Heathlands are home to a fantastic mixture of wildlife. The poor soils and historic land use have led to a low-growing, shrub dominated habitat. This supports a unique mixture of plants, birds, reptiles and invertebrates, some of which are extremely rare. Here are a few of our favourites:
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.
The Purbeck mason wasp (Pseudepipona herrichii) is a rare species and only found on some heaths, partly because they have a very specialised diet. While the adults feed on the nectar from bell heather (Erica cinerea), the wasp larvae feed exclusively on the larvae of the heath button moth (Acleris hymana). The female digs a burrow and drags the moth larvae inside before laying her egg and sealing off the entrance.
Many dragonfly species can be seen on the heathland and contrary to popular belief, can be found far from water. The golden ringed dragonfly (Cordulegaster boltonii) is one of these. This large and agile dragonfly only needs water to breed and spends the rest of its time perched on branches or hunting other insects. The female is the UK’s longest dragonfly.
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, sandy banks for basking in the sun, plenty of food 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.
Sand lizards and smooth snakes are endangered heathland specialists and all UK reptiles are protected by law.
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.
Credit for main header photo – Heather Radice