Arreton Down

Arreton Down lies along the southern slope of the main chalk ridge that runs across the Isle of Wight from Culver Down in the East to West High Down and the Needles.It offers 48 acres of open access over fine chalk grassland, with a wealth of visible archaeology, woodland/scrub and old chalk pits plus views to the South over the East Yar valley and nearby countryside.

The Trust purchased Arreton in 2000 with the help of the Heritage Lottery Fund and an appeal to Trust members. Like other unimproved chalk grassland across southern Britain, it is one of the most flower-rich habitats in the country, at best supporting up to 40 different flowering species per square metre.

Last year the down looked particularly good in mid to late summer, the earlier yellows of the vetches were sadly not as brilliant as usual because of the wet spring and early summer, however the Scabious, Harebells, Knapweed and many other taller herbs did very well and put on a wonderfully colourful display well into autumn!

The cattle that graze there in low numbers throughout autumn and winter help keep the more aggressive herbaceous plants, grasses and scrub from shading out and taking over the multitude of small specialist chalk downland flowers. As these flowers thrive, they provide both food and nectar for a wide range of insects.

Arreton is designated by Natural England as a Site of Special Scientific Interest. During the spring the woodland and scrub is alive with birdsong from Yellowhammers, Lesser Whitethroats, Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs to name but a few. In summer, insects and butterflies can be found in great numbers on the warm grassland and scrub edge.

An insect of note that can be found here is the Great Green Bush Cricket. This impressive beast is usually heard well before it is seen, its powerful call carrying far across the Down on warm summer evenings. Search out the weird green light of the female glow-worm in the longer grasses near the scrub edge. The short turf is often dotted with a fine display of Pyramidal Orchid and occasional Bee Orchid, purple mats of fragrant wild Thyme and the Yellow Flowering Horseshoe and Kidney Vetch, this is also where the rare Bastard Toadflax is found.

The parking here is limited to a couple of spaces on one side of the Down End Chalk Pit entrance.

There are five entrances and three public footpaths crossing it. Use these paths to explore this fascinating reserve. There are many ancient earthworks across the Down including Bronze Age barrows and other interesting features such as the Holloways. This is a series of curving sunken paths which meander up the reserve, created by the driving of cattle across the Down towards the coast. The animals would then be shipped to Portsmouth to supply beef to the Royal Navy. A number of Round Barrows are scattered across the down, one large mound which is on what at one time part of the main down, known locally as Michael Morey’s Hump, is believed to have been constructed in the Bronze Age and was later used in the 1700’s as the Gibbet site for the child murderer Michael Morey. Signs can also still be seen of a deep furrow across the Down which was dug to stop carters taking a short cut across the land to avoid the toll on the road along the top of the down.

• Volunteers are helping to restore grassland areas on the Down by removing nettles (also nutrient) on improved ground, thistles and encroaching scrub.

• Autumn Lady’s Tresses are small, delicate plants with tiny white flowers that spiral up the stem. They are found on the grassland in August and September. They are being found in increasing numbers now that cattle are grazing again.

• The male Chalkhill Blue Butterfly has pale milky blue upper wings and can be found flying in good numbers in bright weather in warm areas across the Down in July and August. The chocolate brown females are very similar in appearance to many of the other blue butterfly females, particularly the Adonis blue, which we hope may recolonise the down.

• The Bee Orchid is believed to have evolved as a decoy to trick bees into attempts to mate with numerous flowers and so assist pollination. In Britain the orchids are all self-pollinated, prompting a debate on the true nature of the pollination process.

• Pyramidal Orchids can occur in many shades of pink and occasionally white on the down they grow in a troupe towards the Eastern edge of the down.

• Yellowhammers are unmistakable, having a bright yellow head with a few black streaked markings on the sides and crown, the breast has a cinnamon band and chestnut rump, and the colours are thought to become more intense with age. The distinctive call is known traditionally as ‘A little bit of bread and no cheese’ – and can be heard along the scrub edges and from song posts within the small ‘islands‘ of scrub.

• The Great Green Bush Cricket is Britain’s largest and found only in the south of England.  You can find it in the longer grass next to the scrub edge all around the Down. But take care if you are handling it – it can give you quite a nip!

• Horseshoe Vetch is the sole food plant of the Chalkhill Blue Caterpillar. It derives its name from the horseshoe-shaped sections that are created by the seed pods after its yellow flowers. The plant is an indicator of ancient unimproved chalk grassland.

• View looking west along the chalk ride showing the typical character of the Down.

• In 2005 the nationally rare Turtle Dove established a breeding site on the reserve and has been recorded each year since. The Isle of Wight has only a handful of sites for this elusive dove.