The reserve is made up of three separate sites in and around Wareham – Hartland Moor and Stoborough Heath, Sandford Heath and Morden Bog.
Two hundred years ago, the Dorset Heaths covered over 150 square miles in vast tracts divided only by river valleys. Over the years, forestry, building and agriculture have all taken their toll and today only around 30 square miles remain, much of it in small fragments.
These sites now represent around 10% of Britain’s heathland, and 2% of all that remains in Europe as a whole. Together with our partners, Natural England is reconnecting some of these isolated fragments and helping to re-create the landscape of Egdon Heath, so evocatively described in the novels of Thomas Hardy.
These two adjoining reserves form an extensive heathland site covering over 350 hectares.
Hartland Moor takes it names from the Y shaped bog that drains into Poole Harbour. Uniquely, while the northern branch is acidic, the southern arm is alkaline, leading to a superb mixture of plants, including the unmistakable bright blue trumpets of marsh gentian.
Heather dominates the dryer areas, while the verges are rich with wildflowers in spring and summer, including marsh orchids, yellow rattle and marsh helleborines, as well as adders-tongue ferns.
Stoborough Heath also includes the 67 hectare Sunnyside Farm, which is home to rare plants including marsh orchids, smooth catsear and brown-beak sedge.
If you enter the site from the western access near Sandford, you’ll fins an area of woodland that includes beech, alder and birch. This gradually changes to mature Scots pine, before you emerge from the trees onto the open heath.
When the reserve was bought by Natural England, conifers had already spread over much of the heathland. Many of theses trees have now been removed and heather has been quick to re-colonise the land, growing back vigorously from dormant seed in the soil.
The eastern part of the site was once part of the Royal Naval Cordite factory, which produced explosives during the Second World War. An imposing gun tower can still be seen, one of a ring of anti-aircraft defences that once protected the factory.
The dry heath in the north of the reserve contains some of the oldest heather in Dorset. Dominated by ling, there is a magnificent carpet of pink and purple during the summer, with splashes of yellow from the flowering dwarf gorse.
This dry heath slopes southwards and as the ground becomes wetter, cross-leaved heath abounds, its pink haze of flowers and grey leaves provide the perfect backdrop for other colourful plants.
The wet heath in turn develops into the largest valley bog in Dorset, which forms the majority of the NNR. The mire is dominated by purple moor grass speckled with pockets of other plants such as the aromatic shrub bog myrtle, white cotton grass and bright yellow clumps of bog asphodel.
Heathland is a habitat that has been created by man’s activities since the Bronze Age and we need to continue to manage it today, by clearing scrub and allowing heather to flourish.
It is important for wildlife to keep a mixture of different heather heights, and during the winter, controlled burning is carried out. Blocks of common gorse are also burned on a rotational basis, as the dense thickets are a fire hazard, while the young compact bushes that re-grow are great nest sites for Dartford warblers and stonechats.
The reserve also has a network of mown firebreaks and Emergency Water Supply pools for the Fire Brigade. These are fenced off as they are deep and potentially dangerous.
Many of the firebreaks also have rotovated edges, giving added protection against the creep of fire. This bare sand is also great for burrowing bees and wasps, and egg laying sand lizards.
Hardy ponies and cattle have been reintroduced to graze some areas of the reserve and help keep taller grasses such as purple moor grass in check, to prevent them from swamping smaller, rarer plants. Their grazing action provides more structure in the vegetation, particularly in the wetter areas.
Other NNRs in the area