Story of the Purbeck Heaths

Purbeck Heaths Credit: Middlebere Heath, Jon Bish reeds

From saving the last fragments

to a recovering a wilder, dynamic super-NNR

One of Europe’s rarest habitats, lowland heathland developed as a by-product of grazing and small-scale mineral and fuel extraction over thousands of years. But as society and economy changed in the 18th and 19th centuries, the way we managed the land changed. 85% of these intricate cultural landscapes were lost to agricultural improvement, commercial forestry, industrialised mineral extraction and urban development. The small patches that weren’t destroyed were left ecologically isolated and the species that depended on them became rare and threatened.

Of the heathlands that remained, some of the largest and best were in Purbeck, including famous sites such as Arne, Hartland Moor and Studland. They are home to some of the highest concentrations of rare and threatened species of any of our landscapes; Hartland Moor alone is home to at least 65 national priority ‘section 41’ species; heathland specialists such Purbeck Mason wasp and Heath Tiger beetle have their national strongholds here. These heaths were some of the UKs first sites to be protected as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and National Nature Reserves (NNR), and later were recognised as being internationally important as part of the Natura 2000 network and as Ramsar wetlands.


Purbeck Heaths Credit: Middlebere Heath, Jon Bish

Since the 50s and 60s, conservation organisations have been replicating traditional management within these remaining reserves, to meet the habitat needs of rare and specialised heathland species such as sand lizard and Dartford warbler.

What makes Purbeck different is that at the same time as looking after the old relic heaths, we have also been restoring some of those sites previously lost to improved pasture and conifer plantations. We have stitched together the old heathscape to a point that makes the early reserve boundaries effectively obsolete; the new super-NNR now encompasses old and new heathlands almost contiguously across seven land ownerships.

To find out more about human’s impacts on the heaths: Explore the timeline


Purbeck Heaths Credit: Middlebere Heath, Jon Bish