In the mid 18th Century South-East Dorset in the UK was almost entirely covered in heathland, stretching from the New Forest in the East to Dorchester in the West. Today around 15% remains, fragmented between 150 different sites ranging from small and urban to large and rural. This project explores these fragments and our relationship with them.
Thomas Hardy set The Return of the Native entirely in this heathland, which he named Egdon Heath. For him the heath was primeval and the enemy of civilisation, a wild and unchanging place. In fact we know now that the heathland was a created landscape; created by deforestation in the Bronze and Iron Ages and used as a type of farmland until the industrial revolution. But Hardy was right that the heath is, in some ways, the “enemy of civilisation” as it continues to hold out against housing development, golf courses, farmland, power stations and more. In that respect in fact it represents much land in heavily populated areas of the UK.
The heathlands are a mixture of heather, gorse, and bracken growing on acidic chalky soils, together with lowland bogs and wetlands. They are home to reptiles and birds that do not live elsewhere and this is the principal reason for their preservation. This creates conflicts - the heaths are “internationally important” but locally are used only by dog walkers, conservationists, and scientists. It is rare to meet anyone else on these tracts of land - they are unused in a part of the country with a housing shortage. In fact, even dog walkers are discouraged from the heaths - dogs disturb wildlife and their waste measurably changes the soil’s fertility encouraging non-heathland plants to grow. In fact conservation groups face a constant battle keeping the heathland heathland - winters are spent by volunteers removing non-heathland plants - “scrub”.
I have visited most of the 150 remaining fragments, and used a handheld camera, taken photographs of what I have found.