Nature Reserves and Country Parks in Dorset

Dorset is well known for being a rural and wildlife rich county, and you won't go far without passing by a nature reserve.

Whether it's a wild woodland, urban heathland or lush green meadow, there are lots of places where you can be at one with nature. And you don’t need to be a wildlife expert to appreciate them, so put on your walking boots and get exploring.

Incredible landscapes

The sand dunes at Studland’s Shell Bay and Knoll Beach separate the gorgeous sandy beaches from the national nature reserve of Studland and Godlingston Heath. From the beach you will be able to glimpse the outlines of Old Harry Rocks and the Isle of Wight in the distance. On the heath, there are nature trails and footpaths to follow for breath-taking views and encounters with local wildlife.

The longest un-interrupted stretch of coastal limestone grassland in Europe is found on Dorset’s south coast. The grassland is home to huge numbers of wildflowers including the early English gentian and the bizarre and beautiful early spider orchid. In spring and summer, the air is filled with butterflies such as Adonis blue and Lulworth skipper. Durlston Country Park is a fantastic place to see these coastal grasslands.

Dorset’s lowland heaths are found mostly in the south east corner of the county. Although at times they may look dull and un-interesting, they are home to an amazing amount of wildlife. Some of the heathland nature reserves are home to all six of Britain’s native reptile species and are fantastic for spotting nightjar or Dartford warblers. The best time for reptile spotting is April and May as they emerge from hibernation and male sand lizards turn bright green to attract a mate. Visit the RSPB reserve at Arne to see spectacular heathland on the edge of Poole Harbour.

Both Christchurch and Poole Harbours were naturally formed thousands of years ago and continue to change to this day. Poole Harbour is Europe’s largest natural harbour and for some of the best views, be sure to visit Upton Country Park or Holes Bay Nature Park. For Christchurch Harbour, hike to the top of Hengistbury Head or walk to the water’s edge at Stanpit Marsh Nature Reserve for scenic viewpoints.

Dorset’s Country Parks

Being a mostly rural county, there are some pretty big country parks to visit. Moors Valley Country Park and Forest is Dorset’s largest at an impressive 1000 acres. There are miles of walking and cycling routes to follow and you can hire a bike if you need to. Take a ride on the narrow-gauge steam train, go on a tree top trail, lets the kids go wild on the adventure play areas or take a Segway tour.

Durlston Country Park's 320 acres of countryside paradise is a national nature reserve with a fantastic variety of habitats to visit. Stunning coastal views, walking trails, superb geology and fascinating wildlife means there is always something different to see and do. Durlston is also one of the best places in the country to spot dolphins and you can even join the dolphin watching team.

Follow the five nature trails or get up close to the sand lizard nursery at Avon Heath Country Park. You can also visit the Heathland Discover Centre, enjoy something to eat at the café or let the kids burn off some energy on the adventure play area.

On the edge of Poole Harbour, is Upton Country Park’s large open spaces, formal walled garden and bird hides to watch wildlife at the water’s edge. As well as walking routes to follow, you can also join a guided Segway tour.

At Lodmoor Country Park in Weymouth there is a huge amount to keep all ages amused. Your day out will be fun filled with a pirate ship play park, model railway, 9 hole pitch and putt, orienteering course and green gym. And not forgetting the RSPB Lodmoor Nature Reserve and Sea Life Centre are within walking distance.

Historic sights

There an ancient hillforts dotted all around Dorset. Hambledon Hill is not only an Iron Age hillfort, but also a National Nature Reserve too. You’ll find Hod Hill next door to Hambledon, once used by a Roman legion of soldiers.

Along the coast, the stone cliffs have been quarried for a variety of stone and minerals. The headlands were once used as lookouts, and caves and quarries used by smugglers for storing contraband goods. Nowadays, you can visit some of the quarries, including Tout Quarry Nature Reserve and Sculpture Park.

Visiting with your dog

Many of Dorset’s nature reserves and country parks welcome dogs on leads, so you can enjoy a wildlife walk with your faithful friend at your side.

There are lots of trails and paths to follow so that both you and your dog enjoy your day out. Some offer cafes or take-away kiosks where you can re-fuel before carrying on your walk.

Be sure to follow signs about nesting birds and closing gates so that grazing animals don’t escape.

Wildlife watching events

The best way to get up-close and personal to local wildlife is to join a guided tour with an expert. Not only will they know where the wildlife is likely to be found, they will also spot it a lot quicker than the average visitor.

Most of the country parks host their own events throughout the year. The National Trust and Dorset Wildlife Trust also have a packed schedule of wildlife themed events for the whole family to enjoy.

Take a look at what’s on the events calendar for the next few months.