Just south-east of Salisbury stands Bentley Wood, quite the best place to see woodland butterflies in the UK. The wood was acquired from the Forestry Commission by a charitable trust in the early 1980s and is superbly managed for its wildlife. Any conservation organisation would be proud of what has been achieved here.
Some 36 species of butterfly occur almost annually here. This is part of the largest area of woodland in Wiltshire, and in its rides and clearings, conditions are just right to support several rare species. These include Duke of Burgundy, marsh fritillary, pearl-bordered fritillary, purple emperor, silver-washed fritillary, small pearl-bordered fritillary, white admiral and white-letter hairstreak.
Perhaps an illustrated butterfly ID guide will be helpful here, but at least this abundance of species means you won’t go home disappointed.
It is, of course, a Site of Special Scientific Interest, and also an important place for moths and other insects. A large number of butterfly enthusiasts visit during the summer, though there are many quiet corners.
The main car park is 300m
up the Switchback track from the West Dean to Middle Winterslow road. The track entrance is by a stand of tall poplars. There is also a small car park at the west end of The Switchback, accessed off the East Grimstead road.
A fluttering of wings
From the main car park, head back east 100m and cut through into the Eastern Clearing, a large area of relic meadowland managed primarily for butterflies.
Here, orange and black pearl-bordered fritillaries are numerous during May, as are the similar small pearl-bordered fritillaries from late May well into June.
Look out also for the distinctively shaped Duke of Burgundy and moth-like dingy and grizzled skippers here, especially along the minor path system. You may see the odd marsh fritillary, too.
Head back out on to the Switchback and then go straight on westwards along this track. In late June and July, this is a good area for majestic purple emperors, which regularly descend to feed from the track surface, especially during the morning. The males also visit banana skins and other delicacies purposefully placed on the car park interpretation board roof. The females, meanwhile, skulk around in the sallows. The Switchback is also a good area for silver-washed fritillaries and white admirals during this period, as well as more common species.
Carry on along the Switchback until the first major junction, on a minor summit. Turn right here, following the main north to south ride down over the stream and up again, then over a crossroads.
A little further on the main ride turns right, with a minor junction going off to the left. On this corner, facing you, is a stand of elms where a colony of the rare white-letter hairstreak (look for pencil thin lines that resemble the letter W) flies during July. There is another colony down the minor ride off to the left.
More to spot
Continue down the main ride that swings round to your right, then take the first major right turn in Park Copse. You will see species such as silver-washed fritillary along this track, including the unusual dark green of the female, known as valezina.
Follow this main ride system back south. It will lead you past Eastern Clearing and back to
the car park.