When it comes to protected areas, bigger (and inter-connected) is always better! This is especially poignant considering the British Trust of Ornithology’s State of Nature Report 2019, which highlighted the severe decline in the quantity and variety of natural habitats (and species) since 1970. So, it came as inspiring news when DEFRA officially announced the creation of the Purbeck Heaths National Nature Reserve (NNR), Dorset - making Purbeck Heaths the UK’s first “super sized” NNR in March 2020.
The new created Purbeck Heaths NNR consists of three existing NNRs (Stoborough Heath, Hartland Moor, and Studland & Godlingston Heath) and the lands between them. The size of the original protected area has increased by a staggering 340% from 976 ha to 3,311 ha. This is the result of the combined and coordinated efforts of seven conservation partners and numerous landowners, including Natural England, Rempstone Estate, Forestry England, Dorset Wildlife Trust, National Trust, RSPB and the Amphibian and Reptile Trust. The aim of this enterprise is to restore natural processes across the landholding and thereby increase the inter-connectivity and resilience of the landscape to the climate crisis and anthropogenic threats.
Eleven UK priority habitats can be found within the new NNR, ranging from coastal dunes and salt marshes to wet and dry lowland heaths and deciduous woodland. The super NNR provides a refuge for 450 rare and protected species including: sand lizards, smooth snakes, Dartford warblers, osprey, small pearl-bordered fritillary butterflies, southern damselflies, marsh gentians, butterfly orchids and 12 native bat species to name but a few. In fact, there are so many species which inhabit Purbeck Heaths that it contains the most species-rich 10 km² area in the entire UK!
Typically, in the past, protected areas have been managed on a site-based approach with a small number of stakeholders; the new NNR is now managed on a landscape level. The management of Purbeck Heaths involves removing non-native pine plantations and active grazing of the landscape by cattle and pigs which create open space and new opportunities for rare and diverse heath land plant species to propagate and spread.
The idea behind Purbeck Heaths NNR has not emerged out of a vacuum. The new NNR embodies the ethos behind the Lawton Report (2010) whereby Prof. John Lawton made the critical argument for protected areas in England to be “bigger, better, more joined up” if they are to persist into the future. In 2017 Natural England highlighted in their National Nature Reserve Report the great opportunity for landowners’ and NNRs to work together to enlarge and protect England’s Natural Capital network. Finally, the efforts to create and improve the resilience of the Purbeck Heath landscape encapsulates the UK Government’s 25 Year Plan (2019) to ensure that, “we leave the environment in a better state from when we found it”...
The efforts taken to create and managed Purbeck Heaths NNR are inspiring and in these times of uncertainty and increased concern for the natural world, provide hope that other protected areas across the country (however small, numerous and disjointed) could potentially follow suit and build a more resilient and connected natural environment for both nature and people.
Natural England (2017) National Nature Reserves – The heart of Conservation in the 21st Century (http://publications.naturalengland.org.uk/publication/6291868196798464)
Prof. Lawton, John. (2010) Making Space for Nature: A review of England’s Wildlife Sites and Ecological Network. The Lawton Report. (https://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20130402170324/http://archive.defra.gov.uk/environment/biodiversity/documents/201009space-for-nature.pdf)
BTO (2019) State of Nature Report (https://www.bto.org/sites/default/files/publications/state-of-nature-2019-report-uk.pdf)
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