Red Squirrels on Brownsea Island

At the moment I seem to be hearing a lot of talk about nature reserves and how, albeit an important aspect for conserving species and protecting areas of natural land, they’re not the best way to promote the regeneration of natural ecosystems. This freak winter we’re experiencing has had a negative impact on many less-hardy species, and those that are trapped in nature reserves can’t move around the way they naturally would to deal with these unfavourable circumstances. A very interesting article on the Guardian website, called ‘Spring: where has it gone?’ states that winter has shifted by 12 days since 2005.
This issue of confining species was also the idea behind the 2020Vision project, where they wanted to convey the need for large connected areas of natural land on a vast scale rather than separate, confined areas. “If you let nature run its course, it’s pretty good at handling itself”, says wildlife photographer Andy Rouse.

What’s that got to do with this week’s blog post? I went to one such confined pocket myself – Brownsea Island.

Brownsea Map from Wikipedia

Brownsea Island is a tiny island located in Poole harbour on the Southwest coast of the UK. It is most well-known as being the home of the first camp in the Boy Scout movement in 1907, and has a very interesting ecosystem. The island is owned by the National Trust but the northern part is managed by the Dorset Wildlife Trust, and oddly enough a small portion to the south-east has been leased for 99 years to the John Lewis partnership (including the castle) who use it as a holiday hotel for staff.

My reason for going there was to see the red squirrel, which is native to the UK but has suffered gravely thanks to the introduction of its nasty cousin, the eastern grey squirrel. It is common throughout Eurasia but in the UK is only found naturally on Brownsea, parts of north Wales, pockets in northern England and Scotland. There are around 200 naturally breeding red squirrels on the island, which can be found anywhere but are quite shy (apparently, maybe the good weather brought one or two out on my trip). Other species of note on the island are Sika deer, imported from Hokkaido in Japan for hunting purposes, who cause quite a big grazing disturbance on other animals – especially the common and sandwich terns, which are now subject to experimental protection methods. There is a heronry which is protected from the public, and in winter it can be home to 50% of the UK’s population of avocets (over 1500 birds, which is a lot on the tiny lagoon!).

The island is only open fully between mid-March and November, and you can catch boats either from Sandbanks or Poole harbour between 10:00 and 17:00. Groups can camp overnight, but I’m not sure what restrictions are on that. After landing on the island there’s a small entry fee or National Trust members go in free.

The confinement of red squirrels? The only reason the red squirrels still happily live on Brownsea is because the grey squirrel never made it that far. They are a hardy species that lives quite happily in colder places, as well as in close proximity to humans. The vicious grey squirrel is great cause of concern in areas where the reds and greys might clash – especially Derbyshire, the North York Moors and Wales. The Foresty Commission states that from previous studies within 15 years of clashing red squirrels are displaced by the greys. As far as conservation efforts go, they (the Forestry Commission) aim to protect the areas where it is safe (and thought to be so in the future), predominantly in Scotland, and hopefully work on expanding the current populations, but they don’t intend to reintroduce any if protection of current habitat suffices. Meaning that Brownsea Island will remain one of the few places in the south of England to see the red squirrel for the near future.

Red Squirrel on Brownsea

Red Squirrels are so curious!

Red Squirrel on Brownsea

This one has to be my favourite, as I love the backlit fur

Red Squirrel on Brownsea

If only that branch hasn’t been in the way!

Red Squirrel on Brownsea

What you looking at fool?

Red Squirrel on Brownsea Red Squirrel on Brownsea

Red Squirrel on Brownsea

They love the pine forests, especially digging around in the moss!

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