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18 June 2014
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Rambling | Dorset Heaths

Heathland habitats

Hartland Moor c/o Jenny Goy

Dorset Heaths is the best heathland in Britain, providing a unique environment which is home to a wide range of wildlife.

These heath lands once covered over 50,000 hectares, stretching as far as Dorchester and Poole.

Dorset Heaths. Photo: Jenny Goy

Dorset Heath is not a 'natural' habitat but was created and shaped by ancient man over about 4,000 years.

Today the heaths cover only 15% of their former area, and are in fragments, separated by poor agricultural land, large urban areas and coniferous woods.

Changes in farming, the growth of towns and road building have all contributed to a reduction in the heath's size to about 7,000 hectares today.

Despite the loss of some areas, the Dorset Heaths boast a range of unique habitats from open, exposed landscapes to undulating, lowland heath and an outer edge of rolling hills with a patchwork of pasture and woodland.

Nighjar c/o RSPBBirds and blooms

A good time to explore the heathlands in the Summer when there's a great display of birds.

One of the classic heathland birds is a Dartford Warbler. Heath land is particularly attractive to birds who like to nest on or near the ground including Dartford Warblers, Woodlarks, and Nightjars.

The Nightjar is one of the heath's most distinctive birds with its 'chirring' sound. When it flies, the bird's wings make a clapping sound to attract females.

The male bird is characterised by white patches on its wings and tail. A good way to attract one is to wave a white handkerchief or throw a white ping pong ball in the air.

If you're lucky, the bird will fly out thinking that there is another male in its territory. Try this at dusk when the birds are most active.

In the United States these birds are called Night Hawks because they look a little like birds of prey.

Heathland plantHeathland plants

There are certain plants which characterise heath lands - particularly heathers and gorse - and these thrive because they can tolerate the nutrient poor, acid soils.

Hartland Moor Nature Reserve is a superb example of a heathland site. It is unique in having a Y-shaped bog system which includes both acid and alkaline drainage systems.

Typical plants include ling, cross-leaved heath, bell heather, bog asphodel, white beak sedge, western gorse, and rarities such as Dorset heath, marsh gentian and bog orchid.

The range of plants make this a good place to see heathland insects such as rare heath and large marsh grasshoppers.

Stoborough Heath Reserve lies adjacent to Hartland, and is another great example of a heathland.

Typical heathland plant species found at Stoborough include the rare bog orchid, Dorset heath, white and brown beak sedge, marsh gentian, dwarf and common gorse.

A good time to visit the Dorset Heaths is when the gorse and heather are in full bloom.

Rare reptiles

SnakeDorset Heaths boast all six species of reptiles found in the United Kingdom - Adders, Grass Snakes, Common Lizards, Slow Worms, Smooth Snakes and Sand Lizards.

Smooth Snakes and Sand Lizards are very rare and only found in this part of the world.

April is the best time to see Sand Lizards, when the males are getting ready to mate, turning a fabulous bejewelled green colour for just a few days.

They're known as 'little dragons' but they aren't easy to find, relying on camouflage to avoid being eaten by predators.

These creatures love this habitat with its sandy heathland and warm climate, but they're very vulnerable because the heath is becoming more fragmented due to forest fires and the intrusion of roads, which they can't travel across.

Photo credits - Dorset Heaths copyright of Jenny Goy, RSPB Dorset Heathland Project. Snake and lizard courtesy of Chris Packham.

 

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