The Wildlife of Ashclyst Forest

PUBLISHED: 14:02 29 May 2008 | UPDATED: 15:12 20 February 2013

The track leads temptingly past a thatched cottage into the forest

The track leads temptingly past a thatched cottage into the forest

Owned by the National Trust, Ashclyst Forest is renowned for its wide range of butterflies and offers great walking, good bird watching and the chance to practise your mammal-tracking skills.

Ashclyst Forest was once an area of mixed land with some ancient woodland criss-crossed with fields and heathland. During the 19th century, Sir Thomas Acland planted many conifers to provide timber for the Killerton Estate. The resulting 300-hectare woodland is now one of the largest in East Devon, providing a good mix of habitats, including deciduous and coniferous trees with glades and some heath. Within the forest there are several trails, all clearly marked and of varying lengths - a great facility in such a wildlife-rich woodland.

Butterflies are a speciality here and the rarest of them all is a species which flies during the spring. The pearl-bordered fritillary is a small orange-and-brown-spotted butterfly with a characteristically patterned under-wing with a pearl border, along with a large, centrally placed silvery white spot. This helps to distinguish it from the similar but more common small pearl-bordered fritillary.

A curious life cycle

The life cycle of this rare species, and of several similar butterflies, depends upon violets - the caterpillers eat their leaves - so, to help violets flourish, the trees are coppiced to allow more sunlight to reach the forest floor. Bracken, which also grows fast in this regime, helps to shade the leaves of the violets from summer sun and the butterflies also lay their eggs on the dead fronds in spring. A few Dartmoor ponies are occasionally grazed here to keep on top of the scrub and help maintain the clearings.

In all, around 30 species of butterfly have been recorded here. During high summer look out for the purple hairstreak, white admiral and silver-washed fritillary. The former is found exclusively on oak trees and can be difficult to spot because it often remains high in the canopy. It is more active in the evening. The white admiral, similar in shape to the red admiral, is predominantly black with white on its wings.

Spot this species in July during sunny spells when it flies with great grace along the rides in the forest. The silver-washed fritillary is large and colourful with the characteristic fritillary pattern of orange-and-brown chequered spots. It has rounded wings and is commonly seen basking on bracken in woodland clearings.

Tracks in the mud

My visit to Ashclyst last year came after a long wet spell so I looked out for tracks in the mud and found deer slots belonging to both roe and fallow deer. Badger pathways were evident in many places. These are noticeable because badgers have short legs and a stocky build so they flatten the vegetation and make wide muddy paths, which they use over and over again across several generations. Foxes aplenty are also here, their presence announced by a strong musty smell.

Occasional bursts of sunlight encouraged a few silver-washed fritillaries to fly out into the open, along with a small tortoiseshell, a few gatekeepers and several meadow brown butterflies. Sunlight too helped pick out the full range of meadow flowers growing in the clearings. Knapweed, marsh thistles, hemp agrimony and cat's-ear provided splashes of colour to attract the butterflies and nectar to sustain them. A common lizard even took the briefest of opportunities to bask in the sun at the edge of the path.

Bird life

Plenty of birds made their presence felt. A noisy jay's squawking calls infuriatingly warned other wildlife to watch out for the presence of a human. Nuthatches called from the tree tops and a great spotted woodpecker, presumably a young bird, constantly clamoured for attention. A flock of long-tailed tits, certainly a closely knit family group with several chocolate-brown and white young accompanying the more mature pink, black and white birds, twittered their way along the edge of a glade.

These tiny birds can look bizarre with their ridiculously long tails but they are never afraid to show themselves off to human admirers. High over the wood I heard a buzzard mewing as it patrolled its territory for carrion. This, too, may have been a young bird as it was much creamier-white underneath than most adult birds.

Any one visit to such a woodland will only ever give a small sample of the delights potentially on offer, but the beauty of this type of environment is that not only does the subject matter change through the seasons but so too does the backdrop against which it is set. It's a wonderful place to relax and unwind, and beautiful whatever the time of year.


The woodland is owned by the National Trust but no charge is made for visitors to park and walk here. From Broadclyst take the B3181 north to Budlake. Turn right in the village onto a narrow minor road. There are several car parks along this road with the main one situated at OS grid ref SY 001995. Trails vary from 1.5 miles and 7 miles. The longest is a bridleway. All paths can get very muddy after wet weather so wear sensible footwear.



In the deciduous woodland look for traditional spring flowers like bluebell, wood anemone, lords and ladies and wood sorrel, with early purple orchids in April and May. Early butterflies on the wing include speckled woods and pearl-bordered fritillaries, which can be seen in May around the woodland glades, particularly where coppicing has taken place.


Butterfly-attracting flowers in the glades include enchanter's nightshade, knapweed, wood sage, meadowsweet, hemp agrimony, self heal, centaury and cat's-ear. Silver-washed fritillary and white admiral butterflies appear in July and August.


This is the season for fungi and with a damp ground and much rotting wood this is a great place for them.


Birds and mammals are easier to spot when the trees are leafless. Look for flocks of tits in the woodlands and flocks of finches around the woodland edges. In late winter, woodland birds will be establishing their territories. You may hear great spotted woodpecker, raven and buzzard. You might also spot muntjac or roe deer.


Woodland birds that are resident throughout the year include jay, nuthatch, treecreeper, tawny owl and sparrowhawk


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