Explore the habitats

Sun shining through pine trees on Brownsea Island in Dorset

Brownsea Island is a magical place where people and nature happily co-exist, wildlife is conserved and the landscape is sensitively managed. In spite of its size, Brownsea has a wealth of different habitats to explore; from sheltered lagoon to open heath, pebbly seashore, freshwater lakes and woodland, each boasting its own fascinating wildlife.

The woodland on Brownsea is comprised of over a hundred tree species, most planted since the 1700s by a succession of owners.  The central valley of the island is mixed woodland comprising mainly native hardwood trees such as oak, beech, rowan and hazel.  The western side of the island is dominated by pine woodland including Scots, maritime and Monterey. The pinewoods provide the perfect habitat for the red squirrel.

The National Trust manages the woodland predominantly for the red squirrels, thinning out old trees and replanting new trees to supply a food source for the squirrels.  There are several exclosures on the island where fencing has been put up to prevent rabbits and Sika deer from nibbling vulnerable seedlings and young trees.

The rich variety of woodland attracts small birds including coal, blue, great and long tailed tits, great spotted woodpeckers, nuthatches and jays. The noctule bat (one of eleven species on the island) roosts in hollow trees and at night the tawny owl swoops out hunting for woodmice.

Look out for Great Spotted Woodpeckers
Great Spotted Woodpecker feeding young at nest hole
Look out for Great Spotted Woodpeckers

Sika deer inhabit the island, first introduced from Japan in 1896.  They are good swimmers and have been spotted swimming in the harbour. It is thought that some may have come from other nature reserves such as Arne on the western side of the harbour.

We have a resident population of peacocks on Brownsea that can often be seen displaying their feathers in courtship on Church field.  They were probably introduced during the Edwardian period form South Asia when many British stately homes adopted them.  They have a distinctive, loud call, especially during the mating season. 

An inquisitive peacock on Church Field may come and say hello
An inquisitive peacock on Church Field may come and say hello

The Seashore

If you wish to walk along the water's edge on Brownsea, then the best place to go is to South Shore beach which runs along the southern side of the island and is reached by the steps dropping down through the pines.  You may also access the beach via a track by South Shore Lodge which is suitable for all terrain pushchairs. 

Take care when the tide is high as there may not be a lot of beach left, however you could stop for a while at one of our viewpoints above the beach and enjoy views of Old Harry Rocks and the Purbeck Hills. 

A beautiful sunrise on South shore beach
Brownsea Island south shore beach
A beautiful sunrise on South shore beach

The south facing slopes that lead down to the beaches are covered with gorse and birch, ideal nesting sites for small birds such as chaffinches, dunnocks, robins and wrens.

In the summer, you can choose a spot with a picnic and watch the oystercatchers picking their way along the mudflats on their long orange legs, probing for ragworms with their bills. 

For some more wildlife spotting, you could head to the quieter end of the island, further west near Pottery Pier where the beach is scattered with pottery shards left over from the clay works that was once here in the late 1800s.

If you enjoy looking for seaside fauna, see if you can spot sea thrift, sea lavender, frosted orache and sticky groundsel.  You will also come across a wide variety of seashells and seaweeds scattered along the strand line.

The Heath

Until the 16th century, Brownsea was largely open heath, covered with gorse and heather and a scant amount of trees.  Successive owners planted woodland, created the lagoon (previously reclaimed pasture) and dug the lakes. 

Heathland, once a common part of the landscape in Southern England, is becoming increasingly rare.  It is a manmade landscape, left alone,  trees such as pine and silver birch will take over, but kept in check, it provides the perfect habitat for numerous plants, insects and birds to flourish. The National Trust manages the heathland and every year, different areas of heath are cut to encourage bell and ling heather, the predominant vegetation, to grow. 

If you visit during July and August, the heather will have burst into a profusion of purple and pink flowers and will hop with grasshoppers, harvestmen and a variety of spiders.  You might also see a green tiger beetle or a common lizard enjoying the sun.

Common, but not often seen!
A common lizard in the grass
Common, but not often seen!