Heath

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 05/15/2020 - 07:08

Lowland heath is an interesting habitat and many issues surround it. It is not a natural habitat, it is man-made and yet 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 forever. 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 into 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 heathwhich 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.