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Lowland heath is an interesting habitat and many issues surround it. It is not a natural habitat, it is man-made and yet it it has international protection status and much time, energy and funding goes into trying to maintain that which remains and restore some of what has been lost. If it is not a natural habitat why do we do this?

I started with that question as it is broadly what I was asked by someone when I was leading a nature walk on Sandford Heath near Wareham a year or so ago. There is a simple answer and a much more complicated one but effectively lowland heath may be man-made but it is an ancient habitat created in bronze age and iron age times (that is around 4,000 years ago!) when the local inhabitants started clearing the woodland that once existed to improve grazing for their animals. The soil was so 'poor' the first plants to colonise the cleared land were various heathers followed by gorse. A unique method of human subsistence farming developed which utilised what natural resources there were but it was a very hard, labour intensive life-style.

Much of the lowland area on all sides of Poole harbour is heathland and would, thousands of years ago, been under water which is where the underlying sand or gravel soil deposits originated. The sandy or gravel soil is generally acidic and so some very specialist plants and animals have been able to colonise the heathland. Most notably, of course, the sandy soil in some areas is ideal for the breeding cycles of our reptile species and all six of Britain's native species occur on the Dorset heaths. The conditions also suit bird species such as Dartford warbler and nightjar that occur here and are very scarce elsewhere in Britain. With invertebrates the story is similar and there are many insects that occur on the heaths that cannot be found elsewhere.

Time has made heathland special and the pace of change in the last 100 years or so has seen vast swathes of heathland lost, much of it for ever. Forestry, agriculture, mineral extraction and housing demands mean only a quarter of the heath that once could be found here remains. It is the unique landscape and its rare wildlife that make it internationally important and why so much effort goes in to preserving (and recovering) what is left.

There are various types of heathland ranging from predominantly dry heath to valley mire where it is constantly wet. Valley mire are not the places for the casual walker to venture as they can be quite dangerous (from time to time people have to be pulled out by helicopter!). Dry heath which rarely floods is accessible but can be difficult walking in places whereas wet heath , which tends to dry out a bit in summer, can be accessible with care.

There is a single example of dune heath in Dorset at Studland. Limestone heath is also a rare habitat in Dorset



Habitat Types: 
Displaying 1 - 6 of 6

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.

H1: Dry Heath

Dry heath typically occurs on higher levels of fertile acid sands and gravels that drain freely with the falling rain water passing quickly through the soil to the peat layer below and down towards wet heath and...

H2: Dry Heath/Acid Grassland Mosaic

As you walk over higher dry heath you will occasionally come across areas of open grassland which have resulted from past agricultural activity. In some cases this may date date to Mesolithic times and the original...

H3: Wet Heath

Wet heath occurs in two situations. Firstly in shallow hollows in surrounding dry heath (these can be quite big hollows!) or, secondly, as a transitional phase between dry heath and valley mire and bog. Wet heath is not...

H4: Valley Mire and Bog

Although valley mire and bogs are technically wetland habitats I have included them with heath because they form in low lying valleys and depressions in heathland areas where water percolates through the sand and gravel...

H8: Dune Heath

Dune heath forms on sand dunes that are relatively stable and where heather can take hold often after marram grass has started to colonise. Studland is the only example of dune heath in the south of England. It has a much...

H9: Limestone Heath

Limestone heath is a rare habitat type and occurs where sand deposits have accumulated on a limestone substrate. Limestone heath usually forms at high level on hills and escarpment slopes the sand having come from further...