Wessex Group: Beacon Hill and Bulford

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24 March 2024

An interesting corner of Salisbury Plain military training area with some strong populations of chalk downland bryophytes.

Meeting report

Beacon Hill lies roughly between the Bulford small arms (firing) ranges and the busy A303 trunk road and is essentially a downland scarp slope with tracks lightly used by the military. It also happens to support one of the largest remaining populations of our native Juniper Juniperus communis subsp. communis in southern England with both male and female bushes. Also some youngsters – a cheerful sight even if they did all have the kind of labels you find in botanic gardens (for monitoring purposes, presumably).

Our party of 9 headed uphill, first stopping to admire luxuriant-looking mounds of common pleurocarps in the grassland – Homalothecium lutescens, Pseudoscleropodium purum, Rhytidiadelphus squarrosus, mainly. But it was at the bottom of a chalk-and-flint track (or near-double track) that we fell to our knees to admire some of the smaller species: Didymodon fallax, Dicranella howei (no varia seen here!), Aloina aloides, Mesoptychia turbinata, Weissia brachycarpa var. obliqua, Seligeria calcarea and so on. Microbryum curvicollum was much admired, as was the gorgeous nationally scarce Abietinella abietina var. hystricosa, which is one of those mosses that looks really different in wet and dry states. A bit later on, this species was found growing as an epiphyte on mature scrub – most odd.

As the newly anointed BBS regional recorder for vc 8 (S. Wiltshire) Sarah Grinsted kindly offered to record our finds for the day using a card with the new Checklist names. This led to some animated discussions about new versus old, with everyone unanimous in their dislike of Streblotrichum convolutum (bring back Barbula convoluta!). Another much larger moss with a new name – Hylocomiadelphus triquetrus – was common in glades in the scrub and looked luxuriant. Sharon led an abortive mission into the scrub, trying to find Bryum torquescens, known from this area and often associated with rabbit burrows and shallow soil pans. It did turn up eventually but was less than impressive without mature capsules.

Up on top of the hill the wind was unpleasantly strong, so we headed downhill to try to find some shelter for lunch. Following a dog-walker’s track (which unsurprisingly smelt strongly of dog wee) through the scrub led us to an interesting spot with much Abietinella. Here we also found some more small species such as Weissia angustifolia, Bryum radiculosum, Tortula lindbergii and a couple of scrappy tufts of Weissia sterilis. After lunch our route took us along a track where the tiny leafy liverwort Oleolophozia perssonii was abundant and very photogenic, with well-developed clusters of brown gemmae at the shoot tips. Robert also found Mesoptychia badensis here – liverwort heaven.

Having so far failed to find Pottiopsis caespitosa, we climbed over exclosure fences to reach an earthwork with lots of baby Juniperus and the kind of barish calcareous clay it likes. And the little moss was duly found and admired. The only species we didn’t see from the day’s list of desiderata was Tortella squarrosa, a rare moss in Wiltshire. It was first found on Beacon Hill in 2022 so is hopefully still there.

It was the first bryophyte field meeting for one of us and before leaving, he said that although he’d enjoyed himself he hadn’t quite expected some of the species to be so small!

Sharon Pilkington

Meeting details

Leader: Sharon Pilkington

Beacon Hill and Bulford Down is a chalk escarpment near Bulford Camp and is part of the Salisbury Plain military training area. Like much of the eastern part of the plain it is rich in uncommon chalk grassland bryophytes. Recent surveys of this area have confirmed Bryum torquescens, Abietinella abietina var. hystricosa, Pottiopsis caespitosa, Tortella squarrosa, Weissia sterilis and more.

As we will have to book on with the military numbers may have to be restricted. Park and meet at SU20074435. This is on the south side of the road between Bulford Camp and Tidworth. Please pull off the road and park carefully on the grass.

If you’d like to come along, please email Sharon Pilkington (sharon.pilkington1@(at)btinternet.com)


Beacon Hill, near Bulford Camp, Wiltshire