Brownsea Island wildlife walk, Dorset

Brownsea Island, Poole Harbour, Dorset BH13 7EE

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The elusive Sika Deer on Brownsea Island © John Millar

The elusive Sika Deer on Brownsea Island

The pine woods are ideal habitat for the red squirrels © Andy Butler

The pine woods are ideal habitat for the red squirrels

A water vole snacking on a willow leaf © NT Morden Hall Park

A water vole snacking on a willow leaf

Route overview

Brownsea Island is dramatically located at the entrance to Poole Harbour in Dorset. Walks cut through mixed and pine woodland at the centre of the island, offering an excellent opportunity to see red squirrels (which are almost extinct in southern England) and red squirrel conservation in action. In winter, the area is visited by huge flocks of birds including little egrets and avocets.

Route details

See this step-by-step route marked on a map

Route of the Brownsea Island wildlife walk in Dorset
  • Directions
  • Route
  • Bus stop
  • Parking
  • Toilet
  • Viewpoint

Start: Path next to church, grid ref: SZ022876

  1. Start the walk from the path next to the church and walk in the opposite direction from Brownsea Castle. Take the left fork in the path. Brownsea was the starting point for the Scout movement. Baden-Powell, the Scout founder, held the first camp here in 1907.

    Show/HideHabitats and wildlife

    Brownsea Island's many and varied habitats include pinewood, heath, mixed woodland, shore and lagoon, and these support a wide array of wildlife. The Victorians introduced sika deer from Japan, and the deer soon swam across the water and colonised the mainlandand. Look for them in reedbeds. You can also spot common lizards and red squirrels. The wetlands on the Island support sea lavender, common spotted orchids and marsh cinquefoil, and there are more than 60 types of tree to be seen including oak, beech, holly and ash.

    The elusive Sika Deer on Brownsea Island © John Millar
  2. In autumn, this is a good place to see red squirrels as they feed on sweet chestnut and beech tree nuts. Carry straight along this path.

    Show/HideRed squirrels

    Red squirrels must gain over 10 per cent of their body weight to survive the winter. They're best seen in autumn when foraging for nuts. They can tell if a nut is rotten by its weight. The pine trees are particularly important for red squirrels and you'll often see chewed pine cones on the woodland floor. There are no grey squirrels on Brownsea even though they're usually better adapted to survive in this type of woodland than red squirrels.

    The pine woods are ideal habitat for the red squirrels © Andy Butler
  3. At Rockets Corner, take the second left and continue through ideal red squirrel territory, with mature Scots pine trees on your left. Also look out for goldcrests in the woodland distinguished by a bright yellow stripe on their head, they tend to live high up in the canopy. They're the smallest European bird and have a suitably small call more of a high-pitched squeak. Other birds that can be spotted at Brownsea are the avocet (over 1,000 roosting in winter), peregrine, little egret and kingfisher in winter, and terns, gulls and oystercatchers in summer. Birds in the reedbeds include grebes, coot and the shy water rail, with its distinctive pig-squealing call. Brownsea also has internationally important birds such as the bar tailed godwit.

  4. Note that the pine woodland here is regenerating. This must be managed carefully to conserve the red squirrel population. Take the next path on your left.

    Show/HideWetland areas

    Water voles are extremely shy (and rare) so it takes a lot of patience to spot them in the wetland areas they inhabit. Not to be confused with rats, water voles have a blunter, rounder face.

    A water vole snacking on a willow leaf © NT Morden Hall Park
  5. Pass a track on your left, and then take the path that bears left. In this area, volunteers have recently removed rhododendron (an invasive foreign plant) to maintain the diversity of native plant and animal species. The lakes on Brownsea (which resulted from peat digging) attract many insects, including 24 species of dragonfly such as the small red damselfly and the ruddy darter. There are also green tiger beetles and many species of butterfly, such as the green hairstreak and small copper.

  6. At the farm buildings turn left, then follow a path until you again reach the church at the start of your walk. Alternatively, take a right towards Brownsea Castle. Here, there are facilities including a National Trust shop, toilets and café.

End: Path next to church, grid ref: SZ022876

  • Trail: Walking
  • Grade: Easy
  • Distance: 1 mile (1.5km)
  • Time: 20 minutes
  • OS Map: Explorer OL15; Landranger 195
  • Terrain:

    Gentle terrain, though the paths are uneven in some places. Trail leaflets for other walks are available at the National Trust shop.

  • How to get here:

    By ferry: from Poole Quay and Sandbanks (every 30 minutes); also from Bournemouth and Swanage. A chain ferry travels from Shell Bay, Studland to Sandbanks every 20 minutes

    By foot: Poole Quay is a 0.5 mile (0.8km) walk through Poole town centre from Poole  station. Shell Bay marks the eastern end of the South West Coast Path

    By bike: signed on-road cycle routes to Shell Bay and to Poole Quay from Poole  

    By bus: Poole station to Poole Quay and Sandbanks, also Christchurch Quay to Sandbanks (June to September)

    By car: Poole Quay and Sandbanks are clearly signposted on roads approaching Poole. Shell Bay National Trust car park and non-National Trust car parks in Poole and Sandbanks

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