Nature’s obstacle race

A view of Hartland Moor, near Corfe Castle

Anything that stands in the way of a healthy future for Purbeck’s precious heathlands must go – and sometimes, that includes the fence itself!

Imagine a bird’s eye view of the National Trust’s wild and wonderful Hartland Moor, with that bird flying high enough to see its equally wonderful neighbours, Arne and Stoborough, too. 

It is one glorious joined-up playground for the Nightjar, the Dartford Warbler and the Woodlark. But for other species who live in the myriad micro-habitats that manage to co-exist here, fencing creates an obstacle course they could do without.

Dartford warbler
A Dartford warbler perches on a gorse bush
Dartford warbler

Arne is owned by the RSPB, and Stoborough by Natural England, so nature conservation is very much a shared venture for these historic 1500 or so hectares.  

Fences - for so long a way of demarcating land ownership – are barriers to so much more than the idle trespasser.  Many of the heathland’s small creatures rely on the larger beasts to eat away the encroaching scrub and keep the wider landscape open. This means the unrestricted grazing of cattle is key. 

Free-roaming cattle create heathland

To understand the importance of wandering beasts, we need to go back two thousand years or more to when Hartland Moor would have been a forest. Our Neolithic ancestors were the first to clear the trees to let their cattle feed on the undergrowth.  If people and cows disappeared, the heathland would too. 

Traditional grazing helps protect the diverse ecosystems of the Purbeck uplands
Cattle grazing in the Purbeck Hills
Traditional grazing helps protect the diverse ecosystems of the Purbeck uplands

Sadly, 80% of Dorset’s heaths disappeared between 1880 and 1980 through development, forestry and more intensive forms of agriculture.

The muddy tracks, shallow ponds, grassy areas, dense heather and scrub that make up this trio of heaths are home to hundreds of rare plants, animals and insects, many of which you’ll find nowhere else in the UK. 

National Trust ecologist David Brown explains: “When cattle roam more extensively, they naturally create a variety of different habitats, with boundary-free corridors to connect them. Heathland grows in stages – what we call the pioneer phase, the building, the mature and then the degenerate – and for all our heathland wildlife to thrive, these all need to be happening at once.”

The Nightjar needs a bushy refuge, the Purbeck Mason Wasp needs to burrow in exposed earth, the Sand Lizard needs a sunny patch in which to bask before heading for greener hunting grounds, whilst the silver-studded blue butterfly needs the native heather. 

With no fences, the cattle can graze freely and nature just gets on with it.

Additional info: 

  • Hartland Moor was one of the first National Nature Reserves to be designated in 1954
  • There are 58,000 hectares of lowland heathland in Britain, about 20% of the total world resource
  • Dorset’s heathlands once covered more than 50,000 hectares from Dorchester in the west to the Avon valley in the east. Today, there are 7,000 hectares left 
  • Many animals and plants found on heathlands cannot be found in any other place and are protected by law  
  • Heathland is particularly attractive to birds who like to nest on or near the ground, including Dartford Warblers, Woodlarks and Nightjars
  • Hartland Moor is unique in having a Y-shaped bog system, which includes both acid and alkaline drainage systems 
  • Purbeck’s heathlands support the rare Dorset Heath, a striking deep pink heather rarely found outside the county