SPECIES: Sword-leaved and White Helleborine (plus hybrids) Fly orchid including Ochroleuca form, Bird’s-nest orchid, Burnt orchid, plus if you take the extra trip, Greater Tongue and Loose-Flowered orchids.
DIFFICULTY/TIME: Easy walking in woodland at Chappett’s copse, some uphill at Noar Hill, and typical downland walking at Martin Down. Allow a full day as there is much to enjoy at all three sites. Wakehurst Place is easy walking.
WHEN: Third week in May
The reserves of Chappett’s copse and Noar Hill are famous amongst orchid hunters, as each has the largest population in the UK of one of the species -in the case of Chappett’s copse Sword-leaved Helleborine and Noar Hill, Musk orchid- but you will be too early for the latter on this visit.
Starting at Chappett’s copse will bring you a big injection of orchid satisfaction and even if you have already seen Sword-leaved Helleborine at another site in the UK, you will be unprepared for the sheer spectacle of the woodland glades at this wonderful site.
The reserve is managed by the Hampshire and IOW wildlife trust (HIOWWT) and is situated a mile from the little village of West Meon.
Go east out of West Meon and turn right into Coombe Lane. The reserve is visible through the trees on your left as you head south, and after roughly 1km you will see the entrance to the reserve and car park just in from the road on the left, announced by a small sign below.
Turn left onto the small track and park anywhere along here leaving room for others to get in and out. A sign announces the entrance to the reserve, the main level track runs parallel to and just in from the road, heading back north. You will start to see Sword-leaved Helleborines very soon after you have set off, but keep walking until a glade opens up on your right, and stop to take in the sheer spectacle of hundreds of stately white-flowered Sword Helleborines littering the woodland floor.
Small paths have been created between the orchids and the Dog’s Mercury, to allow visitors to enjoy the orchids up close and personal. Please stick to these mini-paths, as hidden amongst the ground vegetation’s, Bird’s-nest orchid and Fly orchid lurk, less obvious than the main attraction.
The latter two species should be relatively easy to find near the main path and just off it into this glade, but slow walking and careful observation is required to spot them poking out of the Dog’s Mercury in the dappled sunlight. Also in this main glade you might spot one or two much taller plants and closer inspection should reveal that they are the hybrids between Sword-leaved and White Helleborines. The hybrids, apart from being taller tend to show the flower-head like the Sword-leaved, but with leaves like that of White Helleborine and are quite subtle upon first inspection. There are usually a few telltale White Helleborines much smaller nearby.
Taking a walk through the various tracks around the woodland will reveal more examples of all the species, as well as Common Twayblades and a few Common Spotted orchids coming into flower.
Once you have enjoyed the woodland spectacle at Chappett’s copse, take the short 11 mile journey to Noar Hill National Nature Reserve, just south of Selbourne – former home of the famous Gilbert White. Details of this HIOWWT reserve, including warden’s contact information, can be found on their website https://www.hiwwt.org.uk/nature-reserves/noar-hill-nature-reserve
To get to the reserve, drive south out of Selbourne and turn right onto the lane signposted East Tisted, then bear left after c1/2mile following the sign to Noar Hill. Park safely alongside the road just before Charity Farm as shown below.
Walk along the gravelled track to the left here, and then follow the footpath sign left again and uphill into the trees. There is more than one way into the reserve from this track, but continue uphill until you see access signs on the left.
Taking any of the tracks will bring you up some steep banks onto the disused pits, with narrow pathways running through them. All of the chalk downland here is covered in orchids of three main species; Common Spotted, Chalk Fragrant and Pyramidal Orchid, as well as the site speciality, Musk Orchid. This site has probably the largest population of this latter species in the country, but you will have to have very good and practised eyes to see them this early, although one or two might just be starting to bud during the third week of May.
Two other species to look for here are Frog Orchid, which is scattered in small numbers around the old chalk pits – and hybridises with Common Spotted Orchid occasionally, so look out for those – and Fly Orchid.
The latter can be found about halfway along the southern end of the old chalk workings, especially in newly cleared areas just in from the trees. Among the small population of Fly Orchids, one or two all-green “ochroleuca” forms flower every year.
“Ochroleuca” Fly orchid
Noar Hill is another site that benefits from time spent wandering slowly through its different habitats. Later on in the season, Violet Helleborine can be seen in the woodland of High Wood Hanger, on the north side of the reserve, viewed from the path at the edge of the downland walks.
Third and final site of the day is nearly 60 miles to the west, and only just inside the Hampshire border. Martin Down is a National Nature Reserve on the border with Wiltshire, south west of Salisbury and just south of the main A354.
However, to find its speciality, the Burnt Orchid, it is easier to park in the Lower Car Park, situated at the end of Sillen Lane, just west of the village of Martin itself. The postcode for the car park is SP6 3LP. From here walk west, continuing along the main track, then bear left after approximately 400m. Checking either side of this main path should produce small numbers of Burnt orchids.
They can occur almost anywhere between the car park and the edge of the reserve, a further 500m on, however. If you have never seen the species before you will probably be surprised at how small they are! Once you find one, check the immediate area, as they tend to grow in scattered groups. Also in this area are Greater Butterfly orchids. Walking right (north) towards the A354 will also produce Green-winged as well as more Burnt orchids.
This reserve is fantastic for butterflies and birds too, with Adonis, Small Blue and Dingy Skipper and for birds Turtle Dove, Grey Partridge, Cuckoo and Corn Bunting – all species that have declined terribly in the last 50 years. You may even be lucky enough to see a Stone Curlew!
If you are making a weekend visit you could get two extra species that aren’t a 100% “wild” and visit Wakehurst Place near Crawley. Wakehurst is Kew’s “wild botanic garden”, and houses the Millennium Seed bank.
The orchid section of the gardens has a small and diminishing population of introduced Loose-flowered orchids. In amongst them are some Greater Tongue Orchids which may have come in unintentionally with the Loose-flowered Orchids.
Emailing Wakehurst in advance will get you specific information on how to see these two semi-natives. Email them at email@example.com; this is better than calling, as your enquiry can be passed to someone with specific knowledge. Beware, last entry to Wakehurst gardens is 4pm!
Written by Sean Cole of @ukorchids
Sean has been interested in orchids for over twenty years, and is co-author of the forthcoming book “Britain’s Orchids” from Wildguides.
SPECIES: Early Purple, Irish Marsh, Early Marsh var. Cruenta, Fly and Dense-flowered Orchids.
DIFFICULTY/TIME: Mostly easy walking, but some negotiation of limestone pavement can be hazardous. This trip is organised on a weekend basis.
WHEN: Dense-flowered orchid goes over very quickly as it is self-pollinated, and Early & Irish Marsh flower a little later, so the second or third week of May (around 15th-20th) is best. Seasons vary according to the weather however – keep an eye on @ukorchids for news. It is often quite difficult to get all the specialities in flower on the same short trip.
ITINERARY: All the specialities can be seen around the shore of Lough Gealain, which is a Turlough – or temporary lake – that dries out in the summer. It is situated to the south west of Mullagh Moor, which provides a spectacular backdrop to your orchid hunting. See here for guided walks around the area:
The narrow road that runs across the south-eastern corner allows easy access to the pavement between it and the Lough. Early Purple Orchids abound here, and a few Fly Orchids can be found, along with Irish Marsh and Early Marsh and the distinctive ‘Cruenta’ variety. Dense-flowered is to be found in small numbers close to the road, on the grassy patches among the pavements. Try parking around here: 52.996011, -9.023681 and exploring the area between the natural “cliff” and the drystone wall, shown below, as well as beyond this natural cliff.
The western end of the Lough between the road and the Lough is usually productive. Don’t forget also to drive a little further north and have a look at “Father Ted’s House” further along the road just to the north of here, near Cloon!
A second place to check for Dense-flowered Orchid is just north of the Caher river, east of Fanore and just south of Black Head. Park in the lay-by at 53.125320, -9.273208 and cross the river, going into the walled, terraced field and checking the grassy bank near the two large boulders. Common Spotted Orchid also occurs here in the white form, sometimes referred to as “okellyi”.
If neither of these sites produces the species you want, pay a visit to the Burren Visitor centre in Church street, Corofin, where if the right person is in, they can provide specific directions. Much more information is available on the National Park website: https://www.burrennationalpark.ie/
Remember, the Burren isn’t just about the orchids-you will be blown away by the sheer numbers of Spring Gentians, and might like to look out for some of the other specialities such as Large Butterwort and Pyramidal Bugle.
Whilst in the area, a visit to the Cliffs of Moher is a must. Spectacular views, countless seabirds and of course the obligatory visitor centre can be found here. Half of Dusty Springfield’s ashes are scattered here – you can go to the place where the other half are, later in this series!
SPECIES: Early Spider, Early Purple, Green-winged Orchids.
DIFFICULTY/TIME: Walking along coastal path and on sloping downs. Allow 4-5 hours.
WHEN: If you choose the second or third week of April, all three species will be in the greatest numbers. Seasons vary according to the weather however – keep an eye on @ukorchids for news.
This is the classic early orchid trip of the season, seeing a Dorset speciality and two other early-flowering species, all of which occur in large numbers in this area. As well as beautiful coastal scenery and a relatively easy walk, Durlston Country Park has excellent facilities to rest and eat. If you are interested in other forms of wildlife, there are butterflies and birds to look out for too.
Start by parking in the main car park near to the visitor centre at Durlston Country Park, Lighthouse Rd, Swanage BH19 2JL. This is signed from the town centre in Swanage.
Call in at the Visitor Centre, as the rangers and wardens there will know which spots in the area are best for the Early Spider Orchids at that particular time. Guided walks are also available if you wish to make it even easier! In 2019, the Early Spider walk is on Sunday 28th April and costs £3.
If you choose to go it alone, and there is nobody in the visitor centre to ask, then there are two easy to find places where the Early Spiders can be found.
1. Walk past the visitor centre building from the car park and take the footpath through the gate out onto the first open field. There is a path that goes downhill though the middle of it, and the orchids are close to the left hand side of the path, about halfway down. SZ029773
2. From the VC, walk down towards the Anvil Point Lighthouse. Between the main tarmac path and the upper one is some open downland, and there are patches of ESO in this, along with both EPO and GWO. SZ022770
Both areas are marked on the map below.
The walk down to the lighthouse will not only afford beautiful views, but at this time of year you could also look out for Grizzled and Dingy Skippers, and offshore you might find Guillemots, Gannets and other seabirds or spy the local Peregrine Falcon hunting along the cliffs.
Early Purple Orchid
If this spot doesn’t provide enough orchid satisfaction, there is only one thing to do, and that is to continue west towards Dancing Ledge, three kilometres along the coastal path. All three species of orchid at Durlston can be found close to the coastal path along this stretch in impressive numbers. The slopes west of Dancing Ledge itself have a particularly fantastic display of Early Spider Orchid. If you are feeling patient and in need of a rest after your bracing coastal walk, sit down amongst them and look out for their pollinating bees visiting the flowers and trying to mate with them!
Whilst here, you could also search for the recently-discovered Sawfly Orchid, a single plant of which lurks on these slopes amongst the Early Spiders, though it has not flowered since 2016.
From Dancing Ledge you can take the footpath up the valley into Worth Matravers, have some lunch in the Square and Compass pub before taking a bus back to your starting point in Swanage. Or, simply retrace your steps and enjoy the orchids all over again – I can guarantee you will spot many that you missed on the way out! If you take this route, I would recommend lunch at the ‘Seventh Wave’ at Durlston Country Park.
If for some reason Dorset is beyond your reach, the alternative for these species is to travel to Kent, to Samphire Hoe near Dover for the Early Spider Orchids, then on to Marden Meadows National Nature Reserve, south of Maidstone, which has the UK’s largest population of Green-winged Orchids.
Written by Sean Cole of @ukorchids
Sean has been passionate about orchids for nearly 20 years, and is co-author of the forthcoming book “Britain’s Orchids” from Wildguides.