Lowland heaths in Purbeck

Godlingston Heath near Studland, Dorset

Lowland heath is one of our best examples of people interacting with the landscape for the benefit of nature.

Ever since Neolithic times when the first forests were cleared, we have grazed, cut and burned them, and on the acidic soils around Poole Harbour this has created the ideal conditions for heather and other dwarf shrubs to thrive. 

Immortalised by Thomas Hardy in books such as Return of the Native, our heaths are more than beautiful, open spaces to walk through. They are home to some of our most specialist wildlife: strongholds of birds such as the internationally protected nightjar and Dartford warbler, and the only landscapes in which you can find all six of our native reptiles.

Changes in farming and the loss of traditional rural ways of life mean that in this country we have lost 80 per cent of our lowland heaths over the past 200 years, but despite this the UK is still home to 20 per cent of the world’s remaining area.

Dartford warblers are the only warbler to overwinter in the UK. Look for them finding shelter in among the gorse and larger heather
A Dartford warbler

In Purbeck we have nearly 1,000 hectares of some of the best heaths in the country, split between Hartland Moor, Middlebere and Slepe Heath in the west and Studland and Godlingston Heaths in the East. 

Not only are we looking after these sites in the traditional way, we are now working with other local landowners to restore more and more forestry and pasture land to heath, with the long term aim of joining them up as one continual stretch of heathland.

In Spring, look out for sand lizards on the open sandy ground, warming themselves in the sun and digging burrows for egg-laying
A sand lizard

Across most of the heaths, common heather (or ling) is the dominant plant. Thanks to the grazing of our herds of red Devon cattle and Exmoor ponies, and occasional cutting and controlled burning, we keep it as varied as possible. 

Areas of dense, mature shrubs are important for some of the specialist insects such as the emperor moth, as well as any animal needing shelter and refuge, including the smooth snake, one of our rarest reptiles. Allowing a bit of gorse scrub and a few trees to come in is good too – as any birdwatcher out looking for nightjar or Dartford warblers will testify.

In Summer the wet heaths come alive with silver studded blue and grayling butterflies (pictured)
A grayling butterfly

For many animals, however, a good heath is an open one with plenty of bare ground in which they can sun themselves or burrow into the ground. These are the areas to look for sand lizards, as well as two of our rarest insects, the heath tiger beetle and the Purbeck mason wasp.

Vivid blue marsh gentians and golden bog asphodels (pictured) appear in the mires during Autumn
A bog asphodel

If you are interested in plants, you will be drawn to the wettest bits of our heaths, in the valley bottoms. This is where you will find the much less common heather Dorset heath. In the wettest areas of all, mires are dominated by bog mosses and carnivorous plants. Too acidic for many amphibians, these wetlands and wet heaths come alive in summer with dragonflies and butterflies such as the silver studded blue.