The best of Dorset in words and pictures

‘This wonderful wilderness’

Colin Varndell celebrates the Arne peninsula in words and pictures

The view across the saltmarsh with Poole in the distance

The Arne peninsula, which protrudes into Poole Harbour, is one of the richest wildlife havens in southern England. The area comprises a vast expanse of lowland heath, peppered with stands of silver birch, Scots pine and oak woodland leading down to the saltmarsh of Poole Harbour. The RSPB manage 1250 acres of the peninsula as a nature reserve and in the past public access was restricted mainly to the path down to Shipstal Point. More recently, other areas have been opened to the public and it is now possible to enjoy a walk across heathland, through woods and by ponds right down to the edge of the saltmarsh, where the birdlife can be watched from various screens and hides.

The yellow flowers of gorse dominate the landscape in early spring

On the reserve, a mosaic of habitats is maintained by employing a wide variety of different management regimes. The heather and gorse are controlled with rotational cutting and burning. This not only keeps the heathland communities healthy but also ensures that there is an array of plants at different stages of growth to benefit the maximum range of dependent species. Invasive plants like rhododendron, birch and bracken are kept under close control to prevent areas of valuable heathland from reverting to woodland. Stretches of bare, sandy ground are maintained especially for the sand lizard. On Arne Farm the RSPB have planted swathes of seed-bearing crops for birds and in late autumn and winter there is a constant murmur of contact calls as finches and yellowhammers gorge the harvest.

The plant life of Arne is dominated by heather, as this is essentially a lowland heath habitat. Four species of heather occur here including ling (or common heather), cross-leaved heath, bell heather and the internationally rare Dorset heath. Other acidic plants found on the peninsula include bog asphodel, all three sundews, marsh heleborine and marsh gentian.

Dorset heath is internationally rare and is only found in this county and one small patch in Cornwall

Arne is particularly good for dragonflies, and notable species include the downy emerald and the hairy dragonfly, both of which are on the wing in May and June. During mid-summer, the emperor, four-spotted chaser and keeled skimmer take centre stage. Later in the year, it is the southern and migrant hawkers and the darters which feast on the explosion of airborne insects. It can be fascinating to watch these prehistoric predators darting in and out of the sunbeams in pursuit of the columns of gnats in the late afternoons.

The downy emerald is a heathland dragonfly which can be seen at Arne during May and June

But Arne is managed mainly as a bird reserve and throughout spring and summer typical heathland species like meadow pipit and willow warbler breed in the heather and amongst the stands of gorse. The Dartford warbler, once drastically reduced due to the savage winters of the 1960s, has since recovered and it is now thought that up to forty pairs breed on the peninsula. Stonechats scold passers-by with their ‘chat’ calls, and yellowhammers and linnets sing from the tops of gorse bushes.

Avocets can easily be seen at low tide from Shipstal Point, especially in winter when large numbers of them feed in Poole Harbour

In the woodland, you can hear and sometimes see great spotted and green woodpeckers as well as jays, tits and various woodland warblers. In the numerous rivulets and gulleys which traverse the saltmarsh, the little egret is now especially common. This was a nationally rare bird during last century, but in the early ’nineties it became a more frequent migrant to the south coast and was regularly seen at Arne. The little egret first bred on Brownsea Island in 1996 and now, with more than forty breeding pairs in Poole Harbour, it is a reliable species you can expect to see at Arne. Other exciting birds which may be seen include marsh harriers in winter and ospreys on spring or autumn passage. In winter, peak numbers of avocets and Brent geese can be seen at Middlebere Lake.

The Dartford warbler is very much synonymous with Dorset. Up to forty pairs breed at Arne.

From the high viewpoint on the small hill near Shipstal Point there are extensive views across the saltmarsh with Upton and Hamworthy to the north, Brownsea Island to the east and Purbeck and Corfe Castle to the south. On a clear day from this vantage point it is possible to see herds of Sika deer grazing on the saltmarsh. It is widely believed that the Sika deer here were escapees from the original herd which had been introduced to Brownsea Island in the 1870s. Some of these animals left the island by wading across to the mainland at low tide, and established a breeding colony on the saltmarsh. In the summer and autumn, large numbers of Sika move into the Arne reserve to feed on the grassy fields.

A beautiful male sand lizard photographed at Arne on a summer evening

Throughout the autumn, rutting takes place when the stags establish rutting stands with their harem of hinds, until they are defeated in a challenge. Challenges between mature males occur frequently as they clash antlers ferociously until one of them gives in. The winner must rest and gather strength before another challenger sees an opportunity. On all main access points to the RSPB reserve, information boards warn visitors of the dangers of Sika deer, especially during the autumn rut. I once parked my car near the bird feeding station in the main car park. When I returned hours later, several Sika were at the bird food and their stag would not allow me to get near my car!

Young Sika stags in autumn, not yet capable of challenging in the rut

The RSPB have now secured this wonderful wilderness for future generations to enjoy and so it should be, as this is after all one of the finest wildlife locations not only in Dorset but in the whole of the UK. Where else could you observe international rarities, watch herds of wild deer and marvel at flocks of wading birds flashing their wingbars in unison, all in the same afternoon? It is not only the sightings of varied wildlife but also the untamed sounds which make Arne such an enchanting place. The forlorn cry of the curlew, the clattering of crashing antlers, the yaffle of the green woodpecker and the churring of the nightjar at dusk: together, these sounds of the wild help to create an enthralling atmosphere.

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