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Fiddleford Mill and Girdler’s Coppice

Colin Varndell visits an area rich in natural history

girdler's coppice-fiddleford mill
Springtime in Girdler’s Coppice and the ride is speckled with wood anemone and bluebell flowers

The 14th-century Fiddleford manor house stands close to the disused Fiddleford Mill on the Stour, about one mile east of Sturminster Newton. These historic buildings together with the interesting stepped weir and slow-flowing deep water attract many visitors. Fishermen set themselves up with their rods, huddled under large umbrellas in the rain, or basking in the sun on fine days. Picnickers take their refreshment and enjoy the tranquillity of this place. Dog walkers exercise their pets, and ramblers set off from here where several footpath routes radiate.

As well as a popular recreation place for humans, this is also one of Dorset’s natural history hot-spots, where the keen-eyed naturalist can observe national and, in one case, even international rarities.

girdler's coppice-fiddleford mill
Great spotted woodpeckers nest in the mature trees. Their characteristic drumming can be heard frequently in spring.

On the other hand, one of the most obvious creatures to watch out for here is the kingfisher. This colbalt blue flash which appears to fly very quickly is something of an illusion. The kingfisher does not actually fly faster than any other small bird, but its flight is direct and usually close to the water, which gives the impression of speed. The piping contact call of the kingfisher is frequently heard throughout the year along this stretch of the Stour. Certainly you would not need to sit on the riverbank here for more than half an hour or so without seeing one as they are highly territorial and constantly patrol their own stretch of water.

If you visit Fiddleford Mill early in the morning you could be lucky enough to see a little egret stalking fish in the wide basin of shallow water directly beneath the weir. The little egret used to be an occasional visitor to the Dorset coast but now it is a permanent resident. It is generally thought that there are more little egrets in Dorset now than there are herons.

The purple of the early purple orchid clashes with the bluebells - girdler's coppice-fiddleford mill
The purple of the early purple orchid clashes with the bluebells

On the opposite side of the river from Fiddleford Mill is Girdler’s Coppice, a nature reserve managed by the Dorset Wildlife Trust. The reserve consists mostly of coppiced woodland and is made up with such species as aspen and wild service tree, as well as hazel coppice with oak standards. In spring, the woodland floor becomes a mosaic of colour as bluebells, stitchwort and wood anemones come into flower. Early purple orchids also flourish in the wood at this time, and there is a significant stand of them growing amongst the bluebells, their purple colour clashing with the dark blue.

Beneath the woodland and against the river is a small flood meadow rich in wild flowers and insect life. It is the dragonfly population which is most interesting here. The banded demoiselle can be seen on the wing here any time from June to August. This is a delicate looking insect of deep blue and green iridescent colours. The males sit high on the tall vegetation, displaying the dark bands across the middle of their wings. The nationally rare white-legged damselfly is also present here in high summer and can be found at rest on the bramble bushes on sunny afternoons or hiding amongst the tall umbillifers on dull days. This is a good place for the brown hawker dragonfly, probably one of the best sites to watch them in Dorset. They rest high in the trees on the edge of the coppice. In flight they appear to glide slowly over the vegetation in an almost hovering flight like miniature helicopters, their golden wings glistening in the late afternoon sunlight.

The River Stour, just west of Fiddleford Milll
The River Stour, just west of Fiddleford Mill

The rarest creature to be seen here is the scarce chaser, a dragonfly which is on the international red data list of endangered species. The scarce chaser breeds on the Stour, the Frome and Moors rivers where the water flows slow and deep with overhanging vegetation. When it emerges in May, the teneral male has a strikingly orange abdomen with a black stripe down its centre. As it becomes sexually mature, this orange ochre colour is replaced by a powdery blue pruinescence.

The beautifully marked scarce chaser-fiddleford mill
The beautifully marked (and appropriately named) scarce chaser is an international rarity. The abdomen of this immature (or teneral) male will become sky blue as he matures.

Much of the flood meadow is overgrown with tall sedges, grasses and umbillifers. This rampant herbage provides cover for birds and insects, especially the white-legged and blue-tailed damselflies. In the damper west end, a range of flora flourishes, including such species as southern marsh orchid, ragged robin and marsh marigold. In spring there is a profusion of lady’s smock, which attracts green-veined white and orange-tip butterflies. As with many of Dorset’s riverbanks, the dreaded Indian balsam has found its way here and is a serious threat to many native species of plant. Its large leaves shade the light from smaller plants and it gets itself about by catapulting its seeds several metres as they ripen in late summer.

Otters are known to occur here-fiddleford mill
Otters are known to occur here but they are difficult to spot as they are mainly nocturnal and can travel many miles in one night

The butterfly population at Girdler’s Coppice includes such interesting species as purple hairstreak and white admiral. The comma butterfly is present in late summer where it can be seen sunning itself on the bramble bushes on the woodland edge. Although a common insect, it usually appears to be solitary. In mid summer the large silver-washed fritillary butterfly flits along the woodland edge with a strong, direct flight, seeking out its favourite food plant, bramble.

Wood anemones are abundant in the coppice -fiddleford mill
Wood anemones are abundant in the coppice in early spring

Several species of mammal are found in the wood, including badger, woodmouse and the delightful dormouse, which thrives in the hazel coppice. Roe deer are present throughout the year and are regularly seen grazing in the flood meadows. Woodland birds are well represented with great spotted woodpecker, nuthatch, treecreeper and a variety of tits and finches. At the top of the woodland food chain, the sparrowhawk hunts the rides by day and the tawny owl listens for rustling rodents at night.

The Stour is a good place to watch for kingfishersl
The Stour is a good place to watch for kingfishers

Fiddleford Mill and Girdler’s Coppice are well worth a visit. There is a car park on site and a footpath which takes you through the mill and millhouse complex and over the weir. Watch out for the kingfisher and more especially the dragonflies in summer and you may be rewarded with some very rare gems indeed.

The hazel coppicing provides the perfect habitat for the nocturnal dormouse-fiddleford mill
The hazel coppicing provides the perfect habitat for the nocturnal dormouse, shown here in hibernation

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