The big green fortnight included a walk on Canford Heath with Jez Martin, a wildlife expert from Borough of Poole. 14 people and 3 dogs came along.
Jez started by attempting to convey scale by comparing heathland to the rainforest. There are 1 million acres of heathland in Europe, but if it disappeared at the rate that the rainforest is being lost, it would all go in about 10 minutes.
Canford Heath used to be the largest heathland in Dorset, and link right down to the harbour, but with housing encroachment, it is now the 6th largest, with about 200 acres of land.
Up until the early 90s, two thirds of it was grazed. Part of the reason this was stopped was theft of the gates ! Grazing is being reintroduced from West to East, and by August, most of the heath will be grazed. Jezz indicated that for conservation grazing, the numbers of animals are low -perhaps 10 cattle over the 200 acres. Too many would trample the ground. They have Shetland Cattle which are black and white. Prevously they had 15-20 ponies over the entire heath.
The population of Dartford Warblers has fluctuated. It had grown to 70 pairs, but with two severe winters, it has dropped to 25. We were not lucky enough to see any of them, and Jezz said that they seemed to have stopped singing, perhaps as they are more spaced out they do not feel the need to maintain territorial song.
At an early point, Jez suggested we were at a great spot for spying the many varied types of electricity pylon (and apparently there are people who do). There area so many crossing the heath that one set of engineers coming to install more was suprised at the numbers allowed. I asked about a set of bare wooden poles marching westward. Apparently the cables were stolen for the copper they contained. Twice. But the easement that allowes Southern Electricity that route exists, so the poles remain.
Jez showed us the Broom in flower, with pea-like pods, it being related to the pea. Broom, birch twigs or heather were all used to make brooms, though he didn’t know which came first – the bush or the brush. There are 3 types of Gorse on heathland, and this differentiates some of the heaths locally. Western Gorse is at knee height, found here more abundantly than on Studland or New Forest. There is just a little Common Gorse, the larger one prevalant at those two, and also Dwarf Gorse, which has an even lower habit.
We passed a little blue flower – heath milkwort, and spindly twigs, not yet flowering but Dodder. Much of the wildlife on heathland is small, or hidden below the gorse and heather layer. Parallel with the path we were travelling were a series of ridges. These were hollow-ways, where once one got too boggy, people moved across a little, evidence of millenia of using the route. He pointed to a small mound – a medieval farmstead, where until maybe 20 years ago, the stone hearth was still extant.
There are 5 types of heather on the heath.
- Common Ling Heather – with tiny leaves. 50% of this is found in the UK, 25% in Poland, and the rest around Europe.
- Bell Heather – bright green leaves in groups of 3
- Crossed Leaf Heather – leaves generally in groups of 4
- Dorset Heath – only found around Poole Harbour
- Cornish Heath – probably introduced by a builder re-instating some land he shouldnt have dug, but buying ‘local’ heather that was not
Jez then mentioned an old book on local wildlife, which also had Cornish Heather in it on local Dorset heathland. The climate here is obviously congenial, perhaps a little warmer and drier than Hartland Moor on the other side of the harbour.
During the walk, we separately saw two male Roe Deer. Jezz said there were often 3-4 across the heath, because the pickings are thinner, they havea wide range, whereas deer in farmland have a much smaller range to find their food. Both were upwind, so whilst alert, they have become accustomed to company, and did not take flight.
Very near the path were the webs of Labarynth or Funnel Spiders. Although they have a somewhat similar stucture to the lair of deadly Australian funnel spiders, they are much smaller and not dangerous. Whilst the funnel itself is very small, the webs can grow to several feet across, so the labarynth really comes from not knowing where the heart of the web is.
There are three types of pine tree on the heath. These were apparently introduced by the first Lord Wimborne in the 1850s, for timber;
- Scots pine – red bark, fairly straight habit
- Maritime pine – bendy tree shape, poor wood generally only useful for pit props
- Corscan pine – very straight, with horizontal branches, good for telegraph poles
Whilst the historic natural landscape was broadleaf woodland, the pines are invasive, and many small trees were visible across the heath. Jezz said that the Dartford Warblers do enjoy climbing straight from heather onto low hanging branches of the pines. I asked the best time of day/year to see them, apparently early morning in March/April is the best, but a non-windy May day shouldn’t have been bad. Our problem was the wind.
The path ran alongside another bank (and the path was in the hollow for quite a way). But here, it was a boundary bank, until quite recently, the Western boundary of Borough of Poole’s ownership. The land was brought by Poole from Whites Tip, the other main landowner of a small section near Gravel Hill being the Beale Family of local department store fame.
Only two of the grasses on the heath are indigenous to it (others being spread in dog faeces presumably from chewing grass at home).
- bristle bent – purple coloured seeds, fairly low habit
- purple moor grass – a coarse and taller habit.
As we walked back towards the meeting point at the end of Frances Avenue, Jez highlighted we were on the ‘Old Coach Road’, which was one of, and perhaps the back, drive to Canford Manor House. We joined South Walk, which runs right along the ridge overlooking Poole, and is suspected to form a very ancient route from Heingisbury Head to Badbury Rings (both Iron Age settlements).
There has been little archaeological work on the heath, but when a cutting for a road was mistakenly dug (ie the politicians changed their minds but the engineers didn’t) to the South East of the Crematorium Roundabout, a round barrow was excavated, underneath which was a Mesolithic Flint Factory.
And we talked a bit about windfarms. Apparently bats are attracted to the hub of turbines, no-one knows quite why. The waterworks wanted to ‘go green’ by having a turbine, but of course their water attracts many insects so is a great haven for bats. With the plans for offshore windfarms, there will need to be more known about bird migration routes, and providing corridors where these are mapped. Apparently some of the Norweigan sites have decimated migrating bird flocks. And I thought the height of the windfarms was intended to place them above that of birds in flight.
We gathered like vulctures around the bonnet of his land rover as a variety of leaflets on the heathland emerged.
And as I got back to my bike, attached to the railings of the Water Works, three kids came by on their bikes and stopped. “Someone was trying to remove your bike earlier mister”, and “why did you leave it there” somewhat accusatory. So I said I had been for a walk with the man who looks after the heath, and they quizzed me why, and I tried (having failed to see one) to describe a Dartford Warbler. They thought that maybe they had, though it sounded like a Thrush. And I wished I had a picture of the rare bird to share with them, or that Jez had in fact abandoned us, and spent his energy on these enquiring young minds of the future, who somehow will probably spend the next 10 years either fascinated by or destroying the habitat that he supports.