A Day in Dorset (part 1)

A few weekends back, I met up with a university friend and went for a day trip to some heathland in Dorset, with the hope of finding some different and less common creatures. Dorset is well known for its animal diversity and many of Britain’s rarer organisms can be found there, furthermore its heathlands are notorious for containing all six native reptile species (see list below). It was these that we were particularly hoping to see, we especially wanted to find a smooth snake, what with them being so rare and sparsely distributed. So, we set of with our cameras and collection pots to Higher Hyde heat. A beautiful nature reserve (although not particularly easy to find), it was chosen because neither of us had been before and all the reptile species are known to reside there. Sadly, we did not find a smooth snake, but we did have an incredible day and saw plenty of other awesome creatures.

The entrance to the reserve is pretty well hidden and when the website said a “small car park” they weren’t joking, with it being a patch of grass with space for only around 3 cars. That being said, it certainly had character and as we were the only car bar one, it was nice to know it would be quiet (apart from the gun shots coming from the nearby shooting club!). From the car, you can take a path to a bird hide or steps through the woods to the heath, we chose the latter. The path runs around a large pond before opening up into a huge open space that contains proper heathland, grassland and wet boggy areas, providing a great diversity of habitats to support a myriad of creatures.

One of the first moments of excitement was when we found a piece of sheet metal refugia (the collective term for artificial pieces of refuge placed for reptiles and other animals). Although we found nothing under this piece, it gave us hope that there was more around the heathland which made the possibility of finding reptiles all the more promising. It wasn’t long before we found another piece of sheet metal and under it our first reptile, a slow worm (Anguis fragilis). A good first find, they are delightful lizards and sadly I do not see them as often as I used to. Interestingly, along with the slow worm there was an impressively large ants nest under the metal refugia, which was interesting because, when I was on a herpetology field trip in North Wales, all of the slow worms were found under the refugia alongside an ant’s nest. I am curious as to whether there is some kind of relationship between them, with the slow worm providing protection from beetles and other ant predators and possibly the ants providing some kind of benefit. Or perhaps they both just enjoy the residual warmth that the metal retains. As we held the metal up to take photographs the ants removed all of the larvae from the surface (although more vulnerable they are at the top to benefit from the warmth) to the safety of underground. They did this rapidly and when we returned a bit later we found that they had all been replaced back on the surface. The efficiency and devotion of the ant workers never fails to amaze me.

slow worm 1
Due to them being more common slow worms are often overlooked, but they are really stunning.
Ants under refugia, they took all of the larvae under ground in a matter of minutes
Not the best picture, but shows the beautiful pattern of the slow worm

One of the species we saw more than any other was the silver studded blue butterfly (Plebejus argus), while it is common for them to occur in large numbers, their distribution is quite restricted and these colonies are compact within small areas. These are normally around sand dunes and heathland so it was no surprise that we saw them. But it was a first for me and an absolutely beautiful species to see.

The beautiful silver studded blue butterfly (Plebejus argus)

The nature reserve contains numerous small hills and mounds, the sides of which were covered in long vegetation and another interesting species that we saw throughout the day was the nursery web spider (Knife mirabilis). The females of this species show a degree of parental care not often demonstrated by spiders and build a silk “nursery” for the spiderlings to reside in. The female actually carries her egg sac around with her, using her chelicerae, and then when the young are ready to hatch the nursery is spun for them to stay protected in until they’re ready to venture out on their own. A fascinating species and a stunning spider.

Nursery web spiders
The fascinating female nursery web spider (Knife mirabilis) sitting on her silk nursery filled with baby spiders.

Although we only spent a day in Dorset we crammed a lot in and to prevent this post from becoming a lengthy dissertation ordeal, I am going to separate the trip into two, possibly three posts. Thanks for reading! I hope you’ve enjoyed this post and keep an eye out for the follow up post which will feature more awesome animals, including Britain’s longest dragonfly and an adder!

For shorter, more frequent posts don’t forget to follow me on twitter: Matthew Woodard @ZoologyNotes

Britain’s six native reptile species

  1. grass snake (Natrix natrix)
  2. adders (Viper brush)
  3. Smooth snakes (Coronella austriaca)
  4. Common (viviparous) lizard (Zootoca vivipara)
  5. Slowworms (Anguis fragilis)
  6. sand lizard (Lacerta agilis)

A fantastic field guide on Britain’s reptiles and amphibians is available and I highly recommend it if you’re interested in their biology, habitat and distribution.

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