Nearly a third of Dorset's internationally important heathland is situated in the urban areas of South East Dorset, with nearly half a million people living nearby. These heaths experience particular problems as a result of being used for recreation.These problems include:
Heathlands are now more rare than the rainforest!
If you are lucky enough to live in the area, Dorset or parts of Hampshire, you may think the UK has plenty of heathland.
Since 1800 more than 80 per cent of lowland heathland has been lost, making heathland rarer than rainforests. The UK is responsible for safeguarding almost a fifth of the world's remaining heathland.
Here in the south, we have lost 85% of our heaths to forestry, roads, farming, building and mineral extraction in the last 250 years. The heaths of southern England are some of the best and most important heaths left in Europe.
Many organisations are working hard to conserve what fragments remain and to restore areas that have been overtaken by 'scrub'. This rare habitat and its wildlife are struggling to survive in the middle of busy towns where the effects of fire and other pressures are particularly devastating. The support of local communities in South East Dorset is crucial to its success.
A call for help in tackling the serious problems occurring in our urban heaths was made to the European Union's LIFE-Nature Fund several years ago.
LIFE is short for 'L'Instrument Financier pour l'Environnement which translates as 'The Financial Instrument for the Environment'. It was introduced in 1992 as a source of funding to help member states conserve species and habitats protected under European law. Networks of hundreds of sites, collectively named ‘Natura 2000’ sites have been established in the UK and throughout Europe. These sites are to protect the species and habitats listed under the "Birds Directive" (79/409/EEC) and the "Habitats Directive" (92/43/EEC).
For more details on how the European Union is helping the environment for the benefit of communities and their wildlife please visit their website, http://ec.europa.eu/environment/index_en.htm
LIFE provided an opportunity for the heathlands suffering in South East Dorset to get some much needed support. The successful approach has resulted in the Urban Heaths Partnership being awarded £1.2 million from LIFE-Nature. This money is matched by the partnership; a locally based initiative made up of 10 partner organisations including:
Dorset County Council is the lead partner and coordinates the partnership in the form of the Urban Heaths LIFE Project (UHLP) team.
In tackling the range of pressures upon the heaths, UHLP's aim is not to create preserved 'nature sanctuaries' where any human activity is prohibited. These urban heaths are often the only nearby green space left for people to visit in built up areas. However, some people do not realise just how fragile and threatened heaths are.
Thanks to the funding from the EU the UHLP has been able to raise awareness a great deal through an energetic programme of education and communication. The Urban Heaths LIFE Project has provided:
Fires have long been the greatest threat, so the schools education programme has focused on this issue in particular. The UHLP team is working closely with Dorset Police and DFRS. During the warmer, drier summer months the heaths suffer from a very high number of uncontrolled and deliberately set fires. These can have a devastating effect on the rare plants and animals that survive on the few remaining heaths. Many species have adapted to heathlands over thousands of years and would not prosper anywhere else.
The damage caused by arson means that Alder Hills Local Nature Reserve is sadly no longer one of the most important sites in the country for the endangered sand lizard. Fire also destroys the breeding areas of many rare bird species including the Dartford Warbler. In recent years houses adjacent to Canford Heath have been evacuated during heath fires and guttering and window frames were damaged by radiant heat. The deliberately set April 2002 fire at Upton Heath, was a huge cost to the rescue services and ultimately the taxpayer. Firefighters attended from three counties, leaving sparse cover over a very large area and costing a considerable amount of money in terms of equipment and work-hours.
Through working together in the partnership the pre-determined attendance of DFRS has been modified so that one appliance and a Landrover attend the larger heath sites when there is a fire.
In order to fully understand where and when these incidents are occurring and to combat the problems, the Urban Heaths Partnership utilises Geographical Information Systems (GSI) to monitor and record incidents. To find out more on this piece of 'GIS' ingenuity and to view the number of incidents on our urban heaths, please visit to the map page on www.dorsetheaths.org.uk.
Achieving a greater understanding, will hopefully increase a sense of care and responsibility towards a community asset.
If you would like more information about the LIFE Project please see the contact details at the bottom of this page.
The main thrust of the project is an education programme for schools and the local community. Sarah Doel is the dedicated Education Officer. An Education Strategy for the urban heathlands was produced, taking account of target audiences such as:
The Education Strategy aims to provide a structured framework for action that will co-ordinate the education activities of:
The education programme, both within schools and the community, is helping everyone to understand the importance of the urban heathlands as an ecological and cultural asset. Pupils can gain a real understanding of the consequences of 'seemingly harmless' activities. The programme is encouraging individuals to take responsibility for their actions upon the heath in line with the citizenship programme within UK schools.
One of the main challenges to the education programme is to ensure a greater awareness amongst children, of any age, to the dangers of heath fires and the severe consequences that follow. The important and potentially life-saving messages will need to be repeated in a suitable way throughout the child's education. This will re-enforce the severity of the issue at times when older children may be more vulnerable to peer pressure.
Sarah and the project team have already made many successful visits to the schools, accompanied by fire crews from local stations. This really helps capture the children’s attention. Teachers and pupils can listen to a first hand account of just how dangerous and hard it is to fight a heath fire and how it puts everyone else in danger. The pupils are told that the important safety messages about heath fires are relevant to any form of arson or hoax calls. Sarah has also been providing a helpful input to DFRS’s own Education Strategy.
When crews are called away during an Urban Heaths Partnership visit, UHLP have a back up plan with real firefighters kits, thanks to DFRS, for the students to try out and know for themselves how hot and heavy the outfits can get. Pupils are then fully aware of how they can help their local fire crews as well as the community and heathland wildlife by not playing with fire!
For more information on this topic, visit www.dorsetheaths.org.uk or contact the project office;