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Wareham Forest:where wildlife thrives

PUBLISHED: 15:28 09 January 2009 | UPDATED: 15:42 20 February 2013

Wareham Forest

Wareham Forest

Wareham can boast good local shops, superb pubs and eateries, and attractions old and new. Mark Warn, Wildlife Ranger for the Forestry Commission, takes Stephen Swann for a look round one of the area's great outdoor locations - Wareham Forest.

Mark Warn, Wildlife Ranger for the Forestry Commission, has brought me to a place about half a mile off the undulating straight road that runs from Bere Regis to Wareham. We are standing on high ground overlooking a valley in the interior of Wareham Forest. Looking at this landscape of conifers and open heathland, you get the feeling that there could be wolves here, bears even, so untamed does it seem.

There are neither wolves nor bears, of course; in fact what Mark and I are looking at is totally manmade.

"It's that mosaic of mature trees, young trees, newly planted trees, fallow areas and open stretches of heathland that creates the feeling of wildness," says Mark. "What the Forestry Commission has done here, and in many other of its forests throughout England and Wales, is to combine timber production with a high level of nature conservation. Not only that, it is a sustainable facility. This is a state forest, a people's forest, if you like, and the public, providing they follow the guidelines, are welcome here - on foot, with their dogs, on horseback, even in a pony-and-trap!"

Mark knows the forest like the back of his hand. "I came here as a trainee to work under Eric Masters who was the Ranger here then. He was a great naturalist. One year with him was worth five years with anyone else. I took over at the age of 20. I'm now 37. I suppose I grew up with this forest and I love it," he says.

The forest, my guide tells me, is home to populations of both roe and sika deer. "Part of my job involves keeping deer numbers at a sustainable level. Deer have no natural predators," explains Mark, "and without me becoming what is in effect a predator, the population would very quickly get out of control, so we cull around 25% each year, which averages out at about 260 animals. Since the early '90s we have reduced numbers by around 50%. This might sound drastic but if left unchecked the deer would cause considerable damage not only to the trees and to farmland adjacent to the forest but also to our overall nature conservation objectives. Culled animals are sold into the food chain. Venison is very healthy meat, low in fat, totally organic - and very delicious!"

Mark is keen to show me some of the inhabitants of this vast tract of seeming wilderness and we head off in his truck further into the forest. Every so often we come upon walkers, several of whom Mark greets as if he knows them. "You get to recognise some of the regulars," he explains. "I know from talking to people that they love the forest, and it is not just people from Wareham who come here on a regular basis - we get visitors from Poole and Bournemouth, and of course in the summer from all over the UK."

We come to an area of young trees alongside which is an area of bare ground that looks as if it has been cleared of all vegetation. "What you are looking at here is known as a 'scrape'," Mark tells me. "The shallow bare banks warm up quickly and provide breeding grounds for the nationally rare sand lizard. The forest is one of the most productive sites in England for reptiles."

He bids me follow him into an area of very young Corsican pines. We come to a sheet of corrugated tin seemingly chucked at random onto the ground. Mark beckons me to come close to it and he lifts the sheet of metal. There is nothing there. "I'm hoping to show you one of the forest's great treasures, a smooth snake, but it is very late in the year and we will be lucky to find one," he explains.

We move on. Suddenly, on lifting what I count to be the fourth piece of tin, Mark is standing there with a snake in his hand, a look that I can only describe as half pride and half triumph on his face. "You are looking at a very rare snake," he says. "This is a smooth snake and this part of Dorset is home to around 90% of the UK's total population. Because they are so rare you have to be licensed to handle them." Mark points out that the snake is micro-chipped and is a female. "By chipping them we can monitor their movements and numbers," he explains.

"We have found that as the trees grow to maturity the smooth snakes and other reptiles move off into areas of open heath or very young trees. The way the forest is managed means that there is always somewhere to their liking."

Mark gently returns the snake to her safe haven under the tin and we head off on foot to some mature trees. He points out some boxes high up on the trunks of one of the trees. "They are bat boxes," he explains.

"Bats are one of my special interests. Woodland bats are protected. We have eight species in the forest. Every year we check the boxes. We ring the bats. We check their sex and age. The oldest I know is 19 years old. He was a baby when I first started here. We do all this in order to build up a picture so that we can manage the forest in a way that is not harmful to the bats."

It's time to return to the truck. On our way Mark suddenly stops. "Hear that?" he enquires. My ears are a quarter of a century older than Mark's and I can hear nothing. "There's a Dartford Warbler singing over there," he whispers, pointing in the direction of an area of heather and scrub. A little while later we encounter a couple of walkers. They have binoculars slung around their necks and have obviously been bird-watching. Mark is keen to know what they have seen, and with beaming smiles on their faces they report that they also have not only heard the Dartford Warbler but seen one too.

Back in the truck, Mark tells me that depending on the time of year, birds such as woodlarks, nightjars, hobbies, red kites, honey buzzards, merlins, hen harriers, sparrowhawks, crossbills, barn owls and peregrine falcons take up residence in or pass through the forest.

We are back at our starting point, and after thanking Mark for making my visit such an enjoyable and interesting one I take a last look over the beautiful valley I have just explored. Standing there, I find myself thinking how lucky the people of Wareham are to have such a place right on their doorstep and also how visitors to that lovely old town should try to make time to walk in the forest which takes its name from the town.

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