Most of Dorset’s heathland was created by Bronze Age farmers, clearing woodland for agriculture. But the poor soils in some parts of the county made these areas unsuitable for crops and they were used largely for light grazing, providing the perfect conditions for some spectacular wildlife.
Heathland was regarded as a wasteland in the past, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. They support an amazing variety of rare plants and animals, making Dorset’s heaths internationally important.
At first glance they may appear to be made up of gorse and heather, but a closer look reveals stunning plants such as the parasitic dodder, with its tiny pinkish white flowers, the insect-eating sundews and bright yellow bog asphodel. Purbeck’s heathlands support the rare Dorset Heath, a striking deep pink type of heather rarely found outside the county.
Animals of the heaths include a variety of insects such as green tiger beetles, silver-studded blue and large blue butterflies. The heaths are unusual in supporting all six British reptiles – sand lizards, common lizards, slow worms, smooth snakes, adders and grass snakes. Birds include Dartford warblers and nightjars.
Dorset Heaths Today
In the past, heathland was undervalued and much has been lost to agricultural improvement, conversion to conifer forest and mineral extraction. In fact, only 15% of the heathlands that were present in 1750 in Dorset and the Poole Basin remain.
Conservationists are working hard to manage the remaining heaths and to restore sites that have been planted with conifers back to their former glory. It is hoped that this will provide a better future for the amazing heathland wildlife. Find out more about heathland restoration in Dorset.
Top Dorset Heaths to Visit
To get a closer look at this wonderful habitat, visit the following nature reserves:
Threats to Dorset Heathlands
- Much heathland has been lost in the past and remaining sites are often isolated
- Many plantations have been planted on heathlands
- Lack of grazing / management can affect the wildlife value of the heaths
- Uncontrolled fires can destroy wildlife
- People and dogs sometimes disturb rare breeding and roosting birds
How to help Dorset Heathlands
- Support the wildlife organisations working to conserve the heaths and their wildlife, e.g. Dorset Wildlife Trust, National Trust, Butterfly Conservation, Herpetological Conservation Trust, RSPB.
- Help prevent the risk of uncontrolled fires – do not discard cigarettes or leave glass bottles - fire destroys wildlife.
- Be careful when walking on the heaths not to disturb birds and other wildlife – stick to paths and keep dogs under control.