Dorset in winter
Guy Edwardes captures our county’s landscapes and wildlife
Published in February ’11
The Dorset countryside can look a little bleak and barren during the winter months. However, if you know where to look there are often some spectacular scenes to be witnessed and always an abundance of wildlife to be found.
I consider winter to be the best season to explore the rugged and magnificent Dorset coastline. At this time of the year the sun rises and sets out to sea, casting golden light along the shoreline and cliffs. There are often periods of exceptionally clear air that provide fabulous views from the highest points along the coast. When a winter storm lashes our shores head for a viewpoint such as Portland Bill or the Langmoor and Lister Gardens in Lyme Regis to witness the spectacle in safety.
North Dorset has been most prone to significant snowfall in recent years. Shaftesbury is the highest town in Dorset and can be particularly affected. It can be difficult to travel far in these conditions but it is well worth exploring on foot to view the magnificent scenes. Spare a thought for birds of prey such as barn owl and wintering short-eared owl as these conditions can make it almost impossible for them to find mice and voles beneath the snow.
When the temperature drops below freezing frost will begin to form. In areas prone to mist and fog this can turn into a thick layer of hoar frost on trees and vegetation, producing a most dazzling spectacle come morning. Some of the best places to view this magical display are river valleys and the lowest points in the Marshwood and Blackmore Vales.
Our garden bird populations are boosted during the winter months by thousands of migrants such as chaffinch, blue tit, siskin and great tit, all of which travel south to escape the harsh winter conditions in Scandinavia and other countries in northern Europe. Some species only occur in Dorset during the winter months such as redwing, fieldfare, brambling and occasionally waxwing. Feeding the birds in your garden can benefit them greatly during spells of cold weather. However, feeding must be consistent otherwise the birds will rely upon the food source you are supplying and may struggle if it stops suddenly, especially in areas where other people aren’t feeding them. It is equally important to provide a constant supply of unfrozen drinking water. Watch out for huge flocks of starlings congregating at dusk to roost in reed-beds. By gathering in such large numbers individual birds are less likely to be preyed upon by sparrowhawks and peregrine falcons.
Don’t let the cold temperatures discourage you from exploring Dorset’s coast and countryside. Dress up warm and enjoy our county’s breathtaking landscape and remarkable wildlife this winter!
DORSET’S BEST WINTER WALKS
Lulworth Range Walks:
Footpaths pass through some of the Jurassic Coast’s most impressive scenery between Kimmeridge Bay and Lulworth Cove. The walks are situated on MOD land and are open most weekends and during public holidays. See http://www.dorsetforyou.com/389942 for more details.
Melbury Beacon and Fontmell Down:
A short but fairly strenuous walk across the downs of north Dorset providing spectacular views over the Blackmore Vale and the Saxon town of Shaftesbury. Further details can be found on the National Trust website.
Lewesdon Hill and Pilsdon Pen:
This 7 mile circular walk begins in Broadwindsor and takes in the two highest hills in Dorset – Lewesdon Hill 279m and Pilsdon Pen 277m. Both hills provide stunning views of the patchwork landscape of the Marshwood Vale. Directions can be found here http://www.greatwalksinbritain.co.uk/Editions/Walks/
WHERE TO WATCH WILDLIFE IN WINTER
Radipole lake RSPB reserve:
This fabulous nature reserve right in the centre of Weymouth is one of the best locations in Dorset to observe bearded tits, bittern and water rail during the winter months.
Lodmoor RSPB reserve:
An RSPB nature reserve situated just to the east of Weymouth. The lagoons here support a variety of overwintering wading birds, along with little egret, bearded tit, Cetti’s warbler, bittern, water rail and a range of wildfowl, all of which can be viewed from several points along a well-made and level, circular trail.
The Isle of Portland:
Portland Bill is a great spot to view seabirds, especially when they get pushed closer to the coast by passing storms. Purple sandpiper, turnstone and goosander can also be observed along Portland’s rocky shoreline.
This Dorset Wildlife Trust reserve is an excellent place to spot wildlife on a frosty winter morning. Watch out for both fallow and roe deer. A circular walk leads through the reserve’s mixed woodland and then back along a disused railway line.
Boat trips to the island run, weekends only, from 19 February departing from Sandbanks. A winter visit will be rewarded with views of a variety of wintering wading birds on the lagoons such as golden plover and avocet. Red squirrels are present – if not always prepared to pose – all year. Contact the Dorset Wildlife Trust for more information 01305 264620.