Dorset has roughly 88 miles of coastline (excluding the shores of Poole and Christchurch harbours) and its coast is probably its best known feature given that the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site forms much of it. Within those 88 miles of coast nine different identified coastal habitat occur.
Coastal habitats are formed and changed by the constant effects of the sea and the wind working on the exposed geological features of the land's end. In Dorset the coastline has miles of sandy beaches from the eastern edge of the county at Highcliffe all the way past Bournemouth to Sandbanks and then on past the famous Studland Beach to Swanage. The sandy beaches reappear briefly at Weymouth and then again at Burton Bradstock and on towards the western boundary of the county.
The most prominent coastal features are the limestone cliffs of the Isles of Purbeck and Portland where stone quarrying activity have also influenced the landscape. Where the chalk Purbeck Ridge meets the sea there are the well know features of Old Harry Rocks at the eastern end and Durdle Door and Lulworth Cove to the west. Elsewhere the cliffs are sandy and are constantly eroding to give ever changing under-cliffs.
The sandy beaches, the limestone cliffs, the strange rocky outcrops all make the coast of Dorset famous but, on top of that, is one of the world's greatest natural shingle beaches, Chesil Beach, and behind that a large saline lagoon, the Fleet. But the unique Dorset coast does not stop there; on top of that Poole Harbour is reckoned to be second largest natural harbour in the world!
Of the primary habitat classifications for coastal habitats these are the ones found in Dorset:
- Hard Cliffs: the rocky limestone cliffs that dominate Purbeck and Portland
- Soft Cliffs; the softer chalky or sandy cliffs from Lulworth towards Weymouth and then in the west around Golden Cap
- Coastal Dunes: the sandy beaches to the east of the county as well as the outstanding natural sand dune system at Studland
- Shingle: the stony pebbles that form some south facing beaches to the west of the county but primarily the amazing Chesil beach
- Rocky Shore: the various places along the limestone cliffs where rock pavements stretch out to the sea, often covered at high tides
In addition these can be found in the large, tidal natural harbours at Poole and Christchurch:
- Tidal Mudflats: large areas of mudflats exposed at high tide, especially in Poole Harbour
- Salt-marsh: areas of rough vegetation that form on silt deposits at the inner ends of both harbours
- Reed beds: large expanses of common reed that grow in silted areas at the mouth of some rivers, notably Radipole Lake in Weymouth
- Saline Lagoon: largely enclosed expanses of salt water, notably the Fleet behind Chesil Beach
Each of those nine habitat types has its own unique array of flowers, insects and birds. Some of these locations are largely inaccessible but can be observed from the cliff tops in many places. Much of the coast line is owned by the National Trust and is accessible but parking charges do, of course, apply in many places. Some of the walks, especially along the Purbeck cliffs are quite demanding with some steep climbs in places; however, some of the views from higher points are truly awe inspiring. From the top of Portland on a clear day you can see as far as Berry Head (Devon) to the west and to Durlston Point to the east.
Wonderful views and supreme wildlife, what more could you want?
These are some of the habitat types that occur within this general classification. Click/tap any thumbnail for more detail about a specific habitat type.