About the Dorset Heaths
Dorset's heaths are part of the Dorset Heathlands Special Protection Area (SPA), the Dorset Heaths Special Area of Conservation (SAC) with some parts forming the Dorset Heaths RAMSAR site.
These European designations recognise that Dorset Heath wildlife is important internationally and Dorset Heaths are some of the country's best wildlife sites. The wildlife and geology classifications offer the highest level of protection. SPAs and SACs are collectively known as Natura 2000 (N2000) sites which form a European wide network of nature conservation sites.
In the late 18th century Dorset heathlands stretched over 50,000 hectares from the River Avon in the east to Dorchester, in the north from Alderholt to the top half of the Isle of Purbeck. Broken only by river valleys this was Thomas Hardy's "Egdon Heath".
In recent times this characteristic landscape was reduced to about 8000 hectares and fragmented into over 100 sites. Heaths were lost to agriculture, forestation, urban development, road building and neglect. Similar losses took place in Europe. The rare habitats and wildlife found on Dorset Heaths are of European importance. Dorset heaths are important internationally even with the reduced size and number of sites.
The Dorset heaths are next to and within an urban area. Bournemouth and Poole form the second largest urban area in South West England. The Heaths can suffer being in proximity to 450,000 people. Problems arise from the heaths direct use and sometimes abuse by people and their pets. There can be a lack of understanding of the importance of the heaths, their wildlife and their need for active management.
Research shows intensity of urban pressures increases with proximity and density of residential development. Research by Natural England, The Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions amongst others, is referred to in Annex 1 of the Dorset Interim Planning Framework: Natural England's Advice Note, summarised by Natural England - Dorset Heathlands (opens in a new window) s.
There was an increase in heathland area in Dorset since 1995. This is the direct result of a number of heathland restoration and management programmes including
- RSPB Dorset Heathland Project; Hardy's Egdon Heath, led by English Nature, part of the Tomorrow's Heathland Heritage programme;
- Forestry Commission's Forest and Heathland Programme.
Today there are about 8500ha of heathland in Dorset.
The majority of Dorset Heaths are designated 'Site of Special Scientific Interest'(SSSI) and above such as 'Special Protection Area(SPA). These nature conservation protection classifications are to protect these important places and as to invest for future generations, they require active management. Protecting and managing these sites are a shared responsibility with landowners, managers, Natural England and site users.
Heathland conservation is a constant balancing act for owners and land-managers between people and wildlife.
Contrary to popular belief heathland is not a 'natural' habitat but an ancient "made" landscape created and maintained by people for over 4,000 years.
The Urban Heaths Partnership covers the majority of South East Dorset. Geographically the project area extends from the Purbecks in the west to Christchurch in the east and up to Verwood in the north. Within this vast area 56 heathland Sites of Specific Scientific Interest (SSSI) have been identified as most at risk from local urban pressures.
Wildlife - plants and animals
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.