The Dorset Wildlife Trust Purbeck Reserves

During a period from 2007 to 2009 a Dorset Wildlife Trust member, John Wright, wrote series of articles for the Trust magazine based on in depth species surveys he had carried out at several nature reserves in the Purbeck area over a long period of time. Although some time ago, and things change, much of what John wrote will still apply today and is worthy of being replicated here.

Sadly, John passed away in 2014 and is greatly missed but John, and the Dorset Wildlife Trust, had given me permission for me to include this series of articles on the Nature of Dorset website. This is published in a book-like format; you can turn the pages by using the links below.


Coombe Heath Nature Reserve

Article for the DWT Magazine Summer 2007 (John Wright)

Dorset Wildlife Trust reserve at Coombe Heath consists of 41 hectares of heathland, acid grassland, scrub and woodland leased from the Weld Estate. I first started recording on the reserve in 1993, when it was recovering from a major fire in 1991. Over the years the Trust has managed the bracken and birch, cut gorse and heather to create a mixed age-structure and, more recently, used ponies to control the purple moor grass.

In January and February heathland vegetation appears slow to respond to increasing day length, and few flowers are in bloom except for gorse. However, wood lark song has become a welcome feature in the last year or two, resident heathland birds including Dartford warblers show themselves and woodland species such as tits, woodpeckers, nuthatch and tree creeper make their presence known.

By March/April the heath is alive with birdsong including stonechatgoldfinchlinnet and yellowhammer and from nearby scrub, summer visitors including chiffchaffblackcap and willow warbler announce their arrival. Reptiles are also becoming more active and common lizardsslow worms and adders may be encountered and, occasionally, grass snakes and even smooth snakes.

As spring progresses, tormentil, lousewort and heath milkwort brighten the heath to be followed on the acid grassland by heath dog violet, and a variety of spotted and marsh orchids. Within the wood resident birds are breeding, a notable record for last year being a pair of marsh tits seen taking food to their nest in a crack within a willow tree.

Coombe Heath supports a wide range of butterflies and well over 30 species have been recorded since the early 1990s. Sadly, some species appear to have declined or been lost, including a small population of small pearl-bordered fritillaries which flew in late May and June but have now declined over much of England. However, in July silver studded blue butterflies and grayling still emerge on the heathland whilst ringlets, gatekeepers, meadow browns, marbled whites and silver-washed fritillaries can be seen from the grassland tracks.

July onwards is also the time to enjoy some characteristic flowers of the wet heath including spectacular yellow splashes of bog asphodel, the diminutive pale butterwort and the delicate spikes of lesser bladderwort. The bladderwort occurs in bog pools and acquires nutrients by capturing small freshwater invertebrates in spring-loaded underwater bladders, as keeled skimmer dragonflies catch their prey overhead.

In August 2005 I enjoyed the sight of a juvenile cuckoo feasting on hairy caterpillars on the heath, before embarking on its southward journey more than a month after the adults had left. In September look for local and migrating hobbies, their presence heralded by alarmed swallows, a time when other migrants including house martin, whitethroat and spotted flycatcher also pass through the reserve.

Finally, small numbers of marsh gentians bloom in September before the stonechats, linnets and yellowhammers disappear and winter closes in. Now redwing arrive, lesser redpoll, the occasional crossbill and snipe are seen but in general, the ever present buzzard patrols over a sleeping heath.

Note: Since John wrote this article in 2007 Coombe Heath has ceased to be managed by the Dorset Wildlife Trust; I believe it is now looked after by the rangers on the Lulworth Estate and is still well worth a visit.


East Stoke Fen Nature Reserve

Article for the DWT Magazine Spring 2008 (John Wright)

East Stoke Fen comprises 5.25 hectares of reed fen, sallow carr and deciduous woodland to the south of the River Frome between Wool and East Stoke. Reed fen is an uncommon habitat in Dorset and the peat underlying this one holds an impressive 10,000-year pollen sequence.

I visited the reserve each month in 2005/06 to find out more about the plant and animal life in this little known DWT reserve.

Early in the year, some parts can be heavily waterlogged but a small badger sett within the wood is usually active and sika deer tracks are frequent because they use the fen as a refuge. Although the variety of woodland birds is limited, tree creepers are common, teal sometimes rise from the ditches and water rail and reed bunting call from the fen.

As spring arrives, the oak and hazel woodland becomes carpeted with greater stitchwort and bluebells while moschatel, wood anemones and wood spurge occur in the SW corner of the reserve. More surprising, an alien plant, the Asian Skunk Cabbage, with large green leaves, a white spathe and green spadix occurs in the stream which enters the fen from the south. Attempts are now being made to remove it.

Newly arrived sand martins and swallows catch insects overhead, chiffchaffs and blackcaps join the resident woodland birds and the urgent song of the sedge warbler contrasts with the leisurely-paced song of the reed bunting as cuckoo and cetti’s warbler add variety.

By high summer the greater tussock sedge has flowered, the common reed is still growing tall but the willows around the perimeter of the fen look stressed with brown shrivelled leaves. Now the pig-like squeals of water rails become more frequent, family parties of nuthatches hatched elsewhere invade the oak woodland in search of food and overhead a hobby hunts for swallows and martins. A few banded demoiselle damselflies arrive from the adjacent River Frome and summer butterflies settle on the flowers of hemp agrimony and purple loosestrife but the wooded bank and ditch to the north of the fen are also colonised by stinging nettles in summer, making access uncomfortable.

By autumn the occasional kingfisher patrols this ditch and the north side of the fen attracts sika deer, including stags which roll around in wet hollows and leave antler and hoof marks in the mud. Autumn also heralds the arrival of redwing and fieldfare, together with siskins and more goldfinches.

As winter sets in, rising water levels make access difficult again, but each year my visits have been rewarded. In December 2005 two or three bearded tits appeared in the fen, possibly moving up-river from reed beds in Poole Harbour. A year later I was watching a mixed flock of tits, nuthatches and a tree creeper moving through the canopy when I also noticed a lesser spotted woodpecker, high in the same oak tree. Mixed flocks of birds are always worth a second look, but on reflection, this applies to most aspects of the natural world.

Higher Hyde Heath Nature Reserve

Article for DWT Magazine Summer 2008 (John Wright)

Hyde Heath includes internationally important dry and wet lowland heath, wet woodland and a varied selection of ponds and old gravel workings totalling 54 hectares. This popular reserve has something for everyone and recent sightings of birds, reptiles and insects are logged on a blackboard within a comfortable hide overlooking the largest pond. Over the years the reserve has been used for educational projects and Tony Conway of Dorset Bird Club has undertaken breeding bird surveys.

In January 2007 I started twice-monthly visits to the reserve to observe the plants and animals through the changing seasons. Even in January and February there is plenty to see. The overwintering coots on the big pond are joined by little grebes and moorhens in February whilst nearby, bullfinches can be found feeding on willow buds and in buddleia bushes. Within the wood, four species of tits, goldcrest, tree creeper, redpoll, siskin, great spotted woodpecker and redwing can be seen or heard, mistle thrush is in full song and chaffinches practise their song. The adjacent heath may seem uninviting at first but the sudden appearance of a dartford warbler on flowering gorse, the cascading flute-like song of a woodlark on a sunny day, a snipe flushed from wet heath or finding sika hinds with last years calves make the effort worthwhile.

By March stonechats and yellowhammers have returned to the heath, grey wagtails appear by the pond, reptiles become more active and chiffchaffs announce their arrival from almost every willow. But April heralds the arrival of many more summer migrants including sand martins and swallows over the big pond, blackcaps in the wood and willow warblers, tree pipit and cuckoo over the heath. All six British reptiles can be seen at Higher Hyde and the bright green breeding colours of male sand lizards are particularly spectacular at this time of year. Insects also start to feature with brimstone and speckled wood butterflies, large red damselflies and the bee fly which plunges its long proboscis into primroses. In addition, tormentil, heath milkwort and lousewort add delicate splashes of colour to the heath.

In May, garden warblers sing from thick cover and you just might see a hobby scything through the air as it searches for dragonflies by day and moths in the evening. The numerous ponds are now yielding several species of dragonflies including downy emerald, emperor dragonfly and broad bodied chasers. This is also the month when the pale dog violet, a speciality of this reserve, may be encountered.

As June ushers in the longest days, the heathland displays bell heather, cross-leaved heath, cotton-grass and bog asphodel and, with luck, the parasitic dodder and insectivorous pale butterwort. Family parties of twittering linnets and noisy stonechats catch the eye, silver-studded blue butterflies start to emerge and the impressive golden-ringed dragonfly appears. This is also the time when sika hinds appear with their new offspring.

The many buddleia bushes on the reserve, although not native, provide a perfect location for observing some of the many butterflies found in July. Apart from peacocks, red admirals and painted ladies, they also attracted a dark green fritillary whilst other locations yielded silver-washed fritillariesholly blues, marbled whites, small copper and grayling butterflies. The variety of damsel and dragonflies also peak in July with azure, common blue, blue-tailed and emerald damselflies on show by the ponds together with keeled skimmers on wet heathland and ruddy and common darters widely distributed over the reserve.

With the heathland now showing off dwarf furze and the heathers, sika hinds and their calves become more numerous and summer slips into August. Southern and migrant hawker dragonflies appear but within the woodland, mixed flocks of tits, tree creepers and nuthatch plus returning migrants such as spotted flycatchers and even a pied flycatcher suggest the end of summer.

Through September the southward parade of summer migrants quickens, the variety of butterflies and dragonflies decreases and by October only speckled woods and common darters remain. As linnets retreat from the heathland, a woodlark returns to sing, redpoll reappear in the woods and an impressive sika stag struts the woodland edge, producing a curious high-pitched rutting call somewhat reminiscent of a creaking door. Groups of ten or more sika hinds are seen nearby, dartford warblers prepare for the winter and the last chiffchaffs are heard.

And finally, as winter sets in, woodcock are flushed in the damp woodlands, ravens fly overhead and small groups of bullfinches search for food near the partially frozen pond.

Kilwood Nature Reserve

Article for the DWT Magazine Spring 2007 (John Wright).

The new Dorset Wildlife Trust reserve at Kilwood was purchased in 2004 through the generosity of many members of the Trust. It includes mixed deciduous woodland with some veteran oaks, a meadow and several small ponds resulting from former clay workings. With the acquisition of a new reserve comes the challenge of getting to know the flora and fauna so that appropriate management can be carried out. Recording on a regular basis can also be fun because there is something new to be discovered on each visit.

I decided to visit Kilwood at least twice a month in 2005 and this article highlights some of the findings. In summary, 64 species of birds, 22 butterflies, 15 dragonflies, 4 reptiles and 11 mammals were seen. In addition, 224 plants were found, mainly thanks to further recording by Ted Pratt. Clearly this small reserve supports a wide range of species, but to put these records into context we need to take a journey through the calendar year.

My first visits in January confirmed the presence of an active fox den and badger sett and before the end of February, primroses, dog’s mercury and opposite-leaved golden saxifrage were all in bloom. Around this time small numbers of teal were using the largest pond and woodcock were flushed from nearby scrub and woodland areas.

In early March DWT staff and volunteers cleared birch and gorse from the southern side of this pond, opening it up and making it an attractive location for dragonflies later in the year. Later that month the calling, drumming and sight of a lesser spotted woodpecker in the crown of a mature oak provided a notable record of this scarce species. Other woodland residents including long-tailed, marsh, coal, blue and great tit together with nuthatch and tree creeper confirmed that Kilwood was very special.

By late April the woodland flora was at its best and two parties of DWT members enjoyed the sight of bluebells, ramsons, wood anemones, moschatel, wood oxalis and some early purple orchids. As temperatures rose in spring and early summer the variety of flowering plants, butterflies, damselflies and dragonflies increased and in late May a downy emerald dragonfly was seen at the largest pond.

The meadow became dotted with hundreds of spikes of heath spotted orchids together with ragged robin and meadow thistle, although many of the orchids soon disappeared, probably eaten by a roe deer seen in June. Pieces of corrugated iron placed at suitable locations yielded slow worms, grass snakes and adders, or sometimes small mammals including voles, mice and shrews.

In July, the variety of butterflies reached a peak with numerous ringlets, gatekeepers, meadow browns and marbled whites along the tracks and in the meadow, whilst silver-washed fritillaries patrolled the open rides. The main pond was also attracting a greater variety of damsel and dragonflies than expected, but all the heavily shaded ponds were unoccupied.

By August nettle-leaved bellflower bordered the entrance to the reserve, the meadow was coloured with betony and devilsbit scabious and summer migrants were starting to return in increasing numbers. Redstarts appeared on the barbed-wire fences, family parties of spotted flycatchers caught insects by the pond and willow warblers, whitethroats, swallows and house martins fed as they journeyed south.

Despite decreasing water levels at the largest pond, a ruddy darter appeared at the end of the month, to be followed by several migrant hawker dragonflies at sheltered locations within the reserve in September.

As autumn gathered pace in October and skylarks, meadow pipits, pied wagtails, siskins and lesser redpoll passed through the reserve, local predators including a sparrowhawk and even a peregrine falcon were seen overhead. Within the oakwood, the sika deer rutt was getting underway with evidence of stags stamping and rolling in wet wallows and scoring fine-barked trees with their antlers.

In November and December it was clear that the badgers were preparing for winter and the appearance of a single woodcock in the woods and a teal on the pond heralded the completion of the seasonal cycle.

Stonehill Down Nature Reserve

Article for the DWT Magazine Winter 2006 (John Wright)

The Dorset Wildlife Trust reserve at Stonehill Down includes chalk grassland, scrub and semi-natural ash, hazel and oak woodland on the Purbeck Ridge. The rich chalk flora and associated butterflies provide the major interest, but the site also boasts superb views over Poole Harbour and Purbeck. Current management focuses on scrub control to prevent loss of grassland and removal of selected sycamore trees within the wood to create structural diversity.

I started visiting the reserve in January 2005 but each walk still produces surprises and new records. This article focuses on highlights through the seasons but already 66 species of birds, 28 butterflies and a large number of flowering plants have been recorded.

January and February can be bleak on the downs but in the woodland, creamy-white spikes of toothwort, a parasitic plant, start to appear on hazel and field maple stumps as early as February. Resident woodland birds including nuthatch, blue tit, great tit and the increasingly scarce marsh tit are also much in evidence.

Late April and May is the time to enjoy the spectacular carpets of ramsons in the ashwood and to look for early purple orchids on the downs and in the wood. Linnets and yellowhammers are now commonly seen on the downs and migrant chiffchaff and blackcaps have settled in the woods.

As spring turns to summer and buzzards, plus the occasional sparrowhawk and hobby appear overhead, the downland plants and butterflies demand our attention. Bee orchids, common spotted and pyramidal orchids number several hundreds in total whilst birds-foot trefoil, horseshoe vetch and common rockrose attract the attention of first generation common blue, adonis blue and brown argus butterflies.

High summer brings marbled whites, meadow browns and gatekeepers in profusion but also a few silver-washed fritillaries and migrant clouded yellows. The downland turf continues to yield a wide variety of fascinating plants too numerous to mention but culminates in good displays of autumn felwort and autumn ladies tresses.

August and September signal migration for many summer migrants and as swallows and house martins wheel overhead, a careful search of the downland, quarries and woodland edge can yield wheatears, yellow wagtails, willow warblers, redstarts, whitethroats, spotted flycatchers and even a pied flycatcher. By now much of the ash woodland looks bare as the ground flora has died back, but high above in the canopy small resident woodland birds patrol for insects and form into mixed flocks for the coming months.

By autumn butterfly numbers are dwindling and most downland plants have finished flowering but many other birds are passing over or settling in for the winter including wood pigeon, skylark, meadow pipit, pied wagtail, redwing and siskin.

Within the wood resident tawny owls call, occasionally woodcock are found in damp areas, badgers prepare for winter and no doubt the resident foxes are aware that the supply of downland rabbits is declining.

Next spring or summer, why not have a walk over Stonehill Down? You will soon discover that there is much more to enjoy than superb views!

Tadnoll and Winfrith Heath Nature Reserves

Article for the DWT Magazine Winter 2007 (John Wright)

The Dorset Wildlife Trust reserve at Tadnoll and Winfrith forms an impressive tract of land, divided by the Tadnoll Brook, a chalkstream tributary of the River Frome. Winfrith Heath, to the east of the Tadnoll Brook, is 103 hectares in area and is an internationally important heathland.

I started regular monthly visits in January 2006 so I still have much to learn and discover, but this is what makes our reserves so fascinating! From Whitcombe Hill there are wonderful views to the south across dry, humid and wet heath while track and roadside verges provide further habitats with rich communities of plants and animals.

Alongside the Tadnoll Brook, flood meadows and associated ditches are grazed by cattle which help to maintain biodiversity on the reserve. A visit in January or February when a south-westerly wind cuts across the open heath can make it feel uninviting, but in calmer conditions dartford warblers make their presence known, snipe burst from the damp meadows and the regular appearance of ravens overhead suggests a local nesting site. Sightings of roe and sika deer, evidence of badger activity and the telltale signs of water vole holes and droppings in the banks of the Tadnoll provide further interest.

March heralds the return of stonechats and yellowhammers to the heath, soon to be followed in April by skylarks, goldfinches and linnets together with summer migrants including chiffchaffs, willow warblers and common whitethroats. Although some common woodland birds are also breeding in the hedgerows and copses, many of the woodland specialists such as woodpeckers, nuthatches and tree creepers are absent in spring. The variety of flowers is still quite limited although lady’s smock brightens the meadows and by the Tadnoll the head of a pike with associated scales and muscle suggested the recent presence of an otter.

By May, hay rattle is flowering on roadside verges, petty whin and cotton grass on the heath, ragged robin in the meadow, yellow flag by the Tadnoll and masses of water crowfoot is impeding the flow of the stream itself. In 2006 I was surprised to see a pair of mandarin ducks take flight from the stream just a few yards in front of me. The heath is now alive with bird activity, dartford warblers can be heard at numerous locations and cuckoos add to the atmosphere, but butterflies remain quite scarce.

As summer progresses through June and July, the reserve shows off a wide range of flowers with marsh orchids, spotted orchids and meadow thistles in damp areas, heathers, dodder, sundews, pale butterwort and bog asphodel on the heath and great burnet, common and lesser centaury by some tracks. A walk alongside the Tadnoll offers further splashes of colour from purple loosestrife, meadowsweet, marsh woundwort, water forget-me-not, yellow loosestrife and water figwort, plus several large grasses with varied growth forms. Banded agrion damselflies rise in numbers as you follow the stream, golden-ringed dragonflies move purposefully along the stream and nearby ditches searching for their prey and keeled skimmers patrol their sphagnum pools. This year a hobby put in an appearance over the meadows, a tree pipit set up territory on the heath and a nightjar revealed its presence with some brief ‘churring’ at 10 o’clock in the morning!

In July, over 20 of the 26 species of butterflies I have recorded so far can be seen, with various whites and browns in abundance but the silver-studded blues steal the show.

By August, late flowers include devilsbit scabious and also marsh gentians which, although spectacular in colour and quite frequent in some areas, are easily missed. At the same time the southerly movement of summer migrants gathers pace with chiffchaffs and willow warblers offering half-hearted snatches of song followed by the special sight of yellow wagtails catching flies amongst the cattle and spotted flycatchers and redstarts feeding from fence posts and bushes.

As August turns to September the occasional whinchat and wheatear pass through and southern and migrant hawkers plus common darters continue to predate more flying insects. In 2006 two 8-point sika stags were seen on the reserve just prior to the rut and by October one was still present. Single wood larks flew over the reserve at several locations in late autumn but the most unexpected sight was a short-eared owl flying from a secluded heathland hollow in October.

From October to December, reed buntings were seen more regularly near the Tadnoll, linnets and yellowhammers eventually left the heath, and the resident buzzards and kestrel settled in for the winter.