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 stonechat, goldfinch, linnet and yellowhammer and from nearby scrub, summer visitors including chiffchaff, blackcap and willow warbler announce their arrival. Reptiles are also becoming more active and common lizards, slow 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.