Dorset Wildlife - The Ultimate Guide

From rolling chalk grasslands to lowland heaths, ancient woodlands, and ocean cliffs, the diverse environments of Dorset are host to a stunning array of wildlife. The Dorset Wildlife Trust manages an array of nature reserves dotted around the region, which can be accessed for free. Whether you need a short break from busy city life or a longer stay to rest and recover in peaceful, natural surroundings, Dorset is the place to go.  

Dorsets Woodlands

Dorsets wild woodlands have a long history reaching back to the aftermath of the last Ice Age, 12,000 years ago. The open tundra was slowly colonised with trees, including oak, ash, elm and lime, and the woods took over almost all the land area. Since the Bronze Age, the human occupation has slowly cleared the forested areas, but pockets of woodland still remain (around 11% of Dorset is still forested) and support a variety of Dorset wildlife. They are especially beautiful in the springtime, when carpets of bluebells and wild flowers emerge under the trees, providing nectar for a panoply of emerging butterflies and insects.  

Woodland wildlife

  • Great and blue tits, blackbirds, starlings, treecreepers, jays and great spotted woodpeckers are some of Dorset's woodland bird species. In May and June, the birds are nesting and feeding their young, which are preyed on by sparrowhawks.
  • Sparrowhawks are opportunistic birds of prey that feed on smaller birds. They can be spotted in early spring performing a rollercoaster loop the loop flights to impress potential mates.
  • Britain's most common owl, the Tawny owl, is found in woodlands throughout Dorset. They are the owls you most often hear calling at night.
  • Four species of deer are most commonly found in Dorset woodland areas: the native roe deer, and the introduced fallow, sika and muntjac deer.


Woodland areas to visit

Duncliffe Wood This is one of Dorsets largest areas of native woodland. This patch of green is transformed in May and June with a cloak of bluebells that emerge everywhere under the trees, soaking up the spring sunlight. Once upon a time, these woods were mostly oak, ash and hazel, but it was cleared and planted in the last century with spruce, oak, larch and beech trees.

  • It is open access for the public and a popular destination for those keen on flowers and butterflies.
  • Tawny owls, woodpeckers and treecreepers also make their homes here.

Thorncombe Wood This ancient area of woodland inspired the Irish poet Thomas Hardy, whose cottage is nearby. If youre interested in poetry, the Thomas Hardy visitor centre is well worth a visit. This area of mixed woodland and heath is also home to a herd of Dartmoor ponies.

  • Dartmoor ponies play a vital role in maintaining the heath habitat through grazing the moor.
  • Other wildlife you might spot include dormice, lizards, adders and grass snakes, Dartford warblers and nightjars.


Heathlands in Dorset

Heath habitats are among the rarest in Dorset and can comprise wet or dry heath, bogs and mires. Like woodlands, heaths once covered a much larger area of Dorset, but this has been pushed back by modern urbanisation, agriculture and road building. Interestingly, heaths are not strictly natural habitats - they were created by human farmers in the Bronze age who cleared woods for planting crops. This caused a slow degradation of the nutrient quality of the soil, allowing heathland plants to thrive where forests once grew. By 1500BC, this process was complete.  

Heathland wildlife

  • Dorsets heathland wildlife is fine-tuned to survive in these unique environments and is rarely found anywhere else.
  • Heathland birds often nest near the ground and include rare Dartford warblers, woodlarks and the more common nightjars.
  • Male nightjars have characteristic white patches on their wings and tail. You can sometimes attract male nightjars by waving a white piece of cloth or throwing a white ping pong ball in the air, as they will come to investigate a potential rival male.
  • If youre really lucky, all six UK species of native reptile can be found on the heaths- three species of snake (Adder, grass snake and smooth snake); and three lizards (Sand lizard, common lizard & slow worm).
  • Rare sand lizards turn a spectacular green colour when they are preparing to mate in April, and are easy to spot at this time of year. Look out for them in the sun, digging egg burrows ready to breed.


Heathland areas to visit

Arne nature reserve, Purbeck Heathlands Over 5% of heathland in the UK is in the Purbeck region. Comprised of several different sites, the region is home to unique Purbeck mason-wasps and ladybird spiders found nowhere else. Arne nature reserve is one of the largest of these sites, located outside of Wareham on the shore of Poole Harbour. It is comprised of a mix of lowland heath and oak woodland.

  • A large population of introduced Sika deer is established here. These animals were introduced to the UK from Asia in the 1860s, and have since become naturalised.

  Studland and Godlingston Heath, Purbeck Heathlands This area is the largest expanse of heathland still existing in Dorset.

  • Follow the Godlingston Heath Walk for beautiful views across the heath to Studland Bay, and a variety of microhabitats housing different wildlife.
  • Watch out for stonechats and Dartford warblers on the open heath
  • Past the Addlestone, an area of wet mire is home to dragonflies and damselflies. In the springtime, the larvae are finally emerging from the aquatic stage of their lifestyle and taking flight.
  • The walk also takes you past the Little Sea, a freshwater lagoon thats home to a variety of birds in winter, including tufted ducks, gadwalls, pochards, teals, goldeneyes and pintails.


Grassland, Meadows and Farmland Wildlife

  • Foxes are widespread, found in most habitats, and fulfill an important part of the Dorset wildlife foodchain as predators of small mammals including rabbits and rats.
  • Rabbits are common in grassland and grassy verges, and in springtime can produce litters of up to 7 young on a monthly basis. These baby bunnies are important prey for foxes and weasels.
  • Badgers are found in a wide variety of Dorset wildlife habitats, including grasslands, farms, hedgerows, and even in urban areas. They are currently being culled as a way to prevent the spread of Bovine TB. Get up close and personal with badgers at Badger Watch Dorset.
  • Polecats, with their distinctive bandit-mask appearance, are rare and found in grassland, farmland and wooded areas. They have recently been on the increase as numbers of their favourite prey- rabbits- are rising again, recovering from the myxomatosis epidemic.


Meadows and Grasslands to visit

Lorton Meadows Nature Reserve This patch of flower-filled meadows, hedgerows and woodland is close by the town of Weymouth, and is a great place to spot some of the best in Dorset wildlife including birds, bats and insects.

  • In springtime, barn owls nest and feed their young here. You can watch a classic Dorset wildlife display in the form of a live feed of a nestbox of baby owls at Lorton Meadows here.


River and Pond Wildlife

Dorset contains rare chalk stream habitats, which are crystal clear, wide and shallow, with clean alkaline water which is filtered through the chalk substrate. There are just 200 chalk streams worldwide, making these habitats precious.

  • Dorset's chalk streams are home to brown trout, salmon, lamprey and white-clawed crayfish. Along the banks, occasional otters, water voles and kingfishers can be found.
  • Otters and their cubs can be easily sighted along the river Stour, Dorset's longest river. It is lined with many hollow trees and fed by tributaries, making a perfect otter habitat.


Dorset's Coastal Regions

The Dorset and nearby East Devon coastlines comprise the Jurassic Coast, Englands only natural world heritage site, which is renowned worldwide for amazing Mesozoic fossils. Dorset's coastline is pocketed with natural estuaries, making it an important habitat for waterfowl and wading birds.

  • The Jurassic Coast presents a unique opportunity to get up close with Dorset wildlife that is more ancient. Try your hand at fossil collecting - but make sure you're responsible and only take home loose fossils. Never dig into the cliff face, and only collect from areas that permit it.
  • You can join a guided tour from Lyme Regis museum, or the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre.


Spotting coastal wildlife in Dorset

Winter Birdwatching at Poole Harbour Thousands of wading and waterfowl birds flock to Poole Harbour as the colder weather sets in to shelter and feed in the relatively warm, food-abundant water. These winter arrivals include swans, geese, avocets, curlews, and black-tailed and bar-tailed godwits.

  • Several walking trails span the coastline, so you can enjoy the harbourside views while keeping a lookout for birds.
  • An especially lively spot is at Holes Bay Nature Park, where redshank, teal, dunlin, oystercatchers, spoonbills and kingfishers can be seen at low tide, scouring the intertidal mudflats for their dinner.

  Red Squirrels on Brownsea Island Nature Reserve If you have more time to spend in Poole, Brownsea Island nature reserve, right in the middle of Poole Harbour, is well worth a visit. Its home to a population of around 200 native red squirrels, as well as deer and lizards.

  • Native red squirrels are being outcompeted by grey squirrels across the mainland- its estimated theres only 140,000 left in Britain.
  • The squirrels spend most of their time in the tree canopy, making them tricky to spot- prepare to be patient and wait for them to come along!

  Migrating Birds and Moths at Portland Bill Dorsets southernmost point is a prime location for spotting migrating birds, as it's often the first land they come across as they make the long flight north across the Channel. They spend their summer holidays in the UK, and then when winter comes fly back to warmer climates. Keep up with the latest bird sightings on the Portland Bird Observatory website.

  • Swallows arrive at Portland for the summer in April and May, after an epic 10,000-kilometre journey back from Southern Africa where they spent the winter. They fly continuously, finding insects to eat midair, and can cover up to 200 miles a day!
  • Willow warblers migrate over 5,000 kilometres from West Africa, below the Sahara Desert.
  • Redstarts, bright orange and black birds, also hail from North Africa and stop off at Portland Bill before flying on towards oak woodlands inland.

Between June and December, migrating moths can be spotted at night from the top of the cliffs on Portland Bills east coast.

  • These include some of the largest flying insects to visit the UK- such as the Convolvulus hawkmoth with a wingspan of up to 6 inches!
  • The intimidatingly named Deathshead hawkmoth is another nightly visitor easily recognisable by its skull-and-crossbones pattern. These moths make a high-pitched squeak to ward off predators - terrifying!


Dorset Wildlife Tours and Guided Walks

The Dorset Birding and Wildlife experience offer custom guided tours depending on what species youd like to see and where. Dorsets wild places are just waiting to be discovered! Make your trip even more memorable by staying in one of our luxury cottages. Like Thomas Hardy penning poetry on the heath, you can come back from a long days ramble and feel right at home in your own cosy cottage. For a romantic getaway on the coast, Lyme Cottage in Lyme Regis is just the ticket. For exploring woods, chalk downs and farmland, how about the warm and welcoming Snowdrop Cottage in Purse Caudle. Search our full selection of Dorset cottages here, and start looking forward to your Dorset wildlife getaway!


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