Butser Hill

Photo © Barry Shimmon (cc-by-sa/2.0)

Thank you to Matthew Shaft for contributing this site guide


At 270m, Butser Hill is the highest point along the South Downs and is about three miles south west of Petersfield. Butser Hill became a National Nature Reserve in 1999 and part of the South Downs National Park in 2010. The main habitats are chalk grasslands and scrub, with woodland, some quite large, mainly in the lower slopes. Most of the trees are Ash and Hawthorn, with a small area of Yews on the south slide of the hill. Many of the slopes are so steep that they have never been ploughed, and have retained the chalkland plants that are typical of this habitat. Grazing for many years was by sheep, but recently cattle have been used instead and for the first time in 2020, a few ponies. There are spectacular views when visibility is good when from various parts of the hill one case see across to the nearby villages, Petersfield, Langstone and Portsmouth Harbours, the Solent, the Isle of Wight, Fawley Refinery and the New Forest.


Many common resident birds can be found at Butser throughout the year, particularly in the scrub and woodland. Buzzard, and in recent years, Red Kite are regularly seen, Marsh Tits can be found in the larger wooded areas, but clearing and thinning of the woodlands over the past couple of decades has seen a decline, so they can be hard to find. Wooded areas on the north side of the hill are the best areas. In some years good numbers of Bullfinches are found, particularly after the grassing season. Numbers fluctuate greatly between years and are currently on the low side. Despite national decline, the Yellowhammer population has held up well with a mostly stable population over the past quarter century. They are most common in the scrub on the north side of the hill and the hedges along Ramsdean Road, which is a village north of the hill, with some scattered elsewhere at Butser.

During Spring, Skylarks are widespread in the open areas at the top of the hill, with a few Meadow Pipits breeding each year. Common Whitethroats and Linnets are also widespread in the scrub, with the odd pair of Garden Warblers and Lesser Whitethroat. Common woodland birds breed in the wooded areas with a good population of Blackcaps and Chiffchaff. Willow Warblers have mostly ceased to breed in recent years and now a passing migrant. Due to the lack of suitable habitat Firecrest are a very scarce breeder, but more widespread and common in the nearby Queen Elizabeth Forest just east of Butser.  Cuckoo can be heard calling in most years, but less regularly recently.  A pair of Kestrels breed annually and are easily seen. Raven have become regular over the past decade, with a pair often breeding on the wooded north side of the hill. Peregrine are occasional in the area and may breed on nearby pylons. The laughing calls of Green Woodpecker call out across the hill in early spring and many Song Thrushes can be heard in nearby woodland. Any large flocks of gulls between April and June are likely to be Mediterranean. These are breeding birds from Langstone Harbour which move inland to feed.

During early autumn, common warblers feed up on berries, especially on elder, with the occasional Redstart. Wheatears regularly stop off on the upper part of the hill. The top of the north side of the hill is good for visible migration when the wind is from the north east or east. Meadow Pipits, Swallows and House Martins can move through in high numbers during September, when there may also be a few Spotted Flycatchers dotted about the hill. By October, Skylarks, winter thrushes and common finches move through and in good years will include scarcer finches. By late October and early November Wood Pigeons pass by in large numbers. Gulls, mainly Black-headed and Common, are attracted to fields that are bare or being ploughed, often in large numbers, mainly west of the hill. October is the best month for Ring Ouzel, which are probably annual, and feed on berries in the scrub. During October 2016, thirty-five were recorded, the largest number recorded anywhere in Hampshire. Firecrest occur in small numbers in September and October.

By winter, especially after rough weather, many birds such as Kestrels and small sized species move to nearby lower ground, but some bird life remains nearby on the hill, with Skylark and Meadow Pipit sometimes occurring in reasonable numbers. On lower ground to the north of the hill flocks of Chiffchaff and Linnets can be found in the fields, but in lower number in recent years, plus flocks of Redwings and Fieldfares. At this time of year, Yellowhammers can be hard to find, but occasionally occur in flocks of twenty or more. Bare fields, mainly west of Butser, may hold feeding Black-headed and Common Gulls. During March occasionally large flocks of migrating Common Gulls gather in fields between Butser and Ramsdean.

White-tailed Eagle, Montagu’s Harrier, Merlin, Hobby, Short-eared Owl, Wryneck, Great Grey Shrikes and Crossbills are some of the scarcer species recorded in recent years. Butser Hill is generally under watched, so anything could turn up, but it will be hard to beat the Roller that appeared on 30th May 1955.

A small woodland, Bopeep Copse, is found north of Butser along Ramsdean Road. The copse has breeding Great Spotted Woodpecker, Song Thrush, Blackcap, Chiffchaff, Goldcrest, Firecrest, Nuthatch, Treecreeper and Bullfinch along with commoner species. A small pond opposite the copse on the south side of the road usually has a pair of breeding Moorhens. Since Petersfield Angling Club took the pond over about a decade ago, the wildlife value of this site has declined considerably, but Grey Heron and Mallard are still occasional visitors. This is a good area to observe Jays collecting acorns and flying off with them during October.

As the steep slopes have never been ploughed and retain a chalkland flora, Butser Hill is an important site for butterflies, with thirty-five species recorded in recent years. One of the best spots for seeing butterflies is a valley known locally as Grandfather’s Bottom. This is not marked on OS Maps, but lies to the north of the car park and is the steep valley that runs north west and leads to Rake Bottom with Ramsdean on the north side. Here there are reasonable numbers of Dingy Skipper, Grizzled Skipper and Green Hairstreak, plus good numbers of Duke of Burgendy. These species can be found scattered elsewhere on the hill. Common Blue and Small Heath are more numerous and widespread, with small numbers of Small Copper and Brown Argus. During summer high numbers of Dark Green Fritillary, Marbled White, Meadow Brown and Gatekeeper are widespread. More localised during the year are Silver-spotted Skipper, Orange-tip, Green-veined White, Silver-washed Fritillary, Purple Emperor, Chalk Hill Blue, Holly Blue and Ringlet. A few small blues have occurred in recent years and an Adonis Blue was recorded for the first time in Spring 2020. Painted Lady is annual with Clouded Yellow occurring in most years.

This is not an exclusive list of the species present. There is normally something of interest, but the site can be very busy, especially during summer as it is popular with dog walkers, plus there are usually a few hang gliders and model aeroplane enthusiasts taking advantage of any light breeze. However, outside of the summer months it is less busy and the north side of the hill, especially the slopes, are much quieter throughout the year and is the best area for birds


There are many footpaths to the hill and the number 37 Petersfield to Havant bus passes by daily except for Sundays and Bank Holidays. Payment for the car park (nearest postcode GU31 5SP), which is at the top of the hill, is by contactless card. There is a kiosk that sells light refreshments that is open most days, mainly during the summer. Alternatively, park at Queen Eizabeth Country Park, where a fee is also payable, and walk from there up to Butser Hill.


South Downs Society – Butser Hill

WestSussex.info – Butser Hill