Dorset heaths

The Dorset Heathlands

David Beeson

My part of Southern England is dominated by a chalk geology. That results in thin, calcium-rich soils and a characteristic ecology. Much of south-east Dorset has sand and gravels beneath the surface, and these generate very different conditions.

I was based a few kilometres north of the walled, Saxon town of Wareham – in Wareham Forest. Morden Bog National  Nature Reserve is just a short walk away. To the south is the (UK talking) huge area of nature conservation zone owned by various organisations, including The National Trust and RSPB – Arne RSPB reserve, Stoborough Heath NNR and Hartland Moor NNR. That joins on to Studland Heath NNR.

A quick viewing of a map will allow you to decide that this is not the whole picture. For, just to the south of these acidic soils is a ridge of chalk centred on the amazing settlement of Corfe Village with Corfe Castle. The headland at Ballard Down is the best location I know for seeing wild adders. On a divergent note, there is a steam railway between the Victorian seaside town of Swanage to Corfe and, when the railway is not running, is a great snake spotting venue!

This locomotive pulled me to school on several occasions! Shows my age ….

The two, native deer to the UK are the roe and red. This part of the country has large numbers of sika deer, and you will find it hard not to see them at Arne. During my visit the mammals were gearing up for the annual rut – again, best seen on the fields at Arne (GR 975 880).


Poole Harbour is the second largest inlet in the world, and its southern shore stretches from Arne to Studland. Shipstal Point has good hides to allow viewing of the tidal zone birds and the sika deer feeding on the marsh. Brownsea Island, in the harbour, has a Dorset Wildlife Trust reserve with red squirrels. I have carried out research on Brownsea (voles) and Arne (adders and small mammals).

Looking north over the heathlands to Poole Harbour

Wareham Forest.

The forestry industry dominates this area and mainly grows non-native conifers, although Scots pine are seen. The valley sides and hillocks are full of sand that has a hardpan beneath, and that inhibits water drainage further, pushing it sideways to form Morden Bog.

Wet and dry at Wareham Forest
Sandy substrate allows xerophytic plants to grow – especially heathers.

Attempts were made in the 1960s to grow trees (probably sitka spruce) on some of the wetland. This was achieved by ridges and furrows, with the trees planted on the ridges. The photographs will give a strong indication of its success.

60 years of growth produced this! And, this was the best bit.

Recently a devastating fire destroyed a large section of the ecosystem, however the Morden Bog area escaped and looks pristine.

Morden Bog … well, I found it interesting.

The fauna to look for include: Dartford warblers, sand lizards and the ubiquitous sika deer. With extensive conifer plantations, keep alert for crossbills. Newts occur in the numerous ponds, yet the one encountered could have been smooth or palmate. Adders are around, but kept out of the way, sadly. The flora is dominated, in the open areas, by heathers – Dorset heath is rare, but widespread here, ling and bell heather are common. In the bog I encountered carnivorous sundews, cotton grass and bog asphodel, plus the various sphagnums.

Sphagnum moss. The ultra-rare (I’ve never found it) bog orchid grows here.
Oval-leaved sundew. The round-leaved version was nearby. Carnivorous.

There are long walks and off-road cycle trails available, but few seats.

Parking available (free) at the start of the Sika Trail.

Arne RSPB reserve is an absolute delight. Rare birds, all the UK’s reptiles, too many sika deer and views across Poole Harbour. The reserve can be busy and dog’s too numerous, so chose a potentially quiet time. Free parking for RSPB members, otherwise £5. Food normally available and plenty of helpful staff and maps.


Two main trails are available, yet the vast majority of the reserve is closed to visitors. In summer the eastern trail is the more divergent with heathland, deciduous woodland, freshwater pools, with numerous uncommon dragonflies, raft spiders and amphibians. The views over the harbour yield sightings of spoonbills, various egrets, deer. Woodlarks, nightjars, Dartford warblers and 34 species of waders can all be seen.

The other trail transgresses an open heathland, home to the smooth snake and possible views of osprey.

Look out for two interesting plants: dwarf gorse, that grows close to the ground, and the thin pink threads of the 100% parasitic dodder.

Studland Heath

This has most of what has been described elsewhere, plus large lakes and glorious sand dunes along the seacoast. The only snag is the beach is amazingly popular in summer, and parking can be impossible. NT members park for free, others pay a lot!

From the road between Corfe and Wareham a single-track road crosses the NT heaths northwards towards Arne. This gives access to lonely areas of open heath.

Heathers and dwarf gorse.
Wareham Forest.

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