[Simon Thurgood Images] [Simon Thurgood Images]

Out and About - Dorset

[Welcome to Dorset]Dorset, is a county in South West England on the English Channel coast and one of my favourite places, especially West Dorset. Between extreme points, Dorset measures 80 kilometres (50 miles) from east to west and 64 km (40 miles) north to south, and has an area of 2,653 square kilometres (1,024 sq miles). Dorset borders Devon to the west, Somerset to the north-west, Wiltshire to the north-east, and Hampshire to the east. Around half of Dorset's population lives in the south east of the county around Poole and Bournmouth. The rest of the county is largely rural with a low population density.

Dorset is famous for the Jurassic Coast, which features landforms such as Lulworth Cove, Portland, Chesil Beach and Durdle Door, as well as the holiday resorts of Bournemouth, Poole, Weymouth, Swanage, and Lyme Regis. Dorset is the principal setting of the novels of Thomas Hardy, who was born near Dorchester. The county has a long history of human settlement and some notable archaeology, especially hill forts and burial chambers. Dorset has a wealth of walking opportunities and having fun with the camera.

Dorset has got to be the best place in the UK to see butterflies; the UK has 59 species of butterflies - 57 resident species of butterflies and two regular migrants - the Painted Lady and Clouded Yellow. You can see 45 species of butterflies in Dorset which has some of the best habitats supporting butterfly populations include chalk downland, hedgerows, woodland edge, the coast and areas of rough or uncultivated ground where suitable wild food-plants occur.

Some of these habitats are in areas which are protected for other reasons; these are ancient historical sites such as Maiden Castle, Badbury Rings and Corfe Castle. The surrounding grassland is protected making it ideal for wildflowers, Butterflies and other insects.

Go to the Dorset Branch of the Butterfly Conservation website which will give you loads of information on sightings and places to see them.

Useful links for this area:

Ancient sites and monuments

Bradbury Rings

[]Badbury Rings sits 327 feet above sea level. There are two main phases of construction; the first covered 18 acres and was defended by multiple ditches, while the second was more than twice the size, covering 41 acres and defended by a single ditch and rampart.

Apart from being an important ancient site, Badbury Rings is also important for wildflowers and insects such as butterflies due to the rich untouched grassland that surrounds this site.

The site today is on the dip slope of Cranborne Chase and is now part of the Kingston Lacy estate, owned by the National Trust since 1982, with free access. On a clear day, the Isle of Wight is visible from the top. There is a good car park and access from the B3082.

Cerne Abbas Giant

[the giant]Cerne Abbas is a located in the valley of the River Cerne, between steep chalk downland where there are some fantastic walks rich in butterflies, some of the rarest around such as the Duke of Burgundy.

The famous Cerne Abbas Giant, or the "Rude Man", is a naked figure carved into the chalk hillside. It is owned by the National Trust and is one of the largest hill figures in Britain. The giant, which is carved in solid lines from the chalk bedrock, measures in at 180 feet high and carries a huge knobbled club, which measures 120 feet in length.

Whatever, or whoever, built the giant, it's worth a visit. Access is from the A352 and there is a viewing point and a second car park. Footpaths go in all directions and because of the sleep hillsides stout walking boots are required.

This is a beautiful valley so please take your litter home. Unfortunately on my last visit some moron left the remains of their picnic on the hillside.

Recommended map:
Ordnance Survey Explorer Map 117

Corfe Castle

[]Corfe Castle is a fortification standing above the village of the same name on the Isle of Purbeck Dorset. Built by William the Conqueror, the castle dates to the 11th century and commands a gap in the Purbeck Hills on the route between Wareham and Swanage. Access is from the A351 from Wareham.

Apart from being and important ancient site busy with tourists, Corfe Castle is also important for wildflowers, butterflies and birds due to its steep banks and untouched grassland that surrounds not only the Castle but car parks and adjoining footpaths to the site.

The Hardy Monument

[]The Hardy Monument is a 72-foot-high monument on the summit of Black Down in Dorset, erected in 1844 by public subscription in memory of Vice Admiral Sir Thomas Hardy, a commander at the Battle of Trafalgar. Admiral Hardy lived in Portesham and his family owned the Portesham estate which stretched from the middle of Portesham to Black Down.

The monument is situated on Black Down, a hill overlooking the English Channel near Portesham in Dorset, England, on the road between Abbotsbury and Martinstown. The heathland area around the monument was in 1984 designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest, because the geology of the area was very rare. Unlike other Historic sites in Dorset which are on Chalk, the Black Down is the western tip of the "Bagshot" gravel beds. The gravel beds extend to the east as far as London. The ground around the monument is pitted with various holes and craters. Many of these are "dolines" or "swallow holes". These are formed when rain falls on the highly acidic topsoil. The water increases in acidity as it percolates through the topsoil then dissolves the underlying chalk. Eventually there is nothing but topsoil above the caverns so formed and the familiar shape of a “doline” is created when the topsoil collapses into the cavern beneath. Dolines are usually shaped like a teardrop cut in half vertically and laid down horizontally. Within 1,000m of the monument there are three dolines which were formed by the chalk being dissolved in a vertical fissure in its structure. These dolines are vertically sided and are shaped like wells. The two which opened up in 1956 are some 100 m deep. The one which opened in 2006 is not quite vertical and its depth is unknown.

For me it's always a great place to visit, not only for the views over Weymouth and Portland but also the odd blown in migrants, not only birds but Butterflies as well. It's a great walk also the surrounding woods that was bought from the Forestry Commission in 2010, the 290 acre woodland will be managed by Dorset County Council, who will allow public access to this lovely area and protect their natural beauty and richness of wildlife in this spectacular Dorset landscape.

Maiden Castle

[One of the public notice boards]Maiden Castle is close to Dorchester and is the largest and most complex Iron Age hill fort in Britain. Apart from being a seriously important ancient monument, Maiden Castle has lots of butterflies, flowers and other wildlife such as corn bunting which can be found in the car park.

The castle was first laid out in 600BC over the remains of a Neolithic settlement. During the following centuries the hill fort was extended and additional defences thrown up around it. The vast multiple ramparts enclose an area the size of 50 football pitches, and the site was home to several hundred people in the Iron Age (800BC-43AD). Excavations here have revealed that occupation of this hilltop began over 6,000 years ago, in the Neolithic period. In 43AD it was taken by the Roman army and its inhabitants moved to the new town of Durnovaria, modern Dorchester.

Access to the site is by a short but steep trail to the right of the car park which is free, which leads you through the original Iron Age entrance to the hill fort. Another trail takes you across the hill fort defences and involves some steps. The top of the hill fort is grass but surfaces can be irregular, with some low vegetation. If you go around the edge please exert extreme caution especially if the wind is blowing as I nearly got pushed off.

You do have to go into Dorchester to get to it and it's not signposted very well. However, it's well worth a visit to this amazing site. It's accessed from "Maiden Castle Rd" off the B3147 which runs south out of Dorchester.

Recommended map:
Ordnance Survey Explorer Map OL15 or Outdoor Leisure 15

Pilsdon Pen

[Pilsdon pen sign]Pilsdon Pen is a 909 ft hill in West Dorset. The hill is topped by an Iron Age multivallate Durotrigian hill fort. Look out for wild flowers and butterflies on the steep Slopes as well as raptors such as buzzards gliding by, you can eye-ball them when you are on the top!

The hill is one of the highest in Dorset and has views as far as Lyme Bay eight miles to the south. On a clear day you have fantastic views through 360 degrees and it is well worth the steep climb. Sadly this is a walk for able-bodied, as I have already said it is steep and I would think almost impossible to take a wheelchair or child's buggy to the top.

There is a car park on the other side of the road (the B3164) to the entrance, which can be dangerous as cars speed around the corner as there is no warning that people might be crossing so take care.

Recommended map:
Ordnance Survey Explorer Map 116

Abbotsbury Swannery

[Mute Swans at the Swannery]Abbotsbury Swannery is the only managed colony of nesting Mute Swans in the world. It is situated near the village of Abbotsbury in Dorset, England, 14 kilometres (9 miles) west of Weymouth on a 1-hectare (2-acre) site around the Fleet lagoon protected from the weather by Chesil Beach. The colony can number over 600 swans with around 150 pairs. Written records of the swannery's existence go back to 1393 but it probably existed well before that. The Benedictine monastery of St Peters was established on the site in the 11th Century at the bequest of King Canute and the monks managed the swans as a ready source of meat.

The swannery was used by the monks until 1539 when the monastery was dissolved by King Henry VIII. It was then purchased by the Strangways family and has remained in their ownership through fifteen generations up to the present day: an estate of some 61 square kilometres (15,000 acres) in Dorset covering Chesil Beach and Abbotsbury is still held by the Ilchester Estate owned by Mrs Charlotte Townshend, the daughter of Viscount Galway, a descendant of the first Countess of Ilchester.

Abbotsbury Swannery is today a tourist attraction and the swans have become accustomed to the presence of visitors and allow close but respectful approach even in the nesting season when cygnets are on the nest. Apart from the swans, the Fleet and Chesil Beach attracts many species of waterfowl and over 300 different varieties have been recorded. Nesting Mute Swans are usually intensely territorial, so it is unusual to see this many pairs in proximity to each other. However, the closeness of the nests can sometimes lead to problems as newly hatched cygnets can become attached to the wrong parent bird; to overcome this rearing pens are used for a few selected families who need more privacy. Visitors are sometimes allowed to hold the cygnets under supervision from the swanherds. The daily feeding sessions take place at noon and 4pm and are interesting to witness as a large mass of the birds gather round, children are invited to help with the feeding. This is a great time to be there with the camera. :o) There are some nice short walks and there are plenty of other items there such as exhibits on how they used to catch ducks ect and the war time use of Fleet Lagoon for testing the "Bouncing Bomb".

The Swannery is easy to get to and there is ample parking and facilities such as café and toilets. Its also a great place to take kids to get up close and personal with the birds. They have hand washes all over the place and probably a good idea!

Recommended map:
Ordnance Survey Explorer Map OL15 or Outdoor Leisure 15

Alners Gorse

First a moan

[alners gorse]I had real problems trying to find this place and if it wasn't for some friendly locals I would be still driving the roads of north Dorset! Why aren't there any direction signs?

Another problem is people visiting the reserve - they are parking on the road by the entrance, which is on a slight curve, making it dangerous for all. Why can't people park in the entrance area? It looks like this is what it has been designed for, but it needs some hardcore by the entrance and signage in the area giving you proper warning.

The grid reference is ST736100 and the entrance is about 20ft behind the "Hazelbury Bryan" sign when approaching from Kings Stag, so drive carefully.

The reserve

What a great place! Some of the locals I met were understandably proud of the place and quite rightly too. There were just so many types of butterfly within a small area which, in addition to the number of wild flowers, was just amazing. I went there primarily to see Purple and Brown Hairstreak Butterflies, which I saw and I managed to take a photo of a beautiful female Brown Hairstreak.

Alners Gorse reserve was opened in July 2005 and it covers 14.5 hectares of (wet) grass, scrub and woodland in the Blackmoor Vale between Hazelbury Bryan and Kings Stag. The Dorset Butterfly Conservation webpage contains more info about Alners Gorse.

Recommended map:
Ordnance Survey Explorer Map 129

Arne Nature Reserve

[walkway through woods]Arne nature reserve covers 500 hectares (1250 acres) and is run by the RSPB. It overlooks Poole Harbour and is adjacent to the village of Arne, in Dorset, England. It is fairly easy to get to and there is a car park, which is free to members of the RSPB, but no toilet facilities that I could see.

The reserve opened in 1966 and is chiefly lowland heath, comprised of the rare Dorest Heath (Erica ciliaris), noted for its breeding Dartford Warblers. It also has acid grassland, salt marsh and woodland, with reed beds adjoining the mudflats of the harbour.

There is a variety of special wildlife to see, look out for the Sika Deer and in summer look out for Dartford warblers nesting in the heather, nightjars flying at dusk and as many as 22 species of colourful dragonflies. The reserve overlooks Poole Harbour where you can watch thousands of wading birds, ducks and geese including avocets, black-tailed godwits and brent geese in winter. Ospreys are regularly seen on migration in late summer and in autumn.

There are several trails which on the whole are well sign posted. There is a viewpoint with panoramic views over Poole Harbour and parts of the reserve, also a double-decker bird hide overlooking the salt marsh and water/mudflats of Arne Bay, but you will need to have some decent binoculars or telescope to get detailed views, also I found when the reserve is busy you have difficulty getting in. There is also a single hide overlooking Poole Harbour's Middlebere Channel.

Some of the walkways are on raised decking and generally the paths are good and with some effort you could get a wheel chair around but unfortunately not to the hides or viewing areas - well you could if you had a lot of help?

I do find this reserve a nice place to walk around, probably best in mid week to miss the crowds, having said that it's a great place to take the family for a walk and can understand the attraction for groups to visit, just us single miserable old buggers need to chill out :o)

Recommended map:
Ordnance Survey Explorer Map OL15 or Outdoor Leisure 15

Bindon Hill

[]Bindon Hill is an extensive Iron Age earthwork enclosing a coastal hill area on the Jurassic Coast near Lulworth Cove in Dorset, England; it is within an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

For me it's the only place to see the Lulworth Skipper, but accessibility can be an issue. Because it's part of a firing range Bindon Hill is only accessible when the Lulworth Ranges are open to the public. It can be reached by a short walk from West Lulworth, or alternatively via the South West Coast Path from Lulworth Cove. The ranges are owned by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and are part of the Armoured Fighting Vehicles (AFV) Gunnery School. The ranges are more than 2,830 hectares (7,000 acres). Visitors are advised to keep to official footpaths and abide to local site notices, because tanks and armoured vehicles are used in this area. Safety warnings about explosives and unexploded shells are posted nearby by the MoD and there is a flashing warning lamp situated on the hill, which is illuminated when the ranges are in use.

When the range is closed you can still access part of the Hill and there are still Skippers to see but just not so many, make sure you stick to the paths. I parked close by on School Lane which is just off the B3070 and walked from there.

Brownsea Island

[boardwalk]Brownsea Island is the largest of the islands in Poole Harbour on the south coast of Dorset, England. The island is owned by the National Trust. Much of the island is open to the public and includes areas of woodland and heath with a wide variety of wildlife, together with cliff top views across Poole Harbour and the Isle of Purbeck.

Access by public ferry or private boat, I found it easy to park and find a ferry from the Quay in Poole. It is the largest of eight islands in the harbour. There is a wharf and a small dock near the main castle. The island is 1.5 miles (2.4 km) long and 0.75 miles (1.2 km) wide and consists of 500 acres (2 km²) of pinewood, heathland and salt-marsh.

The entire island, except the church, is owned by the National Trust except for a few buildings and parts of the island which are leased or managed by third parties. Most of the buildings are situated near the small landing stage. The northern portion of the island is a Nature Reserve managed by Dorset Wildlife Trust and an important habitat for birds; this part of the island has limited public access. Brownsea Island has been built up on a bare sand and mud bank deposited in the shallow harbour. Ecological succession has taken place on the island to create topsoil able to support ecosystems.

The nature reserve on the island is leased from the National Trust by Dorset Wildlife Trust and includes a brackish lagoon and area of woodland. Other ecosystems on the island include saltmarsh, reedbed, two freshwater lakes, alder carr, coniferous woodland, deciduous woodland and arboretum. In the past invasive species such as rhododendrons, also non-native, were introduced to the island but the trusts have cleared many areas.

The island is one of the few places in southern England where indigenous red squirrels survive, largely because non-native grey squirrels have never been introduced to the island. There are also Sika Deer on the Island which can be seen if you are patient and don't make to much noise. Brownsea also has a small ornamental population of peacocks which can be a little aggressive if you have food as I found to my cost so beware. The island has a heronry, in which both Grey Heron and Little Egret nest.

To try to limit damage to trees and other vegetation by deer, areas of the island have been fenced off to provide areas of undamaged woodland to allow other species such as red squirrels to thrive.

The lagoon is noted for the large population of Common Tern and Sandwich Tern in summer, and a very large flock of Avocets in winter, when over 50% of British birds (over 1500) can be present.

Recommended map:
Ordnance Survey Explorer Map OL15 or Outdoor Leisure 15

Charmouth and fossil collecting

[A Fossil]Charmouth is a village on the West Dorset coast. The cliffs above the beach are well-known for fossils. On the beach there is a great visitor centre that acts for the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site, which gives you lots of information, identifies fossils found in the area and has plenty for the children to look at, well worth a visit. It's run on donations so get your money out! :o)

For fossil-hunters it is necessary to walk the beaches between Lyme Regis and Charmouth to find goodies, but you must be wary of tides and landslips. It is easy to get carried away and not see the incoming tide and, even though there are plenty of warning signs, people unfortunately get themselves into trouble by getting caught in the mud on the landslips.

I love fossil hunting here, basically because it's easy as long as you are careful and don't do anything stupid! The reason why it's easy? The cliffs are eroding very rapidly, providing an inexhaustible and plentiful supply of fossils to the beaches. This is the richest source of Lower Jurassic (200 to 180 million year old) fossil reptiles, fish and insects anywhere in the world!

Cliff falls and mudflows are a constant hazard, especially in the winter and it is essential that people stay on the beach and away from the cliffs. I say again, Stay Away From The Cliffs! Besides, the beach is the best place to find fossils because the sea has done all the hard work, washing away the soft mud to leave the fossils scattered amongst the sand and boulders. You do not need a hammer to find fossils, it's so easy!

The Visitors' Code provides the best advice for people new to fossil collecting. The Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre contains informative displays and runs regular guided walks which provide the beginner with the best way to get started. The full Code is of more relevance to the more experienced collectors but anyone could find an important fossil; that is part of the fun!

There is a large range of fossils that may be found between Black Ven and Stonebarrow. The most common place to find fossils and indeed the most easiest is from along the beach. Search in the shingle and on the tide line, especially as the tide retreats. You may have to get on your hands and knees to find the tiny Ammonites. Look out for patches of dark gold coloured grains or small lumps. These are Iron Pyrites or (Fools Gold). Fossils are most common in these areas amongst this pyrites, so ensure you look hard at any areas covered in these pyrites.

You can also search in the clay on the foreshore at Black Ven, this is also a good area to find them. The sea acts as a giant sieve and does all the hard work for you. However, do not climb the slippages as these are very dangerous. It is also pointless, you have a much higher chance of finding fossils on the foreshore.

There is such a vast variety of fossils at Charmouth that one can expect to find anything, but the best months are the winter and spring with stormy gales and extreme high tides. There are also a wide range of rocks lying on the beach, some of these contain fossils and others contain the fossil casts. Usually these can simply be picked up from along the beach.

If going collecting, you must have the appropriate clothing. Be prepared to get wet so take a change of clothes and shoes, watch the tides, stay away from the cliffs and landslides and have lots of fun! :o)

Some great websites:

Recommended map:
Ordnance Survey Explorer Map 116

Chesil Beach

[An information sign]Chesil Beach, sometimes called Chesil Bank, is a "tombolo" in Dorset. The shingle beach is 29 kilometres (18 miles) long, 200 metres (660 ft) wide and 15 metres (50 ft) high. The beach and the Fleet are part of the Jurassic Coast, a UNESCO World Heritage site. At the end of the beach, next to the Isle of Portland, the beach curves round sharply to form Chesil Cove. This part of the beach protects the low-lying village of Chiswell from flooding. The beach provides shelter from the prevailing winds and rough seas for the town of Weymouth.

The origin of Chesil Beach has been argued over for some time. Originally it was believed that beach material was from the Budliegh Salterton pebble beds to the west and later from Portland to the south east. The differences between the pebbles on the beach and nearby sources is now put down to the Flandrian isostatic sea level rise, so the feature could also be considered a barrier beach or bar, that happens to connect the mainland to an island rather than a 'true' tombolo. Normally, tombolos are created due to the effects of the island on waves (through refraction) and to sediment transport, which usually produces a beach perpendicular to the mainland rather than parallel to it.

The size of the shingle varies from pea-sized at the north-west end (by West Bay) to potato-sized at the south-east end (by Portland). It is said that smugglers who landed on the beach in the middle of the night could judge their position by the size of the shingle.

From West Bay to Cliff End, the beach is piled up against the cliff. At Cliff End a hollow forms behind the beach and at Abbotsbury a stretch of brackish water called the Fleet Lagoon begins. The Fleet is home to many wading birds and Abbotsbury Swannery.

Because of the low population density of nearby areas and their proximity to the naval base on Portland, the beach and the Fleet were used for machine gun training and Bouncing bomb testing for Operation Chastise in World War II.

Because of the steep banks etc. it's not a place to go swimming but a great favourite for fishermen. If you are feeling energetic it's worth a walk and perhaps a ride back on the bus. :o)

Recommended map:
Ordnance Survey Explorer Map OL15 or Outdoor Leisure 15

Durlston Country Park

[]Durlston Country Park is a 320-acre country park and nature reserve stretching along the coast of the Isle of Purbeck at Durlston near Swanage in Dorset, England. The Park, which is part of the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site, has been owned by Dorset County Council since the early 1970s and is mostly open access.

The Park has a rich range of habitats, hosting a wide range of species. Habitats include sea-cliffs, downs, ancient meadows, hedgerows, woodland, and dry-stone walls, each with their characteristic plants and animals. These include 33 species of breeding butterfly, over 250 species of bird recorded, 500 wildflowers, 500 moths and thousands of other invertebrates. The underlying rock is limestone so the majority of the park is calcareous grassland, probably created about 1000 years ago by clearing of oak forest, hosting a range of wild flower species and associated animals such as butterflies. Such a stunning place and I was amazed at the wild flowers on my visit, so much to see.

Fleet Lagoon

[Information board at the lagoon.]Between Chesil Beach, Abbotsbury and Portland the massive bank of pebbles that arcs its way around the North Eastern edge of Lyme Bay has annexed a smaller body of water between itself and the mainland - the Fleet Lagoon. The result is spectacular.

In combination, the Fleet and the Chesil are a fascinating and beautiful habitat for a diverse range of animals, birds and plants. Because of this, it is listed and protected under several national and international agreements, as well as being part of the World Heritage Jurassic Coast.

The Fleet stretches from Abbotsbury in the West to Ferry Bridge in the East, where it opens in to Portland Harbour. The waters of the Fleet are tidal, being filled and partially emptied twice each day by the ebb and flow of the sea under Ferry Bridge and through the harbour. But the lagoon is also fed by fresh water run-off, streams and ditches along its 8 mile length. Because of this, the water of the Fleet is brackish, neither fresh nor as salty as the sea.

The Fleet is famous for its waterfowl and natural history, but also for its links to Britain's literary and national history. For serious ornithologists and amateur bird-watchers alike, the Fleet lagoon is a great place to come and see migrating waterfowl and waders against a unique and magnificent backdrop. The Fleet is probably most famous as the home of the Mute Swans of the Abbotsbury, but it also attracts significant populations of Dark Bellied Brent Geese, Common Greenshank, Little Egrets, Common Pochard, Red-breasted Merganser and Common Coot, among others. All these birds are attracted by the unique and wildlife-rich habitat the Fleet provides. The Swans, in particular, are dependent on the large quantities of eel-grass that the bottom of the Fleet supports. It also supports substantial populations of fish, including bass and eels.

Whilst the Fleet is now recognised and protected for its national and international importance ecologically, in the past it has served the nation in other ways. Until the 1970s, a string of World War Two pill boxes stretched the length of the Chesil as part of defences to prevent the beach being used for troop landings. Those on the Chesil have now been washed away but a few remain on the Fleet's landward shore. It was here also that some of the early prototypes of Barnes Wallis' "bouncing bombs" of the Dam Busters fame, were first tested - although it was later decided that the waters of the Fleet itself were too shallow for a proper test and the waters on the other side of the Chesil were too choppy and so later tests went elsewhere.

The village of Fleet itself, which is about halfway along the lagoon, is especially picturesque. More of a hamlet than a village, it featured in the smuggling novel "Moonfleet". Parts of the village were destroyed by a storm surge in 1824, including most of the "Old Fleet Church". What was left of the Church by the sea remains standing today, pretty, but largely unused - a testament both to the strength and resilience of those who built it, and the sea that destroyed it!

Today, the Fleet remains a truly beautiful and peaceful place to walk and enjoy great scenery and an abundance of wildlife. A great place to walk and to use your camera.

Recommended map:
Ordnance Survey Explorer Map OL15 or Outdoor Leisure 15

Fontmell Down

[fontmell down1]This fantastic place is just south of Shaftsbury in Dorset just off the A350. It's a place where you walk slowly, to take in not only the stunning views but the butterflies and flowers.

High with steep sloping sides, this area of the North Dorset Downs, has far-reaching views across the Blackmore Vale. Interspersed scrub and woodland provide shelter for many species of butterfly, while the open chalk grassland of the lower slopes is covered in wildflowers in the spring and summer months.

Some of the best places to see some of the wildlife are on the very steep slopes and I would give caution at this point - do not go down the slopes if you are not physically able and make sure you have suitable sturdy walking boots.

Before you go, log onto this great web page from the Dorset Branch of Butterfly Conservation which gives you a full detailed description of the site and what you should expect to see.

Recommended map:
Ordnance Survey Explorer Map 118

Isle of Portland and Portland Bill

[Portland bill light house]The Isle of Portland is a limestone tied island, 6 kilometres (4 miles) long by 2.4 kilometres (1.5 miles) wide. Portland is the southern-most point of the county of Dorset. The Isle of Portland is connected to the mainland by Chesil Beach.

Portland is a central part of the Jurassic Coast, which is a World Heritage Site on the Dorset and east Devon coast, important for its geology and landforms. Portland limestone is still quarried here, and is used in British architecture, including St Paul's Cathedral and Buckingham Palace.

Portland harbour is one of the deepest man-made harbours in the world at 12 metres (39 ft) to 20 metres (66 ft), and one of the largest at 8.6 square kilometres (2,125 acres). This harbour, on Portland's northern shore, was a Royal Navy base during World War I and World War II and the Navy and NATO trained in its waters until the 1990s. The naval base closed at the end of the Cold War in 1995, and the Royal Naval Air Station closed in 1999, although the runway remained in use for Her Majesty's Coastguard Search and Rescue flights as MRCC Portland. The harbour is now a small civilian port and popular recreation area; the Weymouth and Portland National Sailing Academy will host the sailing events for the 2012 Olympic Games.

Portland is unusual as it is connected to the mainland at Abbotsbury by Chesil Beach, a tombolo which runs 29 kilometres (18 miles) north-west to West Bay. Portland is sometimes defined incorrectly as a tombolo. In fact, Portland is a tied island, and Chesil Beach is the tombolo (a spit joined to land at both ends).

Due to its isolated coastal location, the Isle of Portland has an extensive range of flora and fauna; the coastline and disused quarries are designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest. Sea and migratory birds occupy the cliffs in different seasons, so there is plenty to point your camera at! Sometimes these include rare species and if you are lucky you will see rare visitors to the surrounding seas include dolphins, seals and basking sharks as well.

Portland Bill should not be confused with the Isle of Portland. Portland Bill is a narrow promontory of Portland stone which forms the most southerly part of Tophill. The Bill has three lighthouses and is an important way-point for ships passing the headland and its tidal race. The current lighthouse was refurbished in 1996 and became computer-controlled. A visitors' centre giving information and guided tours of the lighthouse was built nearby and well worth a visit. There is a café and a pay and display car park nearby.

The Bird Observatory

Two earlier lighthouses stand further inland - one of these is the bird observatory. This observatory is run by an independent organisation and a UK registered charity who cater not just for birders, but for naturalists of all kinds. More information on sightings and accommodation for visitors can be found on the Portland Bird Observatory website. This is a good place to visit, but the car parking facilities are for members only, so you will have to use the pay and display at the main lighthouse and walk to the centre if you are not a member. It is a friendly place and the warden, Martin Cade, is very knowledgeable and helpful.

Butterfly Conservation

There are several areas where, with help from local industry, reserves have been made. These include Broadcroft Quarry (grid reference SY697720) and Perryfields Reserve (grid reference SY695713).

Broadcroft Quarry

This reserve is a disused, in filled limestone quarry leased from the Quarry Company since 1994 and part of the Isle of Portland Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). It supports a stunning array of plants and insects. It is an area of 7.3 hectares (18 acres) of sparse vegetation and scrub which are ideal conditions for the key butterflies and other insects. The scrub also provides shelter and habitat for birds that visit the island.

Site management aims to provide more open grassland and short sward conditions. Innovative surface-scraping has been successfully employed to re-recreate the special conditions needed by the Silver-studded Blue and the Black Ants that it is associated with. This is the 'cretaceous' form of the Silver-studded Blue, now possibly only found on Portland. The reserve entrance is down the quarry track (beware of lorries) about 1/4 km along the Grove, on the south side beyond the recreation ground. There is car parking at SY695723 west of the reserve entrance. I did find it difficult to find at first as there is no official reserve sign as such but well worth the effort.

Perryfields Reserve

Perryfields Reserve is a small reserve 1.2 hectares (c. 3 acres), leased as a reserve since 1998, and part of the Bottom Coombe Site of Nature Conservation Interest (SNCI) complex.

The limestone grassland provides a rich array of wildflowers for butterflies and suitable conditions for other insects. The sheltering copse of sycamore and ash trees and the scrub-covered slopes down to the disused railway track provide roosting places for insects and shelter for birds, particularly tired migrants arriving on Portland. The sheltered tall grass is one of best sites on the island for glow worms.

There is a good sized free car park here and well worth spending a little time here on route to Portland Bill.

As you can imagine as the island juts out into the English Channel the weather can change so be prepared for wind, rain and fog. Getting onto Portland can be a problem due to the slow-moving traffic through Weymouth, but it's well worth it when you get there.

Recommended map:
Explorer Map OL15 or Outdoor Leisure 15

Lankham Bottom

[public imformation board]Lankham Bottom reserve (grid reference ST606004) is designated Open Countryside - with public access on foot permitted at all times. It is leased to Butterfly Conservation by Wessex Water who has a pumping station and boreholes here, and is managed with a small suckler herd of cattle with calves.

This is a beautiful part of the country on the west of the chalk ridge six miles north of Dorchester, with sweeping views over Cattistock towards Eggardon Hill and the coast. The grassland has been protected from agricultural improvement, so the chalk sward is flower rich and very varied, and supports over 30 species of butterflies.

Apart from the butterflies I found it a great place to watch birds especially the likes of Yellowhammers singing from the scrub - as great sight to see!

Recommended map:
Ordnance Survey Landranger 194 or Explorer 117

Motcombe Meadows

[]In 2012, the Meadows became part of the "Fields in Trust" scheme, thus ensuring that they remain a recreational and conservation facility for the village in perpetuity. They were originally owned by Bloor Homes and were handed over to Motcombe Parish Council in 2006.

Guided by a long-term management plan, initially developed by the Dorset Wildlife Trust but with subsequent additional input from Butterfly Conservation. Over and above light maintenance, the plan provides for a late summer cut of hay which is undertaken by a local farmer. In addition more than a thousand native woodland trees, provided by the Woodland Trust, have been planted together with an orchard of 50 traditional fruit tree varieties.

Motcombe Meadows lie on heavy clay soil and are comprised of 10.5 ha of unimproved wetland meadow, sub-divided into four fields by old and broad hedgerows in which blackberry, blackthorn, oak sp., elm sp., hazel and ash are prominent. The area is bisected by a brook, a tributary of the River Stour, which is inhabited by water voles and stickleback.

Motcombe Village lies in the Blackmore Vale, 2.5 miles northwest of Shaftesbury. Driving north along the village High Street, pass the Village Shop on the left and after 300 yards turn left into Prideaux Drive. Motcombe Meadows car park and the entrance to the Meadows are directly ahead.

Have to say a joyous place to walk around! This one of many Community Reserves I have visited and a very positive move they are too!!

Radipole Lake

[]This reserve which is run by the RSPB is in central Weymouth, but once on the footpath between reeds and lagoons you could be far away in the countryside. Radipole is an ideal site for both beginners and experienced birdwatchers alike, with well-known birds such as house sparrows, finches and robins alongside uncommon or rare birds like Cetti's warblers, bitterns and a great place to see Bearded tits. Because the reserve is the centre of Weymouth Parking is not a problem although you have to pay, the visitor centre has lots of information and I found the volunteers very knowledgeable and helpful. The paths are good and access for all is good. The North hide is brilliant with plenty of space for one and all.

Recommended map:
Ordnance Survey Explorer Map OL15 or Outdoor Leisure 15

© Simon Thurgood 2024
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