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  • Julie Muller

MAY HILL SSSI - A Tree-Topped Hillock and a Bevy of Bovine

Updated: Jan 28, 2022

(Nearest post code - GL18 1JS)

Visited by Shep and Pumpkin

May 12th is Julie’s birthday and so we decided to go for a family walk and picnic at

May Hill SSSI which is one of the open spaces owned by the National Trust in Gloucestershire.

Two sheep dogs sit down on their climb to the top of May Hill SSSI, a National Trust property in Gloucestershire
Shep and Pumpkin sit down on their climb to the top of May Hill, Gloucestershire

I was keen to explore somewhere new.

A strange smell hit my nose as I got out of the car – ponies and, indeed, lying in a ditch at the side of the road, a young foal dozed contentedly whilst its mother nibbled the grass a few feet away. Rose was in raptures. Pumpkin couldn’t care less. He was just keen to get out of the car and explore.

It was already past lunchtime and so my humans decided to picnic under the trees amongst the bluebells. Pumpkin rolled in them sending the strong delicious fragrance into the air. Despite a warning of heavy downpours, the sunshine filtered through the trees.

As we sat, a whole entourage of semi-feral ponies filed past nipping at the vegetation as they went. A mare heavy with foal took up the rear. The little foal, with legs far too long for his body, had become separated from its mum and neighed anxiously. He sought reassurance from the other ponies, but they brushed him off with a flick of the tail and even a hoof to the nose. A domestic broke out when a rather truculent stallion and his sidekicks cantered up the hill behind us before charging down again grumbling angrily at the other ponies below. Peace resumed. Pumpkin and I were transfixed.

Picnic over, we lumbered up the steep grassy slope towards the summit of May Hill which is crowned with a clump of Corsican pines planted in commemoration of Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee. The distinctive top of May Hill can be seen from miles around and the views from it are breath taking. Some people say that the hill, which used to be called Yartleton Hill, was named after a Captain May who used it to navigate his way up the Severn estuary.

Both Pumpkin and I stayed on our leads walking up the hill. His nose was assailed by so many new scents and he trundled along his nose glued to the ground. Sometimes the smell was so strong that he had to be half dragged along the ground to move him on. Other times he just sat down on his haunches almost digging himself into the ground and would not be hurried. As we approached the highest point, we thought that there were even more ponies but instead there was a small group of black and white belted Galloway cows lying on their sides soaking in the May sunshine. They looked so peaceful. Apparently, they are named Bluebell, Burdock, Bramble, Vetch and the oldest one of them, called Widecombe Dale is 16 years young!

I don’t know whether these ladies stay on the hill all year round but traditionally, animals are not allowed back on the Hill to graze until after they are tagged by their owners on Marking Day. This takes place sometime in the middle of May.

Once the animals are set free, volunteer humans come up on the hill every day to check that they are okay.

It is really important that the cows graze the hill. Without them the vegetation would grow so tall that many of the smaller, rarer plants and all of the animals that rely on them would be lost.

For most of their time on the hill, the beautiful ladies graze contentedly but later in the summer their peace is well and truly shattered when some of the younger animals are let out to enjoy their summer break.

When we got to the top the views were amazing. The estuary of the River Severn glinted in the afternoon sunshine and the mountains of Wales stretched out in the distance. The wind was picking up and our humans dropped Pumpkin’s lead to give him a little bit more freedom. Of course, that meant a game of rough and tumble over the hill and we chased each other over the top of the ramparts. Our humans decided to continue our adventure down the other side of the hill into an area of mixed woodland.

Here tall, majestic cedar redwoods rubbed boughs with beech and birch, the leaves of which seemed to radiate a luminous green light. Dark green larch held out vibrant green fingers. It was incredibly peaceful, completely devoid of human activity but heavy with birdsong.

One of the birds that live here is the woodcock.– Known as the ‘Snipe of the Woods’ it so well camouflaged with its black and brown feathers that it is really hard for us to spot, but with its 360 degree vision, the woodcock can easily evade us. If you want to see a woodcock, the best time to see it is in the evening during breeding season, when the male flies low above the treeline, rapidly beating its wings in a courtship display called roding.

Some parts of the path were transected by small streams and the edges were clothed in rush and sedge set in deep sticky brown mud. Pumpkin was in his element.

In places, larger pools of water had collected, and I couldn’t resist plunging in for a full hippo wallow in the water.

Once again, Pumpkin’s senses were overcome by his surroundings and despite being on the lead he attempted to drag any of the humans into the muddiest puddles that he could find, losing his own balance in the process, and smearing his side in a dark brown paste.

It was a slow walk – Pumpkin looked in every rabbit, fox or mouse hole that he passed.

Our walk took us all around the side of the hill. Huge drifts of bluebells fragranced the air.

The ground seemed warm from the gentle May sunshine and although the sky still threatened rain, a light breeze seemed to keep the rain clouds away – much to everyone’s relief – what a wonderful birthday walk for Julie!!

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