–AREAS OF OUTSTANDING NATURAL BEAUTY–
In the final instalment of our AONB series, Marc Grainger visits the UK’s fifth-largest example, where the rolling chalk landscape combines with wildlife-rich lowland heath, and dozens of relics of prehistoric human settlement are just a stone’s throw away from one of the world’s most geologically important coastlines
hat sounded like gunfire.’ I’m standing on the tranquil South Dorset Ridgeway looking south across the 29-kilometre-long gravel bank of Chesil Beach – part of the Jurassic Coast World Heritage area – and the English Channel on a sunny autumn day, chatting with two members of the Dorset Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) team. We’ve just been rudely interrupted by the distant boom of artillery on an unseen naval vessel practicing out at sea.
There has long been a military presence in this part of the world. At Lulworth, there’s a Ministry of Defence base and firing range. Chesil Beach was used as practice for the Normandy landings during the Second World War. And just outside the AONB, the Isle of Portland was, until recently, the site of a Royal Navy base. Unsurprisingly, then, it isn’t the only time I hear shots during my visit.
Viewed on a map, Dorset AONB looks rather like a crocodile’s head: beginning at Lyme Regis in the west, the lower ‘jaw’ extends east along the coast to Poole Harbour, while the upper ‘jaw’ penetrates inland, stopping just short of Blandford Forum. It’s the UK’s fifthlargest AONB, covering 1,129 square kilometres (42 per cent of the county), with a population of about 70,000 in and around historical towns such as Bridport and Swanage, and many more on its outskirts in Dorchester, Weymouth and Poole. And unlike in some smaller AONBs, whose designation is based on a single distinctive feature,
it’s difficult to pin down a defining characteristic of Dorset – the sheer variety of its landscape makes it special.
‘The larger area is chalk, which is characterised by high, round-topped hills with a steep escarpment side that is often highquality chalk grassland habitat,’ says Tom Munro, the AONB manager. ‘The second-largest is heath, which has enormous biodiversity importance. Clay vales, river valleys and limestone areas make up the rest of it.’
HEALTHY HEATHS The Isle of Purbeck – not actually an island but a peninsula in the east of the AONB – has extensive areas of lowland heath. Here, this internationally rare habitat – the UK has about a fifth of the world’s total – is home to rare birds such as the Dartford warbler and nightjar, as well as all six species of British reptile.
The climate here in the far south of Britain is a key factor in this diversity. ‘[The heaths] are mild and can get quite hot, and they’re wetter than the Thames Valley heaths, which is the other big area of lowland heath,’ says Munro. ‘This wetness is why you get Dorset heath, which is a specific type of heather. Their expanse and intactness is why you get such a good variety of specialist butterflies and reptiles in the area.’
One such area is the 500-hectare Arne Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) reserve, a small peninsula jutting out into Poole Harbour. As we walk through the reserve’s heathland, visitor manager Mark Singleton explains some of the unusual steps that conservationists are taking to encourage osprey to breed here. Not only have artificial nests been installed in the solitary trees that grow among the heather, but one nest has been populated with a pair of fake ospreys in order to give real ones the impression that others are already breeding there.
16 www.geographical.co.uk JANUARY 2011
ABOVE: the natural arch of Durdle Door was formed when the sea eroded and breached weaker rock behind the more resistant oolitic limestone; BELOW, LEFT TO RIGHT: the sandstone cliﬀs at Burton Bradstock are prone to landslips, making them a rich source of ammonite fossils; a sika doe grooms her fawn in the RSPB reserve at Arne; the 11th-century ruins of Corfe Castle in the Purbeck Hills. During the Civil War, it was besieged by the Roundheads several times and finally destroyed in 1646; BELOW LEFT: the European nightjar is a resident of Dorset’s lowland heath
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