Part of Town Common SSSI, this highly protected area of heathland and coniferous woodland provides commanding views over the entire borough.
St Catherine's Hill is a 35 hectare area of heathland and coniferous forest. It is located to the north of Christchurch and is bordered by Town Common Nature Reserve and the Wessex Way (A338). The Hill is home to a large number of important wildlife species including the Dartford Warbler and the Sand Lizard and is designated as a SSSI, RAMSAR, cSAC and SPA. The site forms part of a larger area of sensitive heathland that is jointly managed for nature conservation by Christchurch Countryside Service, RSPB, Dorset Wildlife Trust and The Herpetological Conservation Trust (HCT).
Other parties involved include the Hardy's Egdon Heath Project, a Heritage Lottery funded organisation who contribute towards management works such as tree thinning and rhododendron removal and the Urban Heaths LIFE Project who provide supplementary wardens for the site over the summer months. At 163ft (53 metres) above sea level. St Catherine's Hill is the highest area of Christchurch and also boasts some of the most spectacular views.
Because of its commanding views of the surrounding area, St Catherine's Hill has most likely been used as a look-out and beacon since prehistoric times. Eleven tumuli or barrows surround the ridges as monuments to the succeeding Bronze age settlers and Iron Age farmers may have built the enclosure just to the south west of the radio mast. In the medieval period it was called Rishton Hill, taking its name from the village that stood where Hurn Road is today. A chapel to St Catherine was built on the hill and was undoubtedly used by the villagers until its destruction in the Reformation.
The Chapel site might originally have been a Roman Signal Station and was certainly used as a beacon from medieval times until the Napoleonic Wars; to be lit a the first sign of invasion, alerting inland beacons at Burley and Malwood. The Hill has also been used as a military training ground. In the last century the Royal Horse Artillery and Dragoons from Christchurch Barracks exercised here and it served again in both World Wars for practice in trench warfare and as a grenade throwing range.
There are several rare and protected species present on the hill. These include the sand lizard, Dartford warbler, Nightjar and smooth snake. The viability of these species all depend on the habitats provided for them by open heathland and are threatened mainly due to the loss of such habitats across the UK.
Over the last 200 years, Dorset heathlands have been built over, ploughed up and planted with conifers to such an extent that the area would now be almost totally unrecognisable to one of it's 18th century inhabitants. The earliest maps to record the extent of the heathland were made in the mid 18th century and show the heathland stretching continuously from the Purbeck Hills to the River Avon, broken only by the valleys of the Rivers Frome, Piddle and Stour.
It has been estimated that this expanse of heathland (about 100,000 acres) had changed little since the bronze age. Factors such as agriculture, forestry and urbanisation had begun to change the heath by as early as 1811. An Ordinance Survey at this time revealed that 25% of the heath from 1760 had already been lost. An intensification of these same factors meant that by 1960 only a quarter of the original heathland area remained.
The factors that brought about the loss of so much of Dorset's heathland over the last few hundred years continue to threaten the area. Some of the greatest threats to the St Catherine's Hill heathland today come from the spreading of invasive species across the site. Rhododendron aggressively shades out native heathland species and also changes the soil composition to prevent other plants from growing.
Scot's Pine and Maritime Pine were introduced to Dorset heathlands for forestry as early as 1783. More pines have been planted since then throughout the region as they are the only successful heathland forestry crop. Since 1984 it has the policy of Christchurch Borough Council to remove these three species, along with birch, by selectively thinning across St Catherine's Hill. Incredibly, between 1961 and 1997, tree cover increased on the site from 25% to 75%. It is now our aim to gradually restore the level of heathland cover of the hill.
Legend maintains that during the Saxon period, monks planned to build a Priory on the summit of St. Catherine's Hill. Twice the monks laboured all day to carry building stone to the summit only to find that the stones had been moved, during the night, down to the land between the Avon and Stour Rivers. On the third night one of the monks had a dream in which he was instructed to build in the valley bottom. On finding the stone again by the river, building was begun on the present site of Christchurch Priory.