Skip to content

Brownsea Island Countryside Stewardship project

Pine trees in woodland with the sun shining through, on Brownsea Island, Dorset
Sun shining through pine trees on Brownsea Island | © National Trust Images / Chris Lacey

A five-year project to restore and improve Brownsea’s habitat began in September 2021. The Countryside Stewardship is one of the largest conservation projects in the island’s history, aiming to create better conditions for nature to thrive and provide a more sustainable future for the species dependent on Brownsea's varied habitat. Here you can find out more about the work being undertaken.

What is a 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.

The work we're doing on Brownsea Island

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.

As part of our work, we've undertaken 18.6 hectares of heathland restoration, removing 12.5 hectares of invasive rhododendron, and upgraded 5.5 kilometres of tracks for future conservation and visitor access. You can read more about this below.

What's happening and when?

Capital works including habitat management and track improvements began in September 2021 and were completed in 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 is undertaking the work?

Specialist contractors have worked alongside our Countryside Ranger team to ensure that work undertaken has been done so as sensitively as, for the long-term benefit of creatures that call this place home.

Why have we undertaken the project?

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 been at the heart of this 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 the island and the neighbouring Purbeck portfolio, to make bigger, better and more joined up spaces and corridors for wildlife to flourish.

Land, outdoors and nature

Nationally, the Trust's Land Outdoors and Nature 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 ambitions.

The improvement works that have been carried out on Brownsea 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.

Purple heather at Brownsea Island, Dorset
The Countryside Stewardship project includes the restoration of the island's heathland | © National Trust Images/John Millar
key facts

12.5 hectares

of invasive rhododendron's been removed

18.6 hectares

of heathland restoration undertaken

5.5 kilometres

of track has been upgraded for future conservation and visitor access

March 2023 update

Heathland restoration

All of the selected tree felling as part of the project has now been completed, creating open spaces that let in more light which will help the heather to grow and spread. 2,000 tonnes of timber has been taken off the island, and nearly all of the remaining stumps have been removed. This will ensure that nutrients aren’t added to the soil and will aid the regeneration of nutrient poor-loving heathland habitat

Continued maintenance will be needed to control bracken, rhododendron, and pine from returning. The remaining roots and branches have been scraped away exposing soil that has a good mixture of organic and mineral material.


Over 4.000 tonnes of gravel was delivered to the island and most of the tracks have now been re-surfaced. In April a specialist company came on site to check that the tracks had the correct levels to ensure that any excess water drains away. The summer weather helped dry out the tracks too, but some of the wetter areas have had new drainage fitted.

Tractor moving cut branches from woodland
Tractor moving cut branches | © National Trust/ Olivia G

What has the Countryside Stewardship work involved?

A significant part of the work has centred around 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 take time to realise the benefits, but works towards this have included the control and removal of invasive species such as rhododendron and the thinning of woodland compartments where pine and other trees were too densely packed, less productive as a result and also shading out the woodland floor below. Undertaking this work has already seen heathland begin to regenerate.

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.

As well as being rich in biodiversity, heathlands store carbon, and contain among the hightest amounts of carbon per unit area of any habitat, with soil stocks of up to 374 tonnes per hectare. Protection of heathland habitat is therefore not only important for biodiversity, but the carbon stocks they hold, as both may have taken centuries to accumulate.

By avoiding clear felling in heathland restoration and undertaking selective thinning instead, we've been able to manage the landscape as part of this project to improve the priority heathland habitat and maintain carbon stocks.

'This management has already begun to show benefits to both woodland and heathland species, in supporting the spread of Brownsea’s unique wooded heath habitat. Longer term, 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.'

– Tim Hartley, Countryside Stewardship Project Manager and Lead Ranger, Brownsea Island

Protecting Brownsea's red squirrels

A red squirrel habitat assessment took place in 2019 and highlighted the benefits of selective woodland thinning in improving woodland health for red squirrels. 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 and yew, 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 sitting on a fallen tree trunk on Brownsea Island, Dorset
Red squirrel on Brownsea Island | © National Trust Images/John Millar

How will the project affect my visit?

Although capital works have now been completed, ongoing works to manage invasive species will from time-to-time need to take place. Visitor routes may need to be adapted while work is carried out in targeted areas, but we aim to keep disruption to a minimum whilst ensuring the safety of visitors.

How has the island changed?

Visitors returning to the island will be able to see the immediate impact that the project has had here in places across the island. Areas that have had targeted tree works will appear more open, letting light into the woodland floor and while it is still early days, just a year and a half into the project there's already some really promising signs of heathland regeneration as a result of the works.

Penelope Park is a good place to see the benefits that this conservation work will eventually bring and is a good example of a wooded heath habitat that's been created through similar management over the last 10 years. This area of the island 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.

You can learn more about the project in a number of ways including:

  • New indoor and outdoor interpretation: We've installed some new displays and a 3D model in the Visitor Centre that provides a visual of what the island’s habitat will look like after the project is complete. We'll also have some outdoor interpretation stationed near the work so you can learn about the conservation as it's in action.
  • Ask one of our team: Staff and volunteer wardens are on hand to answer any questions you may have about the project.

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.

A close up of a red squirrel on a branch on the floor of woodland on Brownsea Island, Dorset


Everyone needs nature, now more than ever. Donate today and you could help people and nature to thrive at the places we care for.

Our partners

Natural England

Natural England is the government’s adviser for the natural environment in England. They help to protect and restore our natural world.

Visit website 

You might also be interested in

Heather on Brownsea Island, Dorset.

Brownsea joins new 'super' National Nature Reserve 

We’ve joined with the Dorset Wildlife Trust and other landowners, to create the largest lowland heath National Nature Reserve for a more joined-up approach to nature conservation.

Red squirrel kits in a nest box, Brownsea Island, Dorset

Brownsea Island's bird and mammal box project 

Discover how a team from the National Trust support the woodland residents on Brownsea Island, Dorset.

Red squirrel with a chestnut on Brownsea Island, Poole Harbour, Dorset

Wildlife watching on Brownsea Island 

Take a walk on Brownsea Island, Dorset, and encounter a variety of birds and other wildlife that calls this island sanctuary in Poole Harbour, home.

Sunrise over the east coast at Lundy, Devon

Nature conservation 

Discover how we work to support a rich variety of land, nature and wildlife across England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Birds eye view of the kitchen garden project at Florence Court, County Fermanagh

Grants and funding 

Find out more about the funding the National Trust receives from grants, and the projects it has helped support.

Volunteer planting trees at Knightshayes, Devon

Working towards a green recovery 

With support from the Government’s Green Recovery Challenge Fund, we're looking for ways to protect our environment and combat climate change. Find out more about the work we're doing.

Thick frost on the ground with the windpump standing against a bright blue sky at sunrise at Horsey Windpump, Norfolk

Our cause 

We believe that nature, beauty and history are for everyone. That’s why we’re supporting wildlife, protecting historic sites and more. Find out about our work.