Fontmell Down Nature Reserve, also part of a site of special scientific interest, consists of three separate but closely-spaced areas of sloping grassland, mixed with scrubland and woods, along the west side of Cranborne Chase, the extensive chalk plateau that covers 380 square miles of north Dorset, south Wiltshire and west Hampshire. The views are very good, along winding, grassy valleys and westwards across a wide area of lower, flatter land (Blackmore Vale), but the main attraction is the plant life, plus the associated butterflies and other insects. A great range of wildflowers grow here, many specific to chalk soils, and they include the rare early gentian and ten species of orchid; bee, common spotted, early purple, fragrant, frog, greater butterfly and pyramidal, plus common twayblade, white helleborine and autumn lady's tresses. A few paths cross the reserve but most of the area is trailless, and often rather steep, yet cross-country walking is in general needed to see the best flower selection.
The largest part of the nature reserve is centred on Fontmell Down itself, a protruding spur of the plateau, and here the protected area occupies grass and some scrub on the southeast-facing slope plus more wooded land opposite, also quite steep. The second section, 1,000 feet south, encompasses the north-facing side of another ridge, Brandis Down, while the smallest part, on top of the ridge, is a long-grass enclosure known as Jerry's Hole. The total area for all three is 158 acres, and several hours walking would be needed to see a representative amount of all sections, while it would take at least three visits at different times of the year to have a chance of seeing all the major flower species.
The (free) parking for Fontmell Down is shared with that for the National Trust-managed Melbury Down, the next promontory north - along Spread Eagle Hill (a road), 3 miles south of Shaftesbury. A gate on the south side of the parking area marks the start of a short path that parallels the road south for 650 feet and enters the nature reserve, passing through a cluster of trees and onto a junction at the start of a 1.5 mile loop. In the clockwise direction this first heads due south across a field, alongside a patch of gorse and other bushes for part of the way, then enters quite thick woods (known as Catswhisker) and descends gradually to a junction. From here the loop abruptly heads back north, past another junction and down to the narrow, northern section of the floor of the valley on the east side of Fontmell Down; the wider, flatter land to the south is farmland, crossed by a thin strip of trees at one point but otherwise used for crops. At both junctions, other paths continue south through lighter woodland and into a sizeable long grass field (Littledown), at the south edge of reserve, one of the best wildflower locations, in particular for orchids. The circular route continues by climbing the opposite side of the valley - the eastern slopes of Fontmell Down, then traversing back to the start, while several lesser paths explore more of these east-facing slopes. The rest of the down, outside the nature reserve, is covered by regular grassland, grazed by cattle, and so containing far fewer wildflowers.
Brandis Down and Jerry's Hole
The small parking area for Brandis Down is at an old quarry site along Mill Street, a minor road that joins Spread Eagle Hill from the west. The reserve extends for half a mile along the north side of the ridge, which is covered by a mix of grass and trees, and contains similar plant species to those at Fontmell Down. Jerry's Hole, reached from the next minor road south, is a narrow field just 1000 feet in length, and is rather more overgrown, and so provides a better habitat for insects and other wildlife.