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.