An ancient purple landscape that once carpeted swathes of the south coast of England is set to be restored on Brownsea Island to improve prospects for rare wildlife.

The Dorset island, famous for its red squirrel population, will undergo a five-year transformation to expand fragments of neolithic heathland in what will be one of the most ambitious conservation projects in the site’s history.

Heathlands were widespread in England for centuries, formed by farmers to graze their animals and kept alive by people cutting gorse and heather for fuel. The undulating purple hills provided inspiration for the likes of Thomas Hardy, who based the fictional Egdon Heath in Return of the Native on the untamed heaths of Dorset. 

But a drive for productivity in the 20th century saw these wild landscapes lost in favour of dense forests and farmland. Today, only one sixth of the UK’s old lowland heath remains – and much of it exists in isolated pockets, surrounded by towns and cities.   

Now, a project by the National Trust and Dorset Wildlife Trust aims to breathe new life into the ancient habitat on Brownsea Island, with funding from the Government’s Countryside Stewardship Scheme. 

Tim Hartley, Lead Ranger for the National Trust, said:

“Brownsea has a rich and fascinating past and our heathlands are an important part of that history. But over the centuries, the habitat has shrunk and become fragmented. 

“Through this project we want to enlarge those pockets of heathland and knit them back together. Heathlands depend on human intervention for their survival and what we’re doing is mimicking the work of our ancestors to make sure that the landscape, and the wildlife that depends on it, is still here in centuries to come.”  

The restoration involves cutting heather from existing patches and scattering the cuttings across bare soil – from which new heather will grow. Seed will also be collected from the mainland areas of Purbeck Heaths National Nature Reserve (NNR) – England’s first super NNR and the largest heathland nature reserve in England, of which Brownsea is part of.

Meanwhile, dense areas of trees will be carefully thinned to let more light onto the woodland floor, again promoting heather growth, and allowing younger trees space to expand.

Tim added:

“By opening up these woodlands, we’re making space for trees to naturally regenerate and encouraging them to form lower branches and bigger canopies – which means more food and better homes for red squirrels. Over time, we’re hoping for a diverse wooded heath habitat.”

New areas of heathland and open woodland will link up habitats, allowing more opportunities for the island’s animals, including the water vole – Britain’s fastest declining mammal – lizards and slow worms, and rare birds such as Dartford warbler and nightjar, which migrates from Africa each year.

Teams will also attempt to eradicate the island of an invasive plant inherited by the Trust when it bought Brownsea six decades ago. Volunteers and rangers have painstakingly removed 50 football pitches-worth of Himalayan rhododendron over the years, but the species persists and more needs to be done to stop it outcompeting other plants.

The scheme marks 60 years since Brownsea was brought into the care of the National Trust who took ownership in 1962 following decades in which visitors were prevented from setting foot on its shores. Today, the island sees over 130,000 visitors each year and is managed in partnership with the Dorset Wildlife Trust and John Lewis and Partners.  

Luke Johns, Poole Harbour Reserves Officer at Dorset Wildlife Trust said:

“We are delighted to be working with the National Trust on the Brownsea Countryside Stewardship project which is going to make such a huge difference to wildlife and their habitats on the island. 

“Our nature reserve in the northern part of the island provides sanctuary for rare and threatened species from tiny insects and ground-nesting birds such as the nightjar to the rare red squirrel and the water vole in its woods, reedbeds and lagoon. These heathland and woodland restoration works are going to improve, expand and link up habitats across the island creating more space for nature and the right conditions for wildlife to thrive.”

The scheme is the biggest single conservation project in the 60 years the Trust has cared for Brownsea and is the culmination of several decades’ work to improve the island’s habitats.  

Capital works, including the removal of 12.5 hectares of rhododendron and over 25 hectares of heathland restoration, will be completed by 2023. 

Visitors can still expect a warm welcome to Brownsea, and while some walking routes will need to be adapted whilst work is carried out, it’s an opportunity for people to see conservation in action, the Trust said.

The island is now reopen to the public.

Photo credit: Heather and Gorse in flower on Brownsea Island – National Trust / John Millar.


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