have had lesser centaury.

The slope into the west end of the chalk pit has fodder vetch and yellow vetchling and this has been the best place for stonechats.  The pond at the base of the chalk cliffs hold good newt populations.

Click here to see a list of the species I have recorded in this compartment

Compartment 2

The bottom of this area is suffers by misuse of some of the locals.  The higher slopes are now cleared and improving.  Early gentian has also flowered on older short grass patches in this compartment.

The route from this compartment to the next has to be along the bottom of the slopes so if you are walking along Portsdown take the path leading diagonally down the slope.

Click here for a list of the species I have recorded in this compartment

Compartment 1

The scrub at the bottom and to the east of this compartment is rather dense and needs attention (2012).     There are nice areas in the middle of the compartment towards the top where bee orchids regularly flower and lower down towards compartment 2 there is a patch which has had rock rose for ages and is thus a hopeful area for brown argus butterflies to colonise.  Occasionally dark green fritillaries are seen in this compartment.

The field between this compartment and the road along the top of the hill which we tend to know as the set-a-side field used to have good arable weeds in disturbed areas.  It is not part of the SSSI and so is not being managed and the grass areas have mainly reverted to dense scrub.

Click here for a list of the species I have recorded in this compartment

Portchester Common

Moving into this area you move from Portsmouth into Fareham and the common is the responsibility of Fareham District Council.  However the Countryside officer and the Conservation volunteers do sometimes get involved even if it is only by moving cattle on and off the common.

There are good flowers here including autumn gentian and basil thyme.  In the spring this is one of the best places for primrose, cowslip and hairy violets.



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