ARC have been fully involved in the Urban Heaths Partnership (UHP) since it’s inception and the partnership’s long term links with the Fire and Police services are an important part of our work to safeguard our local heathlands. Although seeing a reduction in anti-social incidents, these internationally important sites still remain vulnerable to urban pressure, in particular arson.

The Urban Heath Partnership launched ‘Operation Heathlands’ for 2017 on Monday 10th April to raise awareness of fire, vandalism, anti-social behaviour and to protect the heathland through a series of educational programmes and prevention activity in schools, the community and on heathlands.

The initiative, in its 18th year, is running between 10th April and 29th September and member organisations will be working together to tackle issues including:

    • Anti-social unauthorised use of vehicles on land
    • Damage to fences and gates
    • Anti-social behaviour
    • Trampling of rare plants and animals
    • Erosion of vegetation and sandy heathland soil
    • Disturbance of ground-nesting birds such as nightjars and woodlarks
    • Dog fouling
    • Fly-tipping of rubbish and garden refuse
    • Predation of rare animals by domestic pets

Dorset & Wiltshire Fire and Rescue Service Deliberate Fire-setting / Arson Reduction Coordinator, Gaynor Mant, said: “Arson is the biggest threat to the heathland and both deliberate and accidental fires can destroy whole colonies of wildlife. We are advising visitors to the heath to be especially mindful of discarded cigarettes and to NOT use disposable barbecues when visiting.”

Paul Attwell, the Urban Heaths Partnership manager, said: “Fires on heathlands can have devastating effects on the wildlife and vegetation as they can take up to 25 years to recover. In the right conditions, these fires are capable of traveling as fast as an Olympic sprinter.”

“The UHP continues to work together in order to help protect and enhance our local heathland. Protecting and managing these sites are a shared responsibility with landowners, managers, Natural England and site users and we’re working closely together to reduce the number of fires and anti-social behaviour on these sites.”

Sergeant Adrian Thompson, from Poole Neighbourhood Policing Team, said: “We conduct high visibility patrols across the heaths, as well as run events in conjunction with the Urban Heath Partnership to prevent damage being caused to the local environment that can put lives in danger.”

Dorset Police works with heath rangers, watch scheme members and the wider public to disrupt and prosecute those committing arson, poaching and traffic offences in heathland areas.

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. The majority of Dorset heaths are designated ‘Site of Special Scientific Interest’ (SSSI) and above such as ‘Special Protection Areas’ (SPA).

Sergeant Thompson added: “Classifications are put in place to protect these important habitats and they require active management if we are to invest for future generations.”

Gary Powell, Senior Reserves Manager for Amphibian and Reptile Conservation said “The devastating effects of heath fires can be long lasting after the event. The areas of heath destroyed by fire will take many years to recover and provide suitable habitat for our heathland specialist species. Large fires, such as that on Town Common, Christchurch in 2015, kill a vast amount of wildlife, ruin habitats for lengthy periods, add costs to heathland maintenance and spoil the area for site visitors. The need to prevent disasters such as this is why the Operation Heathland message remains a vitally important one.”

Dorset heaths are home to all six native reptiles: smooth snake, grass snake,adder, sand lizard, common lizard and slow worm – and for some of these, our heaths are the only remaining natural habitat in the UK.

If you see a fire or anti-social behaviour being committed on a heathland, get to safety and contact the emergency services by calling 999.

Volunteers are being recruited who regularly visit the heaths and would be willing to give up a small amount of their time to help protect them. The UHP offer training to Heath Watch groups on Dorset’s open spaces. Call 01202 642787 or email urbanheaths@dorsetcc.gov.uk for more information.