Photographing the Red Squirrels of Brownsea Island
Sitting on a log in the dappled sunshine I catch a glimpse of rust dashing passed out the corner of my eye. The next moment he’s right there beside me, just a foot or so away. It’s such a joy to finally see one of the many red squirrels that Brownsea Island is famous for. He zips about inspecting my rucksack, then my camera bag, my jacket, ever hopeful that I might have some nuts squirreled away somewhere (pun intended).
Why did the red squirrels disappear?
Do you remember the Tufty Club? I certainly do. Tufty was a jolly red squirrel that knew how to cross the road safely and as a little girl so did I because of Tufty. I can remember feeling so sad that red squirrels were dying out where I lived in the south of England and being replaced by the bigger grey squirrels. I’d look at every squirrel I ever saw hoping it would be a red one. But they never were.
The demise of the red squirrel (Eurasian red squirrel Sciurus vulgaris) I now know was down to loss of habitat and a pox virus that the larger grey squirrels (eastern grey squirrel, Sciurus carolinensis) carried. While it didn’t affect the greys, it was fatal to the reds and there is still no cure today. So now where I live and throughout most of England the red squirrels are no more. They are still found in the far North of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland but they are nevertheless a threatened species.
The Red Squirrels on Brownsea Island
There are two islands, however, off the south coast of England where they are still found, the Isle of Wight and Brownsea Island. Thank goodness that the virus carrying grey squirrels have not as yet, some forty years later, found their way to these shores. I recently visited Brownsea and it was wonderful to finally see them zipping about the trees and forest floor.
Brownsea Island is owned by the National Trust and lies in the mouth of Poole Harbour in Dorset, one of the largest natural harbours in the world, second only to Sydney. The island may be only one and a half miles long but according to naturalist Bill Oddie it’s the best place for seeing wildlife in Dorset. As well as around 200 red squirrels there are also sika deer and at the lagoons managed by Dorset Wildlife Trust you’ll find flocks of waders such as avocets, black-tailed godwits and spoonbills from autumn to early spring.
I’m here to see and photograph the red squirrels though so while I’d love to spend some time at one of the hides looking out over the lagoons I’m sticking to the woods where the squirrels are to be found. Most of the year they prefer to stay up in the higher branches of the trees but each autumn they come down to the forest floor in search of food. And what fun it is to watch them. They whizz around so fast it’s hard to catch them with my camera but perseverance pays off. And the tips I picked up from wildlife photographer David Plummer which came in so handy while watching bears in Canada are equally applicable here.
I wish I had more time to fully explore the island and would ideally like to return another day. A stay somewhere nearby in Dorset would be the ideal option.
When I first arrived on the island and I was just in time to join a squirrel walk. Our guide, Sue, gave us some fascinating insights into the island as well as the lifes of the squirrels here. Did you know squirrels can be right or left-handed? Neither did I.
The squirrels vary in colour but are generally rust with cream underbellies. Their tails, as I saw for myself, can be rust, black or even cream. They sleep in drays which are much like pigeons’ nests in appearance. Females will build a number of drays and move with the kittens, carrying them by the scruff of the neck, just as a mother cat does, from dray to dray as each one in turn gets overrun by fleas. The males play no part in rearing the youngsters and once the kittens are weaned the females leave them to fend for themselves as these pretty little squirrels prefer a solitary life. Although if it gets really cold in winter related squirrels may curl up in a dray together to keep warm. One squirrel on Brownsea found another more novel way to stave off the winter chills. When a fluffy toy squirrel went missing from the gift shop it’s stuffing was later found lining a dray. They can be quite cheeky little things and have been seen carrying off numerous items including candles from the church. The toy’s stuffing makes sense but I can’t imagine what they would want with a candle.
What else is there on Brownsea Island?
Brownsea Island is a fascinating place and is well worth a visit, not only to see the squirrels but for its other wildlife, woodland walks, clifftop views and sandy beaches. You’ll also see peacocks. Lots of them.
The island’s restaurant serves excellent homemade meals using, wherever possible, local organic produce. There’s also a small castle on the island which is a holiday hotel (with a 4 year waiting list) for staff of the John Lewis Partnership, important benefactors of the island. Now That’s What I Call Holiday Pay is an interesting account of staying on the island back in 2003.
Significantly the island was the site of Baden Powels’ first ever scout camp, an experiment to see how boys from all walks of life would mix together learning scouting skills such as fire making. As you can probably guess it was a great success.
I was so engrossed in the squirrels that I only saw a small part of the island but I’m looking forward to returning one day to discover more.
You can see more of my squirrel pictures and other wildlife photographs taken here in the UK in my wildlife Facebook album.
Getting to Brownsea Island
Please note that Brownsea Island is open from March to the end of October each year and selected dates throughout the winter. More information can be found on their website, Brownsea Island.
Poole is easy to get to along the coastal railway line. To get there from London catch a train to Southampton Central where you can connect to a train to Poole. From the station it’s just a 15 minute walk to the quay where two kiosks sell tickets for the ferry to Brownsea Island for £10.50 for an adult return.
Alternatively the No: 50 bus from Bournemouth goes to Sandbanks where you can also catch the ferry to Brownsea Island.
National Trust members can enter the island for free, non-member adult entry is £6.80.
Dorset Wildlife Trust members can enter the lagoon reserve for free, non-member adult entry is £2.
Places to Stay
Poole itself makes a great base for exploring the area including some of England’s loveliest sandy beaches, an intersting quayside, Upton Country Park and if the weather’s not so good, Tower Park, the south coast largest entertainment centre, with a 10 screen cinema, bowling, waterpark, soft play and plenty of restaurants. You can find some great deals and compare hotel prices with Holiday.me.
Brownsea Island 01202 707744
Greenslade Pleasure Boats 01202 669955 or 631828
Brownsea Island Ferries Ltd 01929 462383
Dorset Wildlife Trust 01202 709445
With thanks to Poole Tourism for inviting me and sponsoring my visit to Brownsea Island to photograph these lovely squirrels.
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Oh Goodness me you’ve taken me back! The Tufty club! Yes! I remember him well, in actual fact, they should bring him back! ? & Poole, Dorset I used to live there & was part of the rowing club based in the harbour. We would frequently row out to Brownsea Island & all around it! It was hard going & the water was pretty choppy by the time you got half way to the island then around it & back home we were exhausted! But great fun ? I’ve never actually been on the island! So didn’t realise there were red squirrels & peacocks there! My daughter has just learnt all about India & found that lots of Peacocks are called a party – fun to think they’re partying the night away there ? – I MUST GO BACK! Thank you, beautiful photos xxx
My pleasure, Sharon. And thank you for sharing your memories. I can imagine rowing in the rough sea must be tiring. I’ve not really tried it but I’d love to kayak round there one day. I didn’t know about a party of peacocks. That is funny! And yes, you must go back and visit the squirrels and the peacocks. Check on their website for the best times to go. The squirrel walk was fascinating.
Hi Kathryn, I’ve only ever heard of red squirrels – never seen one. These pictures are absolutely gorgeous! I’m planning to visit the Isle of Wight next year so, hopefully, I’ll see some of them.
I do hop you see them although most of the year they stay high in the trees. In Autumn they come down looking for nuts that have fallen on the ground so are easier to spot. Brownsea Island is very near the Isle of Wight by the way.
Very beautiful photographs! They look so cute…. How on earth did you manage to capture them so beautifully?
Thank you! They are a great subject and I did spend quite a few hours photographing them (much of which was spent just sitting there waiting for them to appear).
Oh, these little critters are adorable! (Not that we’d know the difference between a red squirrel or an ordinary squirrel – except maybe the color is a giveaway!) Here in British Columbia, we have lots of chipmunks and squirrels – we see squirrels all the time in our back yard, and the chipmunks love to be fed by hikers in the mountains and forests. Anyway, the peacocks must be fun to see on Brownsea too :-).
Thepeacocks were lovely and I’ve never seen so many. I’d love to go back in the spring when the males will have their tail feathers.
Lovely squirrel photos. I’ve have a few holidays to Dorset but never made it to Brownsea, will have to make sure I do next time!
I’m sure you’d enjoy it as much as I did, Lucy
When I was young (and a member of the Tufty Club) I honestly believed that grey squirrels were just red squirrels that had grown old!
I last saw red squirrels on the Isle of Wight – cute dudes!
Lovely post, Kat, the photos are stunning!
I’ve never seen them on the Isle of Wight. Of course, there’s never a gaurantee with wildlife but I think the chances are quite high on Brownsea, especially in the Autumn.
Ah great article, was lovely to read thanks Kat! I’m a huge animal lover and it’s been a long time since I saw a red squirrel. I keep meaning to head down to Brownsea Island and never get round to it. After seeing your wonderful pictures I know I really need to sort my act out! I’ve already made a note in my diary to head down there next Autumn! 😉
They are so friendly too, no doubt because photographers like to feed them, which they really shouldn’t do but I can understand the temptation. I do hope you get there next year – you’ll love it.
Cute! I used to love watching the squirrels in Hyde park when I lived there, but these guys are much more colorful. I like the “Pin it” at the bottom of the page also.
Both species are lovely to watch the red squirrels have th edge when it comes to cuteness (and colour)
I remember watching your Periscope as the squirrels scampered around – fast little creatures aren’t they! I’ve only seen a red squirrel in France – never the UK. I know where to go to find them now though 🙂
They were so fast! I’ve not seen grey squirrels dart around quite like that. Would love to spend more time studying both species. My zoology roots are coming to the fore.