My favourite part of Dorset doesn’t include the county’s pretty villages, fossil-rich cliffs and delightful beaches. There are stranger, wilder places that draw me, home to sand lizards, nightjars and sika deer. These are the Dorset heathlands, which sweep from the Purbeck Hills to Poole Harbour. It’s one of the few areas in Britain where heather grows at sea level – but it is a habitat under constant threat from developers due to being prime real estate.
The finest of these is Arne RSPB Reserve. This dominates a promontory of Poole Harbour and gives a sense of what the wider landscape would have been like in Thomas Hardy’s time. Tempting paths lead off over the undulating heaths towards the wilder western portion of Poole Harbour.
Autumnwatch will be here this month to film sika deer. These large mammals originally came from east Asia but escaped from deer parks in the 1860s and are now naturalised. They flourish in the old oak woods and heathland here and are particularly visible now, during the rut. Unlike red deer, sika males whistle rather than bellow their challenges as they fight over females.
Other than the deer, the heathland will be fairly quiet, save for the riot of yellow gorse stealing the limelight. The typical species of the area – reptiles such as smooth snakes, sand lizards and adders – will be seeking hideouts for hibernation, while the nocturnal churring nightjar, surely one of Britain’s weirdest birds, will have migrated back to Africa for the winter. Instead, stonechats, looking like robins wearing crash helmets, and Dartford warblers with red-rimmed eyes, watch you from the tops of bushes.
For the best birds, head to the coast, where hundreds of wildfowl and waders will be scouring the mudflats at low tide. The most graceful are the avocets, but there will also be eider ducks, dunlin, swans and possibly even a hunting hen harrier. The star species is the spoonbill, which rushes through the water with a leggy almost human-like gait, using its dessertspoon of a bill to sweep the water for invertebrates.
The other reason to head for the sea is the view. Ignoring Poole directly opposite, look south and you’ll see channels opening up between forested islands. It looks uninhabited, wild and un-English. But hidden within this tempting archipelago is a surprise: oil wells. Several companies operate small-scale oil extraction from this oil-rich area. Happily, the impact on the environment is limited.
When you’re done with the wildlife and oil wells, head inland for refreshments to the Saxon town of Wareham on the River Frome or the more cosmopolitan delights of the Old Town in Poole.
HOW TO GET THERE
Arne RPSB Reserve can be reached by taking the Arne Road from Stoborough, just south of Wareham. The nearest station is in Wareham.
FIND OUT MORE
Park at RSPB car park. Charges per car: £2 for two hours, £4 for more than two hours. Free for RSPB members. Car park is locked at dusk
The Quay, Wareham BH20 4LP
Superior pub food at a lovely riverside location.
Westway Bed and Breakfast
Corfe Castle, Dorset BH20 5HE
01929 480 188
The friendly, quiet B&B in pretty Corfe has great views and is close to Arne.
The walled Saxon town of Wareham has a lovely waterfront alongside the River Frome – it’s navigable to here from Poole Harbour. There are also lots of butchers, bakers and candlestick makers (well, antique shops) to explore.