As a born and bred Bournemouth boy, visiting Hengistbury Head countless times is unavoidable.  What began as family favourite days out and school visits, with time  developed into explorations with friends and now is a much loved place to share adventures with my daughter.

Family enjoying a walk at Hengistbury Head park on a beautiful day

The nature reserve sticks out unashamedly at the Eastern end of Bournemouth’s glorious beach and has a special place in the hearts of many locals’ memories.  The most obvious features are the fabulous beach, somewhat “wilder” than that on offer throughout the remainder of the 10-mile stretch along Poole Bay and the views from the top of the headland, which take in Christchurch Harbour, the Purbeck peninsula and the Isle of Wight.  However, the most precious features of the reserve are often a harder challenge to spot.

In 1986, Hengistbury Head was designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest – in recognition of its importance to wildlife and also geology.  As a result, whatever the month, a visitor always has a chance of seeing something special.

The landscape is a collage of almost 500 species of plants and trees, changing colour and density with the seasons.  Each of the habitats requires specific and sensitive management to keep meeting the needs of the species that survive here.

The best place to start is the free to enter Visitor Centre for information on the history, wildlife and management of Hengistbury Head.  Complete with its own wildlife garden and exhibition area, it is well worth a visit and any purchases help to maintain the headland for generation to come.

Visitors enjoying the Hengistbury Head visitor centre on a clear day

To the right of the Visitor Centre, the field is of huge ecological value.  An estimated 5000 mounds host a population of up to 25 million yellow meadow ants – an incredibly vital food source for birds – and the head gardeners of this grassland. Skylarks can commonly be seen singing above this field in spring and early summer, their continuing presence here gives us some optimism for the survival of a species that has been in worrying decline.

Further on, fields give way to woodland – one of the oldest on the south coast.  In the winter, the still-green holly trees play host to Goldcrest and Firecrest – a delight to watch the UK’s smallest birds dart in and out.  The hammering of the Great Spotted Woodpecker provides some of the soundtrack – mixed in with the odd “gurgling” of the nesting Little Egrets.  Hengistbury was only the 2nd location in the UK for them to being breeding.

Stunning harbor views from Hengistbury head on a crisp winters day

In April and May, the patient dusk visitor may get to hear the characteristic calling of the Natterjack Toad – Europe’s loudest amphibians.  The males come to the shallow pools to vie for the attentions of females.  These hand-palm sized singers can be heard up to 2 miles away on a good evening.

The care of such a diverse and important collection of animals and plants is down to our small team of Rangers who use their experience and knowledge to keep the reserve in balance.  But visitors can help care for it too!  By sticking to pathways (four-legged friends too!), leaving only footprints and taking nothing but memories, you stand a much greater chance of seeing some of these beautiful and rare species in their own environment.

Blog written by Brian Heppenstall, Senior Ranger, at Hengistbury Head

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