National Character Area 135

Dorset Heaths - Summary and Headline Statements of Environmental Opportunity


Dorset Heaths National Character Area contains part of the larger Dorset Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty as well as a major conurbation – the second largest in south- west England – consisting of the contiguous settlements of Poole, Bournemouth and Christchurch. Historically the area was dominated by extensive blocks of heathland (the Egdon Heath of Thomas Hardy’s novels) separated by river valleys and also by the two natural harbours of Poole and Christchurch.

This landscape, which pollen evidence suggests was established by the Bronze Age, saw rapid evolution in the last three centuries. The conurbation grew out of very small settlements. Improved technologies allowed first agriculture then conifer forestry to become significant land uses, more recently joined by open cast mineral working and military training.

Today the area contains some of the best lowland heath left in England, much of it managed as nature reserves by a variety of organisations and designated as a Special Protection Area (SPA), Special Area of Conservation and Ramsar site. Specialised species include Dartford warbler, nightjar, woodlark, sand lizard, smooth snake, ladybird spider, Purbeck mason wasp, southern damselfly, marsh gentian and Dorset heath. The larger tracts, along with the often adjacent conifer plantations, can still provide a real sense of wilderness and tranquillity, despite the close proximity of a major conurbation. In recent decades substantial work has been undertaken to both improve the condition of the habitat on these sites and to extend some of them back onto former heathland sites that had temporarily seen other uses. This work continues with the objective of physically connecting some of the bigger heathland blocks.

The two harbours support large populations of wetland birds, and the larger harbour of Poole is designated as both an SPA and Ramsar site. Both little egret and Mediterranean gull effectively launched their colonisation of the UK from this location.

Tourism is a major industry, with visitors making good use of easy transport links to London. Visitors range from traditional ‘bucket and spade’ beach holidays to high-end marine tourism exploiting the sheltered waters of Poole Harbour and Poole Bay just outside the harbour entrance.

Headline Statements of Environmental Opportunity (SEO)

See the Statements of Environmental Opportunity section for more details on the headlines listed below.


Protect the internationally important heathlands to make the resource more resilient to recreational pressure, succession to scrub or woodland and the likely impacts of climate change. Enhance the integrity of the landscape and the effectiveness of biodiversity conservation measures by extending sites and re-establishing physical links where possible between once separate blocks of heathland and work to embed the current and future relevance of this resource into the local economy.


Protect and enhance Poole Harbour and its catchment, taking timely action to reduce eutrophication and mitigate (or compensate for) the likely effects of sea level rise, thereby securing the future of local tourism and fishing businesses as well as the important wildlife of the harbour.


Enhance opportunities for recreation in natural greenspace by securing a network of new and revitalised suitable alternative natural greenspace (SANGS) centred on the Christchurch-Bournemouth-Poole conurbation that provides a rich and varied countryside experience capable of supporting local health programmes and attracting and retaining local business while also deflecting some recreational pressure from the most sensitive environmental assets.


Promote creative and effective solutions to environmental constraints so that enterprise can pursue sustainable development solutions to enhance local prosperity.