Brownsea Island Countryside Stewardship project


A major project to restore and improve Brownsea’s habitat is taking place on the island from late September 2021.

We're embarking on one of the largest conservation projects in the island’s history, to create a better space and the right conditions for nature to thrive and provide a more sustainable future for the conservation of species dependent on Brownsea's varied habitat.

In this article: FAQs


What is Countryside Stewardship?

Brownsea's Countryside Stewardship project is a five-year conservation initiative that's funded by Natural England, through the Rural Payments Agency under the government’s Countryside Stewardship (CS) scheme. It's a scheme that provides financial incentives for farmers, woodland owners, foresters and land managers to look after and improve the environment.

What will be happening on Brownsea?

Through this project, we aim to improve, expand and link up existing wildlife-rich areas of Brownsea, with a focus on improving the condition of heathland and woodland and driving nature recovery for the species that live here.

What's happening in a nutshell

  • The project will see 12.5 hectares of invasive rhododendron removed
  • As well as 18.6 hectares of heathland restoration
  • And 5.5 kilometres of track upgraded for future conservation and visitor access

When will work begin?

  • Capital works begin at the end of September and are to be completed by January 2023
  • The remainder of the five-year project will focus on controlling regeneration of invasive species and additional habitat creation works.
  • Species-rich grassland is also set to be better managed as part of the project.

Who will be doing the work?

Works will be being undertaken as sensitively as possible, by specialist contractors, as well as the island’s rangers, for the long-term benefit of creatures that call this place home. From tiny insects to the island’s most famous resident, the rare red squirrel as well as water voles and heathland birds such as the Dartford warbler and the summer-visiting, ground-nesting nightjar to name just a few. 

Why are we doing this?

  • Brownsea plays a crucial role as a haven for wildlife in Poole Harbour within the recently-designated Purbeck Heaths National Nature Reserve (NNR) – the largest lowland heathland nature reserve in England – and that's very much at the heart of this CS project.
  • Greater gains for nature can be made by working at a landscape scale in conjunction with neighbouring land managers, and here on Brownsea that includes working with our partners on island and the neighbouring Purbeck portfolio, to make bigger, better and more joined up spaces and corridors for wildlife to flourish. 
  • Nationally, the Trust's Land Outdoors and Nature (LON) strategy has set out ambitious plans to help reverse the decline in wildlife on all the land in our care as we aim to create or restore 25,000 hectares of habitat by 2025 - the equivalent of more than 33,000 Premier League football pitches. 
  • Heathland and woodland restoration on Brownsea as part of this project will count towards these LON ambitions.
  • The improvement works being carried out on Brownsea as part of the project also represent the culmination of a long-held ambition to tackle and eradicate invasive species such as holm oak and rhododendron, inherited by the National Trust on Brownsea six decades ago.


60 years of conservation on Brownsea: the background

The National Trust took ownership of Brownsea in 1962 following the death of Mrs Bonham-Christie, whose 34-year tenure – from 1927 until her death in 1961 – saw the island become something of a hermitage as she led a reclusive life, with island residents returning to the mainland and a guard employed to turn members of the public away.  A great lover of animals and wildlife, she left the island to its own devices, with the orchards and farm being quickly abandoned. Rhododendron, however, was also left unchecked and flourished on the acidic soils of Brownsea at the expense of native species.

On the left: a rhododendron tunnel from the 1980's. On the right: the island today
Brownsea Island
On the left: a rhododendron tunnel from the 1980's. On the right: the island today

Over the last six decades, the hard work of hundreds of dedicated volunteers and the island’s rangers has seen the equivalent of 50 football pitches of the invasive species of Himalayan rhododendron cleared from the island. This work has let light flood back in and created space for native species to re-establish once again and provided a better habitat all round.  But there’s still more to be done and the extensive works as part of this new project will further restore the island.

Countryside Team and volunteers on Brownsea during their weekly work party
Countryside Team on Brownsea during a work party
Countryside Team and volunteers on Brownsea during their weekly work party

The importance of heathland 

Heathland is a precious habitat, rarer than rainforest with more than 80 per cent of lowland heathland being lost since 1800. If not managed, it can be lost to dense areas of pioneer tree species like Scots pine and birch. The continued work carried out as part of this project will mimic the work of our ancestors on what is a cultural and historically agricultural landscape that depends on human intervention for its survival as Dorest's heathland was developed by Neolithic farmers and kept open by people grazing their livestock, cutting gorse for firewood and heather turfs for fuel.

For over ten years now we have been cutting heather and collecting seed across the island’s heath block in a mosaic of small plots, this breaks up the age and structure of its flora with the added benefit of giving us a seed bank from the cut material to use in heath restoration elsewhere on island.

What does the Countryside Stewardship work involve and what will it look like?

A significant part of the work involves woodland management, beneficial to significant native trees, with the aim of improving species and structural diversity across Brownsea’s woodland and creating a wooded heath habitat, similar to the wooded heath of the New Forest.

This will be achieved through the control and removal of invasive species such as rhododendron but also the thinning of woodland compartments where tight stands of pine and other trees are too densely packed, less productive as a result and are also shading out the woodland floor below. 

" This management will benefit both woodland and heathland species, in supporting the spread of Brownsea’s unique wooded heath habitat. At the same time, it will ensure a continuing food supply from trees in better health, and with a varied age structure that will continue to contribute to the food supply of the population of red squirrels and wider biodiversity, well into the future."

What about the red squirrels - how will the Countryside Stewardship works affect them?

A red squirrel habitat assessment took place in 2019 and highlighted the benefits of selective woodland thinning in improving woodland health for red squirrels. It suggested that thinning not only allows for regeneration of younger trees and improves the ecological and structural diversity of woodland to ensure continuity into the future, but also creates more space in the canopy, enabling trees to form larger crowns and produce a larger yield of seeds as food.

We have many of the beneficial tree species already on the island: pedunculate (English) oaks, rowan, hawthorn, yew etc. as well as shrub layer species like bell and cross-leaved heathers, ling and gorse.  But the thinning of tight pine stands, in conjunction with controlling invasive species, will mean we will start to see natural regeneration of these more beneficial, native species.

Red squirrel on high alert
Red squirrel on high alert
Red squirrel on high alert


If we’re facing climate change, why are you cutting down trees?

Tackling climate change requires a holistic approach to maximise carbon capture. Alongside many other negative impacts, the destruction and degradation of a variety of natural habitats has resulted in the direct loss of carbon stored within them. For maximum effect we must protect remaining habitats, minimise losses in soils whilst also undertaking habitat restoration or creation. Scroll below for some more information on the importance of heathland restoration for both species and climate and how we will be carrying out the works to benefit both the heathland and the health of our trees.

Maximising carbon capture in the landscape

How will the Countryside Stewardship works affect my visit?

Visitor routes will need to be adapted periodically whilst work is being carried out in targeted areas, but it’s also an opportunity for visitors to see conservation in action on the island and staff and volunteers will be on hand to answer any questions about the project.

We're pleased that we're able to offer you the chance to learn more about this conservation project and the works being carried out during your visit to the island. You can learn more about the project in a number of ways including:  

  • New indoor and outdoor interpretation. We've some new displays and a 3D model in the Visitor Centre that provides a visual as to what the island’s habitat will look like once the full benefits of the project are realised in years to come. We'll also have some outdoor interpretation stationed near to areas where works will be taking place so that you can learn about the conservation as it's in action.
  • Ask one of our team. We'll have staff and volunteer wardens on hand to answer any questions you may have.about the project.
  • See the results for yourself. Penelope Park on the island, is a good place to see the benefits that this conservation work will bring and is a good example of wooded heath habitat that has been created over the last 10 years or so as part of our conservation work. Penelope Park was used as an example site, to demonstrate how areas might be managed as part of this project and what areas targeted will come to look like in years to come.

The project, runs until 2026, and will also see improvements to tracks across the property. These improvements are necessary to facilitate the conservation work being undertaken now but also in the future and will also benefit our visitors.