Conservation: No more gloom in Dorset for smooth snake and ladybird spider

Heathland schemes are rescuing rare species. By Daniel Butler

"You could say our heaths are top of the list for habitat conservation," says Andrew Nicholson, conservation officer for English Nature in Dorset. "Over the past two centuries, Dorset has lost 85 per cent of its heathland. This is particularly important in biodiversity terms, because of the climate."

Lowland heaths are some of Britain's most threatened habitats, being particularly vulnerable to development, agricultural improvements, forestry and quarrying. About half of the area covered by heathland at the turn of the century has now disappeared, and the picture in Dorset is particularly bleak.

Back in 1750, some 40,000 hectares of the county were covered in a mixture of heather and gorse. This was slowly and steadily eaten into by agriculture. (As recently as a century ago, Thomas Hardy could write about the windswept wilderness of Egdon Heath.) The loss of Dorset heathland increased dramatically in the 1930s, however, until by 1987 there were just 5,600 hectares left. As a result, many of Britain's rarest creatures, such as the smooth snake, Dartford warbler and ladybird spider were pushed to the brink of extinction. Yet in the late 1980s a concerted drive began to reverse the decline.

A variety of conservation bodies, including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, English Nature, the Dorset Wildlife Trust, the Herpetological Conservation Trust and Forestry Enterprise, targeted the Dorset Heathland Area. This is centred on Bourne-mouth and Poole Harbour, but stretches some 15 miles up the Avon Valley.

Although each body set its own targets (the RSPB aimed at restoring 560 hectares within 10 years, for example), the bodies co-operated closely on management schemes. Typically, the first step was to root out encroaching scrub since this out-competes the delicate heather on which a heath's wildlife depends.

In Dorset, the scrub consists principally of birch and pine saplings, bracken and rhododendron. Their removal allows heather seed which has lain in the soil for up to 60 years to germinate. And once the ground is blanketed with heather, it is difficult for invaders to re-establish themselves.

Also, because a wide range of heather ages is important to encourage diversity, some of the older growth is cut back in the autumn after the seed has set. New shoots spring up in the harvested area - vital for species such as woodlarks - while the prunings are scattered over abandoned quarries or farmland where the seed germinates. In time these, too, return to their former state.

"Ironically, healthy heathland depends on a very low level of nutrients," says Nigel Symes, RSPB Dorset Heathland project manager. "The heather and gorse can only out-compete other plants if the soil is very poor and so agricultural fertilisers are one of the worst problems we face." Because of the poor soil, fertilisers have been heavily used in the past, but fortunately, even farmland can be returned to heather with careful management. This is done by planting nutrient-hungry crops such as maize, which draw up fertiliser residues and leave the soil sufficiently depleted to give the heather and gorse a chance.

Meanwhile, Forestry Enterprise, one of the area's biggest landowners, has played an important role in co-operating with schemes where cattle are allowed to wander around forest heathland areas, helping to maximise bio-diversity with light grazing.

For anyone used to grim environmental stories about habitats vanishing forever, the results have been impressive. In just seven years the RSPB team has virtually reached its target, with 550 hectares of degraded heath restored to its original state. As a result, the woodlark population is up 30 per cent, nightjars have increased by 25 per cent and the number of Dartford warblers has doubled.

"Instead of the general doom and gloom about Dorset's heath, we've shown that conservation is possible," says Mr Nicholson. "There's a long way to go, but at least we've started to climb the ladder again by showing you can use the heaths in a sustainable way."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Stik on the crane as he completed the mural
art
News
Happy in his hat: Pharrell Williams
people
News
i100(More than you think)
News
Phyllis Dorothy James on stage during a reading of her book 'Death Comes to Pemberley' last year
peopleJohn Walsh pays tribute to PD James, who died today
News
peopleExclusive: Maryum and Hana Ali share their stories of the family man behind the boxing gloves
Arts and Entertainment
John Hurt will voice Prince Bolkonsky in Radio 4's War and Peace
radioRadio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Commercial / Residential Property - Surrey

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: SURREY MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Programme - Online Location Services Business

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: What do you want to do with your career? Do yo...

Recruitment Genius: Senior QC Scientist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company is a leading expert in immunoassa...

Recruitment Genius: Development Scientist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Development Scientist is required to join a ...

Day In a Page

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

Staying connected: The King's School

The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

When two worlds collide

Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?