Ferndown’s top bog
Published in November ’14
Ferndown has the reputation of being one of Dorset’s most thriving towns, having successfully expanded over the last hundred years or so from the little village of Fern Down to the second largest inland town in the county, exceeded only by Dorchester. A large part of the town itself is made up of tranquil residential areas, and on its western outskirts is the largest industrial estate in East Dorset.
So it comes as something of a surprise to learn that there is a 56-acre nature reserve within minutes of all this. And the name of this oasis is even more of a surprise: Slop Bog. Perhaps the unattractiveness of its name is responsible for its lack of fame, for the hallowed cliché ‘hidden gem’ hardly does its obscurity justice – one naturalist who uploaded a Youtube video of wildlife at Slop Bog commented that he had driven past it thousands of times without being aware it existed. But locally it is indeed known and loved by a caring few, including the self-styled Slop Bog Guardians, a group which was formed in 2003 in response to concerns about tree-felling in the area.
‘Guardians’, note, rather than merely ‘friends’: a justified designation, because Slop Bog has been under threat for many years. It is all that remains of the old Hampreston Heath, which was once part of a vast area of heathland extending from the New Forest to Purbeck; by 1985 it had been gradually whittled down to its present size. The heathland itself had been created when Bronze Age man started farming and cleared the wildwood, the name which has been given to the natural landscape which developed after the last Ice Age. So much of Britain was still woodland when Julius Caesar arrived with his first invasion force in 55 BC that he is said to have grumbled that the whole island was ‘one horrible forest’. But by then man had started to make his mark on the wildwood – his grazing, burning and cutting prevented woodland returning to the sandy soils, and thus the heathland developed. The heath was harvested by the local inhabitants, who used the bracken for their stables (and in later years the Verwood potteries used it as a kind of bubble wrap), the gorse as a fuel for their bread ovens, and the heather not only as a fuel but also instead of thatching for their roofs.
In 1611 John Speed, the innovative Tudor mapmaker, published an atlas containing the first maps of the British counties, and in the accompanying text he describes the Dorsetshire heathlands between Poole and Wareham as ‘yielding furze and ling’ for fuel that were ecomically important for the local community. He mentions that the heathlands were wild enough for smugglers to ‘travel within so as to conceal their contraband’. A century later, Isaac Gulliver was still making use of this uninhabited stretch of heathland for his nefarious activities. By then, Slop Bog was no more than a small wet corner of Hampreston Heath.
The Hampreston Enclosure Award of 1815 makes mention of locals having ‘Turbary Rights’ for Slop Bog, which meant that they were allowed to cut a certain amount of peat or heather turf which they could use as a slow-burning fuel. Ordnance Survey maps from the late 19th century show conifer plantations on drier parts of the heath, and their descendants stand on Slop Bog today.
In 1859 David Stewart, whose father had nurseries in Scotland, started a branch nursery in Ferndown to take advantage of the milder climate for growing less hardy stock. Slop Bog was used for the growing of pond plants (particularly lilies), as Stewart’s nurseries were situated next to it. Many of the lily beds can still be seen today, although they were abandoned in the 1960s. David Stewart’s descendants opened the first ‘garden centre’ in the UK in Ferndown in 1955.
During the 20th century, much of the land surrounding Slop Bog was divided into smaller plots for housing, and the ‘suburban sprawl’ ate into the countryside: in the 1970s the bungalows of Hazel Drive were built, followed in the 1980s by Cedar Way and Redwood Drive. Slop Bog’s final boundaries were defined by the construction of the Ferndown by-pass, the A31, in 1985. But by this time awareness of the importance of the environment had increased significantly, and the realisation that the heathland of Dorset was now at 15% of its 1850 levels led to the designation of Slop Bog as a Site of Special Scientific Interest. The citation mentions that ‘the bog communities on the deep peat of Slop Bog are exceptionally rich’, pointing out such rare species as marsh gentian, mud sedge, bog asphodel, brown beak sedge, as well as at least eleven species of dragonfly, including the rare small red damselfly.
Dorset CC bought Slop Bog in 1992 and ten years later declared it a Local Nature Reserve; it is now managed by Dorset Countryside. Thanks to a Heritage Lottery Fund grant in 2005, access for local residents was much improved, and waymarkers and information boards were installed; but perhaps the most significant development was the building of a boardwalk, which means that visitors have the rare opportunity to cross a sphagnum bog without getting their feet wet. It also gives younger visitors the chance to indulge in pond dipping, an educational activity in which they dip nets into the water and investigate the tiny creatures they have caught.
So Slop Bog has now come of age as a ‘visitor attraction’, and the very unattractiveness of its name is part of that attraction – a decidedly 21st-century phenomenon. But the contemporary fascination with wildlife and the environment is far more responsible for the interest in Slop Bog, and there is indeed much to see here if you are patient.
The bird life, for example: stonechats have nested here, and so have the much rarer Dartford warblers, a species which almost became extinct in the UK in the last century. Nightjars and greater spotted woodpeckers have also been recorded, and snipe have been seen near the boardwalk in the winter.
Entomologists have even more delights in store, not only because of the eleven species of dragonfly noted in the SSSI citation (and since then three more species have been recorded). The silver-studded blue butterfly is listed as a Priority Species in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan and is often described as being rare, but from June to September great numbers can be seen on the wing here. Other butterflies which have been recorded at Slop Bog include the brimstone, the grayling, the ringlet and the speckled wood.
Botanists, too, will find that Slop Bog has much to offer them. The marsh gentian is rarely seen in the UK, but here the conditions are perfect for them. The snag is that the flowers only open fully when the sun is shining, and this elusiveness contributes to their rarity. The insect-eating sundew can also be found here, as can bog asphodel, cotton grass, white beak-sedge and bog myrtle.
As for fauna apart from insects, lizards are frequently seen on the boardwalk on sunny days. Slow-worms are also lizards, despite their snake-like appearance, and they can be found, again on sunny days, on the pathways across the dry part of Slop Bog, as can the UK’s only poisonous snake, the adder, although those of a nervous disposition will be comforted to learn that only a few are seen each year. Moreover, it only attacks to defend itself. Somewhat less alarming but more frequently encountered are the common frog, the grass-snake and the palmate newt.
Nowadays havens of nature such as Slop Bog must be managed to ensure not only their present idyllic state but also their future, and this task has been entrusted to Dorset Countryside. Among other things, this involves grazing small numbers of hardy cattle or ponies during the summer months to check the spread of purple moor-grass, which would otherwise overrun the area. Coppicing and thinning work encourages a more diverse range of trees, and the non-native maritime pine trees will be felled and replaced with native alder, buckthorn, birch, holly, hazel and oak. The traditional practice of small-scale peat-cutting continues in the summer months, when water levels are low. When the wet turves are laid out to dry, the newly-created ponds are used by dragonflies to lay their eggs. Dorset Countryside and its team of Rangers is assisted by the Slop Bog Guardians through wildlife surveys, practical work parties, fundraising and encouraging local participation.
Natural England, the government’s adviser on the natural environment, regularly assesses the condition of Slop Bog, and recent years have seen its status upgraded from ‘no change’ to ‘recovering’. The efforts of all concerned have brought this about, but it is a sobering thought that a lot of hard work is needed to protect and maintain a natural site such as Slop Bog in
the 21st century. ◗