Wildlife on today's heathland has adapted to survive on dry and wet heath, bogs and mires, woodland edge and bare patches of sand and gravel. Many animals and plants found on heathlands cannot be found in any other place and are protected by law.
Heathland is important for birds like the nightjar, stonechat and the much rarer woodlark and Dartford warbler. Many other common or garden birds are heathland visitors, living in neighbouring gardens or woodlands, making Dorset a bird-watcher's paradise.
Native endangered birds
Dartford warblers and stonechats can be seen all year round on Dorset's heaths. They share singing perches and territories, nesting close to the ground, deep in heather and gorse bushes. Dartford warblers have a strict insectivorous diet; heather and gorse are great insect larders. Woodlarks have very specific habitat requirements, preferring heathland next to woods for their nesting sites. All these birds have essentially restricted themselves to living on heathland.
Hobbies and nightjars are summer visitors to heaths of Dorset. Hobbies can eat dragonflies mid-flight whilst nightjars use their whiskered faces and gaping mouths to scoop up the many night-time moths. Hen harriers stop off on their way to the moors of northern Britain.
The Heath tiger beetle (Cicindela sylvatica) and heath bee-fly (Bombylius minor) are just two of over 5,000 invertebrates to be found on Dorset Heaths.
The smallest butterfly, the silver-studded blue (Plebeius argus) and the largest moth to be found in the UK, the Emperor Hawk Moth (Saturnia pavonia), can be found on Dorset Heaths. They are two of 55 species of moth and butterfly caterpillar that has heather as its food plant.
Dorset ponds are also home to our largest native spider, the raft spider (Dolomedes fimbriatus). Raft spiders will eat small fish and tadpoles as well as insects as large as damselflies.
Invertebrates are at the bottom of the food chain and support some of the UK's most endangered species. Dartford warblers (Slyvia undata) are insectivores and rely on heather and gorse to provide habitat for them and their food.
If you would like to find out more about the heath and its wildlife please contact us.
The word "heath" is derived from heather and the people who lived on the heath were the original "heathens". All wild plants and flowers found on the heath are protected.
There are different types of heather found in Dorset: Ling or Common Heather (Calluna vulgaris), Bell heather (Erica cinerea), Cross-leaved Heath (Erica tetralix), and Dorset Heath (Erica ciliaris). There is also a hybrid Erica watsonii. Ling and Bell heather prefer dry heath whereas Cross-leaved Heath and Dorset Heath are more often found in wetter areas.
The slow growing nature of heather allows it to grow in acidic, nutrient poor conditions. In the past it has been used for fuel and as bedding for people and animals. It is the food plant for the caterpillars of over 55 moths and butterflies making it a larder for insect-eating birds like the Dartford warbler.
Other heathland plants get their nutrition from trapping insects. There are two types of sundew on the heaths of Dorset; the Round-leaved Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia) and the Oval-leaved Sundew (Drosera anglica). The Pale Butterwort (Pinguicula lusitanica) is another insectivorous heathland plant. These plants attract flies, midges and even dragonflies onto their sticky leaves by imitating water droplets. The insect is then absorbed by the plant.
Other beautiful, rare and endangered plants such as the marsh gentian, orchids, lungworts, mosses and lichens can also be found on the heaths of Dorset.
Dorset Heaths are home to all six native reptiles: Smooth snake, Grass snake, Adder, Sand Lizard, Common Lizard and Slow worm.
Heaths are excellent for all reptiles because they have warm south-facing banks for basking in the sun, plenty of insects and spiders to eat (and other lizards for smooth snakes) and places to hibernate. Adders, grass snakes, slow-worms and common lizards can sometimes be found away from heaths in places such as on rough grassland alongside paths, forestry plantations, gardens and allotments but smooth snakes and sand lizards are only found on the heath.
An ideal reptile habitat has areas of mature heath for reptiles' food and shelter, bare sandy areas for sand lizards to lay eggs, water for grass snakes, slopes for basking, and holes, rock piles, hedgerows and half-buried log piles for hibernation and protection from predators.
Reptiles spend the winter hibernating, often in large numbers. By October most will have gone underground, re-emerging in March or April basking in the spring sunshine.
Sand lizards and smooth snakes are endangered heathland specialists and are protected by law. For more information contact Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust for training events and volunteering opportunities.
Adders have a zig-zag or diamond pattern along their backs and are commonly black and white (males) or brown and orange (females and juveniles). The adder is the only venomous snakes in the UK. Dogs are commonly bitten by snakes. Although bites are painful, they are rarely fatal. For more information and for other Doggy First Aid, visit Dorset Dogs.
The changing seasons on the heathland
The seasonal changes to the heathland bring with it new birds, plants and animals. Changes in climate can also be seen on the heath such as the influx of Painted Lady butterflies or more frequent visits from such birds as the Hoopoe.
Some species of heathland birds, such as the woodlark, will begin nesting on or near the ground from the end of February. Stonechats alarm call is like two stones being tapped together. The song of the Dartford warbler is like cutting polystyrene with a cheese-wire. These small rare birds often share the singing perch at the top of a gorse bush. Green hairstreak butterflies, and day-flying emperor moths are a sign that Spring is here, along with adders basking in the sunshine along heathland paths.
Summer is the time for heathland plants to flourish into fields of pinks and purple. Red leaved sundews, native insectivorous plants, can be seen in wet boggy areas, absorbing nutrients from midges and mosquitoes. On summer evenings, hobbies are busy catching some of the 38 species of dragonflies found on heaths. Whilst nightjars are churring and scooping up moths.
By autumn migrant visitors such as hobbies and nightjars will have returned to sub-Saharan Africa but hen harriers will be passing through from their summer locations on the northern moors. There will be fewer reptiles around as they begin to hibernate, along with many other animals such as bats.
Winter is time for land management. Leggy gorse is chopped down and encroaching birch and pines are burnt on controlled fires until the end of March. Urban Heaths Partnership wardens work together with many volunteers and partnership organisations to prevent the heath returning to woodland. All ready to start again in the spring.
If you would like more information about Dorset heaths or its plants, contact the Urban Heaths Partnership.