The best of Dorset in words and pictures

The wild world on display – Arne

The nature reserve of Arne, just outside Wareham, is not just for birdwatchers, says Mark Coombes

There is a feeling of remoteness to Arne which belies its proximity both to Wareham and to Poole

Drive south from Wareham town centre, then turn first left after the causeway and you will eventually end up at Arne. It is an unusual place with a vast expanse of open heathland and old oak woodland with animals as varied as its habitats: from Dartford warblers to nightjars, dragonflies to deer, and the reserve overlooks Poole Harbour where wading birds, ducks and geese, peregrines, marsh and hen harriers and even ospreys on migration can be seen in late summer and in autumn. The RSPB even lays on a ‘Bird Bingo’ game to get all the family searching for bugs, flowers and all sorts of other wildlife.
Two of us have been going to Arne, on average about once a month, for a year. I am normally accompanied by my eight-year-old son, but my five-year-old would rather play with his cars and my wife would rather stay in hers. Knowing Arne is an RSPB reserve, we thought it would be a nice place to go for a walk, and take a few photos (a new hobby).
Visiting Arne for the first time one does not really know what to expect, but even on arrival at Arne’s car park, there is plenty of activity; visually, there’s a flutter of small birds and the scampering of squirrels, while on the audio front there’s a good deal of twittering from our feathered friends in the trees. Around the small visitors’ centre, where there are always friendly, helpful RSPB staff, you can watch the activity on the bird feeders. For the beginner this is ideal bird-watching as the birds will actually stay still, or at least in one place, for more than ten seconds.

Even the greenest of bird-spotters can find something to identify

After a while, it becomes possible, even for the complete beginner, to make out the markings and colours of the various visitors. A good example is the nuthatch – a particularly interesting little bird which has a mask around its eyes and looks like an avian version of Zorro.
Spreading our wings, as it were, we walked along, trying to keep quiet; at this stage it is worth pointing out the disadvantage of an eight-year-old companion who likes to talk… constantly. Then we came across a sika deer, then another, then another; we saw so many on that first visit we lost count. At our first encounter, they were at least fifty yards away; a little later, we came within twenty feet of another group, this time of female sika. This was particularly exciting for my son, who crept, slowly (and indeed quietly) towards a female deer to try to get even closer.

Sika deer grazing at Arne with Hamworthy visible beyond

The walk through to Shipstal is lovely; you can stick to the road, as we did on our first visit, or turn left over the hill and walk through to the woodland hide. It’s best to get to Arne as early as possible – again, selecting one’s companion may have an impact on how early this can be, and walking towards the hide, one can normally get to see some deer through the woodland. Eventually though, one arrives at the hide. This is a pleasant spot to sit and look out over Poole harbour, watching the wading birds and the deer out on the reed beds. Continuing to follow the path takes one past various ponds; the water is black and murky and while, by all accounts, there are raft spiders living here, as spiders are one of my phobias, I am happy to report that I have neither looked for, nor seen, one. Normally I look straight ahead just in case one of the residents is lurking about.

There is a restricted colour palette to Arne at certain times of year, with grey and brown in profusion

Ultimately one reaches Shipstal beach, which is a particularly lovely place to watch the world go by, whether it be the comings and goings of the boats and kayakers, or the oystercatchers and terns of many flavours.
Continue to follow the path through the woodland, looking at the ants’ nests to the left of the path, one eventually returns to the car park. Visit Arne in the spring and the noise coming from these nests is deafening; on first thought this seems unlikely, but on reflection, it is perhaps no surprise that millions of ants in the leaf litter is likely to make quite
a racket.

Arne's ants are not only visible, but sometimes audible too

For the energetic, there is the second, and often more enjoyable walk. Go through the overflow car park and onto Coombe Heath. Walking over the heath separates the ornithological men from the boys, or in our case, the man and boy from the ornithologist: over the heath one has many sightings of small birds which flutter up, with a quick flash of something, and then, just as quickly, disappear back into the heather. I call these the ‘small non-descript’ birds as (with all possible apologies to avid twitchers), to the uninitiated, they are small and cannot be described.
Cresting the hill one gets a great view of the harbour and a huge variety of wading birds and geese. There is a seating area at the top, with a view to look out over the water towards Corfe. It is strongly recommended to take a pair of binoculars, to see more than just hundreds of white dots in the water.

Arne is an excellent place to see waders like egrets

Walk a little further and, hidden down in a sunken path, is another hide. This is a great place just to sit and watch – for at least twenty seconds with an eight-year-old boy in tow, for as long as you like without one. And indeed it is here that I have had some of my best bird sightings – albeit they were pointed out by my fellow hide inhabitants (all of whom seem friendly and knowledgeable), but I have now seen a Dartford warbler and, my most exciting bird-watching moment, the mightily impressive Marsh Harrier, an absolutely beautiful raptor.
It is possible (even without getting lost) to spend hours walking around, and since our first visit, we have both become hooked. It’s a fantastic place and (please do not shout at the magazine) I am starting to tell the difference between a sparrow and a wren. And my eight year old? Well, he knows what a buzzard and a robin look like, but that is about as far as he has got. But that’s not really the whole point, is it? He is out and about, experiencing nature, seeing its beauty and beginning to understand the idea that things don’t run or fly away quite so quickly if you are quiet. If he can bring that lesson home and teach it to his younger brother, I think it’s fair to say our Arne trips will be regarded as having been an unmitigated success.
Arne itself is a lovely area; it is quiet and peaceful and has such a variety of things to see and hear. It is a wonderful place to walk around, and indeed a lovely place to stand and stare.
• The car park at Arne is open from 8.30am until dusk. For more information, visit or call 01929 553360

A sika stag shows evidence of some rutting combat on his flank