Natural History of Stinchcombe Hill

Situated immediately to the west of Dursley, it is the most westerly point of the Cotswold Hills and stands about 200 metres above mean sea level.  The bedrock is Jurassic oolitic limestone, the soft sand-coloured stone typical of the Cotswolds.  On top of this lies the shallow, well drained soil referred to as Elmton 1 in which there are pockets of underlying clay.  It is this nutrient poor soil that gives rise to the limestone grasslands which once covered the whole of the hill.

Today the grasslands cover the plateau and part of the steeply sloping sides and the whole hill is surrounded by deciduous woodlands which have advanced up the slopes and continue to spread.  Perhaps the most important grassland areas are around the slopes with south or west facing aspects and these are included in the areas designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

Woods

The woods are dominated by ash with some oaks and many mature beeches; in the under-storey there is hazel and elderberry.  On the woodland edge and within the grasslands there are whitebeam, wayfaring tree, spindle, common buckthorn and the scrub-forming dogwood, hawthorn and blackthorn.  There are numerous hollies and a few yew trees to represent the evergreens but there is also the invasive holm oak or evergreen oak which the Victorians were keen to introduce to the countryside.  It now causes many problems by changing the character of the grasslands by depriving them of water, light and heat.

Reptiles and Amphibians

Reptiles and amphibiansthat have been seen on a regular basis are common lizard and slow worm but there are occasional sightings of grass snake and adder.  The common toad, frog and smooth newt tend to be found around the edges nearer to human habitation where there are garden ponds.

Mammals

There are a number of mammals living on the hill, both roe and muntjac deer are common, usually in the wooded areas but also around the grasslands.  Foxes and badgers are frequently encountered around the hill, the latter having numerous setts throughout the woods.  Rabbits were once much more numerous on the grasslands but in recent years their numbers have declined to the extent that the grasses are becoming more rank and the scrub is proliferating.  Moles are still to be found although they are not encouraged on the golf course.  Hedgehogs were once more numerous but the increase in badger activity has played a major part in reducing the hedgehog population.  There are still good populations of wood mice, field mice and voles but you will be very lucky to see a stoat or a weasel, their numbers seem to be declining following the rabbits.  One species increasing rapidly is the grey squirrel which looks a cuddly little creature but is very destructive in the woods, stripping bark from branches and trunks resulting in the death of the branch or even tree; they seem especially fond of the beeches and oaks.  Beware of falling dead branches in windy weather!

Birds

Birds are well represented, some of the larger species which are regularly seen include buzzard, raven, kestrel, sparrowhawk, jay and the common crows, jackdaws and magpies.  Great spotted woodpeckers are frequently seen and heard in and around the woods, drumming from Christmas and into spring while the green woodpeckers are more often encountered probing the grasslands for ants.  Often heard but seldom seen are the tawny owls which inhabit the woods.  Some notable smaller species include marsh, coal and long-tailed tits, nuthatches, bullfinches, mistle and song thrushes, tree pipits and skylarks which delight us all with their melodious airborne song.  In winter you will probably see redwings and fieldfares but you may be lucky enough to see bramblings or even the winter roost of the greenfinches when up to 150 gather before sunset and then dive into the bushes.  Some infrequent visitors include merlin, red kite and redstart; even the odd parrot and canary have been seen on the hill!  What you won't see are house sparrows which will not penetrate the ring of woodland.

Butterflies

The insects are a very diverse and numerous group and are well represented.  The butterflies are probably the best known of them being the most conspicuous and thus easier to observe.  They have been closely monitored on a weekly basis since 1988 and in that time the Grayling, a species preferring thin sparse grassland, was lost in 1996 and the Pearl-bordered Fritillary, a woodland species, was lost to the area in 1997.  To compensate there have been two "newcomers" - the Essex Skipper first appeared in 1998 and the Adonis Blue in 2001.  In addition to the usual common species there are Dingy and Grizzled Skipper, Green Hairstreak, Small and Chalkhill Blue, these are specialists preferring limestone grassland.  Marbled Whites are often abundant in summer but Dark Green Fritillaries are only occasionally met gliding down the slopes on a hot summer's day.  The similar Silver-washed Fritillary is a woodland species but is sometimes seen around the woodland edge.  Since the year 2000 there have been 32 species noted out of the 44 known to occur in Gloucestershire; that is more than half of the British species.

Moths

There are many moths recorded from the site too, probably several hundred species.  Most of them are night flying and thus not often seen but there are several day flying moths, some of which are very colourful and conspicuous.  You may come across the scarce Wood Tiger which appears black and cream on the upper surface of the wings and flies low across the slopes on hot days in late spring or early summer.  It has a larger more conspicuous relative - the Scarlet Tiger, this is predominantly black with yellow and white spots on the forewings but the hind wings are red with black marks; the males can be seen flying in afternoon and evening in mid summer.  Another conspicuous species is the Six spot Burnet whose silver or gold papery cocoons can be seen on grass stems in summer; they hatch into a medium sized moth with stout body and iridescent greenish-black forewings with red spots.  These fly around rather clumsily on warm days and often cluster on Knapweed or Scabious flowers, jostling for position to get at the nectar.  Similar to the Burnets is the Cistus Forester, a metallic green moth which flies in spring and is usually found nectaring on yellow flowers.  Sometimes in late summer or early spring you may encounter a large caterpillar wandering across a path, its rich chestnut coloured fur covering the body with black between the segments.  It may look nice and furry but touch it at your peril!  It is the larva of the Fox moth and the hairs can break off in delicate skin and give rise to very itchy caterpillar rash.  The adult, a stout fox-coloured moth, flies in early summer, it flies very fast and seemingly erratically across the slopes and over the trees.

Beetles

While there are many more insects to be found such as flies, bees, wasps, plant bugs, grasshoppers and dragonflies, a mention should be made of  beetles because there are probably hundreds of species of them found in, on and under the different habitats afforded by Stinchcombe Hill.  Possibly the largest is the Lesser Stag Beetle which is big and black but the males do not have the "antlers" of its bigger brother.  They develop in rotting wood and the males can be seen lumbering around on the ground in search of a mate.  Another large species is the familiar Cockchafer which blunders about at dusk on warm summer evenings although there is an even more numerous species on these grasslands - the Garden Chafer.  This might be a smaller relative with metallic green thorax but it can make up for its lack of size by appearing in swarms, flying about on sunny days in late spring.  Looking at smaller species, there are some brightly coloured leaf beetles too; some are brilliant metallic green like Cryptocephalus aureolus others are black and red like the very rare Cryptocephalus primarius. The latter was believed extinct in Britain until found here in the early 1990s.  Of course there are the more familiar ladybirds many of which are also black and red but becoming more common is the Orange Ladybird which is orange with cream spots and this can be seen flying on warm days in summer.

Plants

Plants are typically those of calcareous grassland with Horseshoe Vetch being abundant on the slopes, noticeable as a carpet of yellow in early summer when it is in bloom along with Birdsfoot Trefoil; Rockrose flowers add to the yellow.  Kidney Vetch grows in patches which vary in size from year to year.  Hairy Violet is found across the hill, often where the grass is a little taller.  Dyer's Greenweed occurs on the east side of the plateau.  On the warmer south and west-facing slopes you will see Yellow Wort, Autumn Gentian, Eyebright, Marjoram, Wild Thyme, Field and Small Scabious, Ploughman's Spikenard, Carline and Stemless Thistles and Greater Knapweed amongst others.  There is a good range of orchids including Butterfly, Bee, Wasp, the rare Early Spider, and now declining Green Winged Orchid.  The Pyramidal Orchid seems to be increasing in abundance around the hill. Other orchids not specific to limestone grasslands are Twayblade, Early Purple and Common Spotted.  Within the woods and clearings can be found a patch of Lilly of the Valley, Stinking Hellebore, Spurge Laurel, a small area of Angular Solomon's Seal, Herb Paris and probably the most numerous of all, Bluebells.