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Brownsea Island



The UK’s red squirrel populations are in danger - but some places offer hope for their survival. Ken Dykes visits Dorset’s Brownsea Island.

Above: On the beach, Brownsea Island © copyright Peter Trimming and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License

Poole Harbour in Dorset is claimed, at 14 square miles, to be the largest natural harbour in Europe and has the ancient town of Poole sitting on its northern shore behind a massive sea wall and Victorian quay.


From here ferries leave for France, Spain, Jersey, via the massive ocean-going Condor catamaran – and also for Brownsea Island.


Brownsea is the largest of many islands within Poole Harbour and at just over 500 acres in extent supports a micro-climate that is decidedly milder then the mainland.


This means it is ideal to host a number of unusual residents. For one thing it is home – one of the very few in the south of England – to Britain’s native red squirrel, which inhabits the oak and pine woodlands in a perfectly natural setting. According the Dorset Wildlife Trust, there are some 200 red squirrels living on the island – so your chances of seeing one aren’t bad at all, especially in autumn.


Then there is the lagoon, an extensive area of shallow water that is the winter residence of that elusive wader the avocet. Not just one or two avocets – but hundreds! In fact it is estimated that over half the UK population of avocets (going on 2,000 birds) spends the cold months as regular residents of Brownsea.


The lagoon is also the summer home of common and arctic terns, which arrive in great numbers – while the trees on the island are the site of a heronry, the nesting place for both grey herons and little egrets.


Add to this the bird reserve run by the Dorset Wildlife Trust, where one can watch all manner of seabirds and wildfowl, and it’s easy to see why the island has such a reputation as a wildlife sanctuary.


Brownsea Island has had many owners during its long history but is today owned by the National Trust. There are a number of walks to all parts of the island and you will almost certainly come across some of the resident peacock flock on your travels.


You may also encounter the occasional Scout, Guide, Brownie or Cub. It was here, in 1907, that Lord Baden-Powell organised the first, small – just 27 of them – camp for boys. From this tiny acorn the massive oak of The Boy Scout Movement was formed soon after – and Scouts and Guides are still granted leave to hold their summer camp here each year.

Under threat

Although mainland Europe enjoys healthy populations of the red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris), the species is endangered and rare in the UK – with population estimates of around 140,000 individuals.


Approximately 120,000 of these are in Scotland, with 3,000 in Wales and 15,000 in England. Without action, the species will become extinct in England within a decade, according to Red Squirrel Survival Trust.


The major threat facing the native red squirrel is the grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis), which was introduced to Britain from North America in the late 1800s. Grey squirrels:

* Spread squirrel pox virus – harmless to them, but lethal to reds.

* Outcompete their native counterparts for food, eat seven times more food per hectare and can live in denser populations in mixed and broadleaved woodlands.

* Have a resistance to tannin, a chemical disliked by red squirrels. Unripe acorns – a high-energy food – are tannin-rich, and grey squirrels can decimate acorn crops before they can ripen and provide food for red squirrels.

Another problem is loss of forest habitat – now often reduced to isolated fragments, as with Scotland’s Caledonian Forest. As red squirrels travel from tree to tree and do not cross open ground, they can’t spread between pockets of suitable woodland. Red squirrels are also at risk from other diseases including adenovirus.

Top left: Track through the woods © copyright Abactus; top right: Red squirrel © copyright Peter Trimming

Above left: © copyright Peter Trimming

All images licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License


The red squirrel is a priority species in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan.

Two key conservation methods to ensure the red squirrel’s long-term survival are:

* Reducing grey squirrel numbers – to reduce the impacts of competition and disease.

* Managing conifer forests in ways that favour red squirrels and discourage grey squirrels, as red squirrels can survive in large areas of spruce dominated woodland.

In Anglesey – where the species was close to extinction in the late 1990s – improving woodland habitats, erection of nest boxes, supplemental feeding and population monitoring increased the population from less than 40 adults to several hundred, according to Red Squirrel Trust Wales.

Did you know?

* The red squirrel lives in conifer-dominated boreal forests and broadleaved deciduous forests.

* They collect, bury and often forget about thousands of tree seeds each autumn – which each spring take root and so expand native forests.

* England’s red squirrels have vanished from much of their former range, and today are mainly dispersed across the north. Red Squirrels Northern England says that around 60 per cent of England’s population is in Northumberland’s Kielder Forest.

* The red squirrel is widely distributed in Europe and northern Asia.


Getting to Brownsea Island couldn’t be simpler. Just hop on a yellow, double-decker Brownsea Island ferry. Departs from Poole Harbour quay, every 30 minutes from 21 March to 1 November.


The National Trust has a couple of holiday cottages on the island – book well in advance.


Or stay in Poole, and take a day trip to the island. The Royal National Lifeboat Institution offers rooms at the RNLI College overlooking Holes Bay in Poole Harbour – just a short walk away from the Brownsea Island Ferry. Proceeds from the RNLI College accommodation go towards the charity, helping to save lives at sea.

Where else can you see red squirrels in the UK?


Whinlatter Forest Park. A red squirrel reserve, where the red squirrels are actively being protected and supported. Red squirrels can be seen within the forest, on any of the forest walks – walk quietly!

Centre Parcs, Whinfell Forest. It’s worth a stay at Centre Parcs just to get this close to red squirrels. The squirrels here are so used to people that you’re almost certain to see them, even with children in tow.


Kielder Water & Forest Park. Take a short walk through the woods to the wildlife hide where red squirrels are often seen on feeders. 


Galloway Forest Park. Galloway Forest is a Red Squirrel Priority Woodland and a sanctuary for red squirrels and many other native species. Extensive conifer forests make this one of the best places to spot squirrels in the UK. Trails from the Kirroughtree Visitor Centre lead to wildlife hides where red squirrels may be spotted.

Boat of Garten, Cairngorms

A Red Squirrel Trail leaving from the village centre takes in pine woods and a red squirrel feeding station.


Anglesey. Anglesey has the largest population of red squirrels in Wales. This is a real red squirrels success story – the population here has increased dramatically within the past 20 years. Head for Pentraeth Forest or Newborough Forest for your best chance of a glimpse.

Discover more about red squirrels and how to help

Red Squirrels Northern England

Red Squirrel Survival Trust

Northern Red Squirrel

Red Squirrels South Scotland

Red Squirrels Trust Wales

European Squirrel Initiative

Green Adventures May 2015

Ken Dykes has 40 years' experience as a journalist and is former editor of the Andover Advertiser newspaper in Hampshire, UK. He is a keen ornithologist and naturalist, and has written articles about wildlife for a range of UK magazines. His book Country Capers is a humourous account of a childhood spent in the English countryside during and after the Second World War.  

Red squirrels Brownsea Island