A Walk on the Wildside of Chettle with Pete Etheridge

by Becky Burchell
13th February 2024

Chettle Walk

Becky Burchell interviews local ecologist Pete Etheridge, whilst walking the ancient paths surrounding the village of Chettle.

Pete Etheridge is a local Cranborne Chase ecologist who lives in the village of Chettle. He is passionate about protecting birds, bats and other endangered mammals, as well as working with landowners to develop sustainable woodland and land management practices.

I invited Pete to walk the ancient paths of the Chettle landscape with me one fine June evening, as part of my research for developing a new events series called ‘Women of the Dark Skies’.

I was creating this storytelling pilgrimage to take place at night, leading women along the footpaths surrounding Chettle, connecting them to the history, ecology and spirituality of this land. The story I was writing was set nearly 2,000 years ago, in the late Iron Age, when our ancestors’ daily life would have connected them deeply with the local landscape and wildlife.

To give authenticity to the story, I asked Pete to walk with me to travel back in time to imagine how the Durotriges tribal people of this area may have experienced the Chettle ecology, particularly the landscape at night…


Becky: Pete, as someone who does regular bat surveys throughout the night, how do you think that our ancestors would have coped without torches and comforts we have today?

Pete: On my first bat survey, I was terrified, but now it’s like second nature to me. I walk around in the dark as comfortable as I am in daylight. I’ve taken myself back into a primeval mindset, relying on my other senses and becoming comfortable in that environment. I now understand and recognise most of the weird noises that I hear. So I imagine our ancestors would have been even more comfortable with being in the landscape at night, as they would never have known any different.

Becky: We are just walking out of the village past Chettle House, and if you look up to the left you can see one of the ancient long barrows on the top of the hill, which was recently covered in cowslips. What clues do you think this holds about our ancient chalk downlands?

Pete: When people drive across Salisbury Plain 20 miles from here, they are often struck to see that the barrows are the only places covered in wildflowers, in comparison to the acres of stark, monocrop arable and grazing land that surrounds them. It’s like our ancestors are still protecting these last remaining islands of biodiversity, which would have stretched right across the whole area in the past.

Becky: We are now walking through Little Woods and I imagine in the past our ancestors might have seen glow worms as they walked here in the dark on a summer night. I’ve sadly never seen them in Chettle, have you Pete?

Pete: Not in Chettle, but I have seen them in Bere Regis, Owermoigne and other parts of Dorset. (Note: after many hours walking through Little Woods at night without a torch, we did eventually see glow worms in the summer of 2023! They were even glowing well into the Autumn, perhaps because of our warming climate. So most of the women who took part in the ‘Women of the Dark Skies’ events were treated to a glimpse.)

Becky: We have now walked through Little Woods and come out the other side to the gentle ridge of the valley, with the sky stretching out before us. At night, it is easy to reimagine this landscape as scrubland, teaming with wildlife. What creatures might we have encountered if we stood here in the Iron Age?

Pete: We can see plenty of bats above us now as we stand here and they would have certainly been here in the past too! In the daytime we might have seen golden eagles and other large raptors. In the Iron Age we also still had wild boar in our woodlands and roaming the landscape, as well as lynx, wolves, and bears and possible wolverine, but I’m not sure how common they would have been in this area. The presence of these apex predators demonstrates how rich the landscape would have been in biological abundance. At some point in the Iron Age, hares were introduced to Britain and there is evidence that they were honoured by the tribes. But it was the Romans who introduced rabbits to Britain. Overall, the landscape and the wildlife would have been more diverse and abundant than it is now.

Becky: As we walk along the top ridge of the valley, with a line of trees on our left and the view into the village below, we reach Chettle Long Barrow. In the story I am writing, I plan to call this barrow ‘Badgers Barrow’ and to imagine that our ancestors connected this place with the spirit of the badger. What insights on badgers do you have to share that I can use in the story?

Pete: Badgers are incredibly faithful creatures. I like to call groups of badgers ‘clans’, as this describes their close-knit communities. Badger setts can stretch between 10m to 30m and some setts have been there for many generations. Sadly, because of the badger cull, so many have recently been killed. It is clear that, since the Iron Age, we have lost many species through habitat loss and human persecution – many of which were apex predators that were seen as a direct threat to us. Now, in the 21st century, we have an opportunity to reverse this trend (maybe not wolves or bears!), but perhaps large copper butterflies? Glow worms? Starved wood-sedge? Maybe even Lynx…?