A Quick Introduction to Dorset

In this section I try and give those who have never visited Dorset a flavour of the county, its geology and its wildlife. It can only be the briefest of introductions as I am not capable of producing a definitive guide!

There are, however, many other sources of information about Dorset on the internet and maybe, after reading my short notes you may feel inclined to go 'surfing' to find out more. There are also some excellent guides and books available to buy, especially some published by the Dorset Wildlife Trust and also by the Dorset Environmental Records Centre.


About Dorset

will admit to being somewhat biased but Dorset is, to my mind, a most beautiful place and I am so lucky to live here!

I should start, for the benefit of any international visitors especially, by saying that Dorset lies on the south coast of England, just to the west of centre! It is not a large county and in many ways is a forgotten county. We have no cities here, no motorways and probably no more than thirty miles of dual carriageway. Outside of the urban areas of Bournemouth and Poole the only other major residential area is around the seaside town of Weymouth. It is a largely unspoilt county with a strong market town tradition that remains to this day.

The Dorset community life is based around the market towns of Wimborne, Blandford, Wareham, Sturminster Newton, Shaftesbury, Sherborne, Bridport and, of course, Dorchester, the county town. Around these towns are delightful, small villages often linked only by country lanes.

Dorset has a long and dramatic coastline formed mainly of hills and cliffs made of limestone. Commonly now known as the 'Jurassic Coast' it is designated a World Heritage Site and an area of outstandingly natural beauty. It is renowned  as a primary place to find fossils.

The county has an amazingly high level of bio-diversity. It is thought that it has the highest number of different species of animal and plant species per acre than any other British county although I am not certain this has ever been scientifically established!

Dorset is notable for having all six indigenous species of reptile living here. It also has its own butterfly, the Lulworth skipper as well as good colonies of other butterflies that are rare elsewhere in the United Kingdom such as the adonis blue, silver-studded blue, small blue and silver-spotted skipper. It is a top spot for bird migration both in spring and autumn, the Observatory on Portland is world renowned. We also have a large population of Dartford warblers, rare outside the county.

There are some notable plant species too, including the early spider orchid that is found in very few other places in the United Kingdom as well as our own heather, the Dorset heath and our own spurge, Portland spurge.

What brings about this diversity? Its geology. Geology is a complex subject but the array of rocks that Dorset is built on produces various soil types which lead to a wide range of plants for the insects and other animals to feed on. I have written a short explanation of the geology which you can find on the next page, just click the link.

I could write for pages on Dorset but you do not have time for that. View the sites database to find out the best places to go to see Dorset at its best and the species database to track down those species you want to see. Above all, enjoy the nature of Dorset, it is priceless.


My Top 10 Sites for Visitors

I am often asked by people intending to visit Dorset where they should go whilst they are here for the best wildlife experience. It is, of course, an impossible question to answer as it will depend very much on what an individual particularly wants to see as well as the time of year of the visit (not everyone comes in high summer!). In this article I try to pick out my top ten favourites to share with you in the hope that you will find some to suit your interests.

The top ten is presented in ALPHABETICAL order and not in an order of preference. A link to my details of each of the sites can be made by clicking on the site name.

Alners Gorse

A Dorset Butterfly Conservation reserve so a top place to go in mid-summer for butterflies but Alners Gorse is much more than that. It has a wonderful display of flora and, as a result, insects that buzz around them. Alners Gorse is a totally 'natural' environment that is a tiny remnant of what this area of Dorset was once like.


Arne is a premier RSPB reserve and no visit to Dorset would be complete without a visit. It may be the RSPB but there is more to Arne than birds, especially in summer. The reserve is mainly heath inland and  tidal mud-flats on the shore line with Poole Harbour. The central accessible area of the reserve is a matrix of habitats and there is always something to interest the amateur naturalist. Arne us just a lovely place to be. 

Brownsea Island

With no cars and access only by boat Brownsea is a must for all lovers of peace and tranquillity. It can be bit of an expensive day out for a family by the time you have paid to park, paid for the ferry, paid the National Trust entrance fee and then the Dorset Wildlife Trust entrance fee (and that is before you visit the cafe and the shop!). However, it really is worth a visit, even if it only to see the red squirrels. There is much more to Brownsea though including the wonderful saline lagoon which is a nesting place for terns and other waterfowl and waders.


If I was leaving Dorset and had time to visit one place before having to depart I would head for Durlston, near Swanage. As much as I love Arne, Durlston gives you such wonderful views of the Purbeck coastline as well as an abundance of wildlife and plants. It is a truly stunning place on a warm summers day with view to the Isle of Wight to the east and to Portland to the west. The flower meadows are unbelievable and the cliffs home to nesting sea birds. Yes, its Durlston for me!

Garston Wood

The RSPB has four reserves in Dorset and Garston Wood is the least well known but, although smaller than the others, it is just as special. In spring the wild flowers are a sight to behold and the bird song a real joy. In summer, whilst flowers remain a major attraction it is butterflies and other insects that come to the fore. Right on the edge of the county border with Wiltshire it is, perhaps, a but out on a limb but well worth the journey.

Hog Cliff

My inclusion of Hog Cliff might surprise a few locals but I wanted to give a variety of habitats in jmy top ten selection and I had to include a chalk grrassland site. A national nature reserve Hog Cliff is actually little known and rather neglected by visitors although that, of course, counts in its favour if, like me , you oprefer peace and quiet. A superb array of flowers and butterflies Hog Cliff is an ideal place to spend a summer afternoon.

Kingcombe Meadows

I can say with some confidence that Kingcombe Meadows is truly unique. Once a farm it was never affected by intensification and so, when it became available for purchase back in the 1980's the Dorset Wildlife Trust were able to raise the funds to buy it and so maintain in its original condition. West Dorset is a beautiful area and at Kingcombe you see this at its best and just as it was  before the second world war. Yes, it is unique!  

Portland Bill

No visit to Dorset would be complete without a visit to Portland. As you cross the causeway from Weymouth onto the island you enter a totally different world; a world of stone. Several of the redundant stone quarries are nature reserves and worth a visit but going down to the 'Bill' is a must. With the sea on both sides, high cliffs and limestone grassland in between there is something for everyone. Portland is, of course, famous for migrationg birds and the Portalnd Observaotory is one of the foremost bird observatories in the country. If you are here in winter and get the chance, go down on a wild, windy day and just take a look at the sea!

Powerstock Common

I find it difficult to describe Powerstock Common, it is best you go and see it for yourself. The 'common' was once crossed by a railway that has long since gone and the track of the old railway is pure delight for flowers and insects. The rough, damp pasture of the common is home to countless grasshoppers as well as the marsh fritilary butterfly and that is before you reach the woodland. Powerstock is certainly worthy of its place in my top ten!  


Although in the middle of Weymouth these two RSPB reserves are a must, certainly in winter for birds but Radipole is also a delight in summer too. Radipole is one enormous reed bed and has several interesting nesting bird species along with a lot of flowers ans some rare insects. Although a reed bed the site is fully accessible as the RSPB have done some wonderful work to make it so. 

I must stress again, these are my personal choice and there are many other places I could have included but, as I restricted myself to ten, then that is it!


My Top 10 Species for Visitors

Dorset is blessed with a diverse array of habitats and, as a result, a diverse flora and fauna. Amongst the animals and plants found here there are some that are almost unique to Dorset and only found here. here are others that can be found elsewhere in Britain but are more 'common' here in Dorset. If you are coming to Dorset here are ten species you might want to go looking for. The names are also links to the page about tha species in the main database where you can find more information about the species and where you can see it.

Sand Lizard

The sand lizard can be found in a few locations in country but it is here in Dorset that you will find their stronghold. They are very common on the heaths where the sandy soil is ideal for their nesting requirements. I say they are very common but whether you will see one on your visit is another matter. I spend many hours on the local heaths and hardly ever set eyes on one!

Smooth Snake

What I wrote about the  sand lizard could be repeated for the smooth snake except that instead of 'hardly ever' set eyes on one make that 'never'! The best way to see a smooth snake is to go to Arne on a Wednesday morning at 10.00am and join their weekly walk and then I am pretty sure the leader will find you one to see really close up as they are licensed to handle them

Dartford Warbler

Dartfords can be seen in other parts of the country too but people come from all over to see them here in Dorset because, again, this part of the country, the heaths especially, is home to the biggest number of them. They spend their life in and around gorse bushes and a favoured song perch in spring is often the highest point on a cluster of gorse bushes. Want to see one? Again, head to Arne for their weekly walk.


Once quite common across Great Britain the nightjar is far less often encountered. Another heathland specialist the Purbeck area of Dorset is a good place to find them but you need to go out at dusk. Once again, Arne is a top spot for them and the wardens there do special evening nightjar walks to see them. The walks are very popular and you need to book in advance.


I have included avocet in my list because, although they are now quite common in various parts of Britain in winter and also nest in East Anglia, we get very large numbers (over 1,000) in Poole Harbour now each winter and they can be seen at low tide from both Arne and on Brwonsea Island. They make a wonderful sight and I suspect the views you get here are as good as you fill find anywhere with the possible exception of the River Exe in Devon.

Lulworth Skipper

One species you definitely will not anywhere in Britain other than here in Dorset is our very own butterfly, the Lulworth skipper. Indeed, with numbers continuing to fall each year you are now lucky to see one here. The are a small, dull coloured butterfly but if you get to see them close up you will find they have a lovely pattern of rays of sunshine on their fore-wings. Found along the Purbeck coast and yes, near Lulworth (Bindon Hill) is one of the best places to see them.

Silver-studded Blue

Heath is such a rare habitat in Britain and much of what there is remaining is here in Dorset and so it is of little surprise that some of our rarest wildlife is associated with such a rare habitat. This is true of the silver-studded blue butterfly which is certainly at home on the heath. Most of our heaths have silver-studs on them in mid-summer, often in good numbers, but apart from a small colony of a sub-variety found on Portland you will not find them elsewhere.

Early Spider Orchid

Adopted by the Dorset Wildlife Trust as its logo the early spider orchid is another national rarity. Found also in a few places on the chalk cliffs in Kent it can be found in good number here on the limestone of the Purbeck cliffs. A recent survey established that there are over 1,000 at Durlston alone. A small orchid but an attractive one, the flower supposedly resemble a garden spider which makes them quite unmistakable if you find one, Found in April and May but they have a short season.

Portland Spurge

Head to Portland to see its very own spurge. It does also occur along the limestone Purbeck cliffs but it is Portland where it is most frequent although even here it could not in anyway be thought of as common. You will not see it anywhere else in the country.

Dorset Heath

You may think heather is heather but there are four species of heather found on the Dorset heathland and the Dorset Heath is the rarest. Found also in small quantities in parts of Devon and also in the Channel Islands this nationally rare plant is actually quite common on the heaths of Purbeck south of Poole Harbour, you just have to know how to recognise it.

Dorset has other special species too including the nationally scarce Adonis blue butterfly but as I set myself a limit of ten the above are 

The Geology of Dorset

This map is a file from the Wikimedia Commons.

Commons is a freely licensed media file repository

Sources: The Dorset Landscape, Its Scenery and Geology - John Chaffey, page 11, ISBN 1 871164 43 5 / Discover Dorset, Geology - Paul Ensom, page 8, ISBN 1 874336 52 0 : 


This is described as a simplified map of the geology of Dorset but it is still pretty complex (but then geology is a complex subject in my view!). To simplify it even further these are the important areas which have an affect the natural history of the county and its rich bio-diversity.


The Purbeck Beds and Portland limestone are extremely important for flora. The Purbeck cliffs and Portland Bill together with the south western ridge are home to many limestone loving flowers, grasses and fungi. Predominantly high cliffs topped with grassland you get superb views of the dramatic Jurassic coast along with some rare plants. Walking can be trying for the less able with some aggressive climbs and descents in places but well worth it if you can manage it. There are places where you can access the limestone grasslands safely, notably Durlston, Portland Bill and the area around the Hardy Monument.


Much of the centre of Dorset is a chalk ridge running from Cranborne Chase in the north east down the west of Dorchester and then a thin strip along the Purbeck Ridge from Lulworth to Ballard Down near Swanage. Calcareous soils, therefore, and chalk loving plants to be found along with more wonderful views.


Cupped by the high chalk ridges is the Poole Basin; a low lying area of sand, gravel and clays that give rise to the unique landscape and environment of the Dorset Heath. Internationally important heath which is home to all six species of indigenous reptiles as well some other rare invertebrates and plants, especially in the more boggy areas. In the centre of the basin is Poole Harbour itself. Said to be the second largest natural harbour in the word it is shallow and quickly reveals large areas of mud flats as the tide recedes and this makes it an incredible place for wintering wildfowl and waders.


To the west of the chalk ridge are an assortment of clays. This gives heavy, damp pasture and some ideal sites for orchids and other plants that need such conditions. West and north Dorset is truly beautiful and gives a feeling that things have gone on unchanged here for centuries.


The Fleet is the name given to the stretch of water that lies behind Chesil beach. Chesil Beach is, itself, one of the natural wonders of Britain but the water behind it is a magnet for wildfowl in winter and features the famous swannery at Abbotsbury of course.


To the extreme west of the county is a further area formed of a limestone called lias. This is the area around Lyme Regis and Golden Cap and some of the highest hills in Dorset, Lewesdon and Pillsden Pen. The coast here is famous for its fossils and the views are amazing and it said that you can see five counties from here including the coast of Wales.

I have tried to allocate the sites I have detailed in the Nature of Dorset to one of these six unique areas. Use the tabs above to see which sites lie within which geological region.