Dorset Heath & Studland Dunes IPA

Location: Isle of Purbeck in Dorset, either side of the A351 between Wareham and Swanage.

Grid Reference: SY 950 853

DorsetHeathFlickr.jpg

The stronghold of a rare heather known as Dorset heath, the expansive and undulating landscapes of the Dorset heathlands turn shades of pink and purple in summer. With an incredible mosaic of habitats and fringed by the largest acidic dune system in southern England, this IPA is home to some very special plants and wildlife.

Dorset’s vast heaths were once an integral part of the farming landscape, used for grazing livestock, collecting gorse for fuel and bracken for bedding, as well as providing gravel, sand and clay. These activities created nooks and crannies in the land that provided homes to a remarkable range of plants and animals, many specially adapted to the harsh conditions. Today, just 15% of this heathland remains - 7,000 hectares in all – but they remain some of the richest heathlands to be found in Britain.

It’s the undulating mosaic of habitats that’s so important here. Slopes and hills are clothed with dry heath and open sand, while valleys bottoms and depressions fill with bogs, mires and pools. All of these are crossed with ancient trackways and punctuated by scrub and woodland.

The wet, boggy mire habitats are very special, with different vegetation developing according to how acid they are. More acidic conditions support an abundance of sphagnum bog mosses, the rare bog-sedge, great sundew, marsh clubmoss, tiny bog orchid and the rather astonishing marsh gentian, with large trumpets of the brightest blue. More lime-rich ground water leads to a predominance of black bog-rush, marsh lousewort and heath spotted orchids.

Around the mires are large areas of wet heath where the rare Dorset heath is most abundant, looking like bell heather but with longer, pales spikes of flowers. This grows with heather (ling), cross-leaved heath and bell heather, creating a stunning tapestry of pink, purple and carmine. As the terrain turns drier, yellow-flowered dwarf gorse and common gorse become abundant.

Small copses of woodland have developed on the heath and the pollen record has shown one of these, Morden Bog woodland, to be of very ancient origin. Dominated by downy birch and carpeted with greater tussock sedge and purple moor-grass, the wood is home to a rich diversity of epiphytic lichens.

Where the heathlands reach the sea at Studland Bay some remarkable dunes are formed from the acidic sand. This dune-heath is carpeted by an amazing abundance of lichens, especially species of Cladonia ‘Reindeer’ lichens with their soft grey mounds. Nearer the sea sheep’s-bit scabious, cat’s-ear and sea stock can be found, while the wetter dune slacks are home to marsh helleborine, early marsh orchid and some of the richest populations of dragonflies and damselflies in Britain. More permanent pools of water support a remarkable vegetation of shoreweed, spring quillwort and insectivorous bladderwort.


Image: Studland © Chris Sampson under CC BY 2.0

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