Brownsea Island: Gorse Gawping Screen eyes down in the soil, keyboard fingers plunging into the minutiae, uncovering the new worlds of stubborn gorse, plucky heather and squishy puff ball fungi.

Brownsea Island is a nature reserve — nature refuge more like — adrift in Poole Harbour on the south coast of Britain.

If you’re an avid reader of these pages, you’ll know that I’ve written before about my conservation work with Dorset Wildlife Trust on Brownsea: bruising bracken so that we could clear the forest floor, making breathing room for the pretty little heathers that do so much for carbon capture and biodiversity.

Yesterday, we were scrabbling around in the gorse, using loppers to remove the prickly bush that dominates the springy heather.

Our job was to dive into the needles, gloves first, and trace the tight curls of the white-stemmed gorse back to its root while sparing the delicate red-stemmed heather.

The job was part exterminator, part detective. See if you can spot the strands of heather suffocating in the grip of this flowering gorse:

The patch of Brownsea that we were working on had been tucked away behind fences, meaning that gorse-trimming rabbits couldn’t keep the growth back to the forest floor. The fences hadn’t deterred the deer, however, and their dietary browsing had encouraged the gorse to become thick and bushy.

Over the course of four hours, a team of twelve volunteers cleared an area the size of a large living room. About forty huge bags of gorse went on the fire that billowed smoke signals on a southerly wind.

One of the surprising elements of the ongoing conservation project on Brownsea is the mass felling of trees.

This winter, 3,000 trees will be cut down, chopped up and carted off the island. The felling isn’t indiscriminate: the National Trust and Dorset Wildlife Trust have carefully identified individual trees whose felling will do most to promote a stronger ecosystem.

This happens in two ways. Firstly, by thinning the woodland, there are more nutrients available to the remaining, healthier, trees. One of the knock-on effects of this is that the nut harvest for Brownsea’s famous red squirrels will be, not smaller because fewer trees, but greater because those trees will be much more productive.

Secondly, fewer trees means that more sunlight will hit the forest floor and it is this sunlight that nourishes the ecologically important heathland. The soil under heathland captures more carbon per hectare than the soil under forests does. As I’ve said before: surprising, but true.

I find conservation work to be patient, a steady tempo in a companionable silence. Arriving on Brownsea after such a busy week (and a stressful near-ferry-missing cycle, teeth into a strong sea breeze) was better than a rest cure.

Screen eyes down in the soil, keyboard fingers plunging into the minutiae, uncovering the new worlds of stubborn gorse, plucky heather and squishy puff ball fungi.

Bracken bruising and the moth tree Walking along the Avon, from a distance, the trees ahead were possessed with a shimmering sheen, not quite crabapple blossom, not quite the silver of a birch. Something wilder, more of the night

Today, after an absence of four months, I finally made it back to Brownsea Island to help with the bracken bruising. Bracken is a bit of a pest on the island: completely taking over the understory and blocking light from reaching the gentler heathland species.

Armed with metal-tipped sticks, we spent the day wading through the chest-high bracken, swishing our weapons of destruction with abandon: backhand, forehand, overhead smash.

The idea of ‘bruising’ is to damage the bracken without breaking the stems: to inflict a wound, but not a mortal one.

Bracken grows from rhizomes—subterranean plant stems that send out roots and shoots from beneath the earth. Once it’s taken hold, bracken is bloody hard to control and can easily take over a forest, throttling other species with its persistence and resistance.

Rather than killing the shoots outright, bruising encourages the rhizome mothership to funnel its energetic resources into repairing injured shoots, rather than colonising the rest of the planet with new roots and shoots.

Bracken is incredibly resistant: it will grow back after bruising. We found shoots that had been whacked a month ago, smashed to the ground—but the growing tip had somehow found the energy to curve back from death’s door, up towards the sunlight, putting on a foot or more of new growth. Bracken will always grow back, but, with its resources drained, only more feebly.

We use bracken’s greatest strength against itself and, in so doing, hope to bring new light to the forest floor, where heather and other marginal species can flourish. Or, as one of the volunteers said: ‘Killing nature in the name of conservation.’

The best solution, as to so many of life’s gnarlier problems, is pigs. Pigs love eating bracken and, during the winter, when nature’s larder grows bare, they will even rootle around in the soil and dig up the rhizomes. Dorset Wildlife Trust hope to have swine in residence on Brownsea in Spring 2022. I can’t wait!


But the creepiest experience of the week goes to the dread moth tree:

Shelob’s lair, anyone?

Walking along the Avon, from a distance, the trees ahead were possessed with a shimmering sheen, not quite crabapple blossom, not quite the silver of a birch. Something wilder, more of the night.

Moving closer, the brain doesn’t trust the eyes and it becomes horrifyingly clear that something really isn’t right. A cluster of trees are not themselves: these mighty, long-lived beasts of carbon and chlorophyll have been usurped by thousands upon thousands of tiny caterpillars.

Ermine moths live in communities of thousands and, every spring, club together to weave layers upon layers of silken webbing over every inch of their host tree. It’s protection for their babies from birds and other predators.

Beneath their safety net, the growing caterpillars have free range over the tree’s larder of leaves. It’s shocking to see spring’s bounty stripped before summer, but at least someone’s eating well.

With every leaf throttled, every twig shrouded in silk and the bark crawling with life, it’s a challenge to identify the victim: I think a bird cherry. Partly because the leaves of neighbours look similar, partly because of the riverside location, and partly because one species of small ermine moth LOVES to call the bird cherry home.

Despite their horrifying aspect, these poor cherries should make a complete recovery over the summer. Ermine moths rarely pick on the same tree twice.

~

Thanks to H.S. for hosting and introducing me to the wondrous moth tree!

The Bins on Brownsea

‘Have you got decent bins?’ I’m asked by a man wearing a cagoule.

Well, isn’t that an intrusive question! And I’m about to muster indignant excuses for forgetting to take the recycling out when the man waggles a pair of binoculars and adds: ‘They really help you get up close.’

I’m on a boat in the middle of Poole Harbour, in the squalling rain and the huffing wind of a gale blowing in. The boat has a full cargo of people in cagoules with decent bins, here for an RSPB bird tour of Brownsea Island.

I think it’s fair to say that I’m not a birder. And yet here I am – and next week I’ll be cycling around the RSPB nature reserve at Rainham Marshes. Maybe you don’t choose birding; maybe birding chooses you.

‘Great Northern Diver at eleven o’clock – no he’s dived. Shag at one o’clock. Spoonbill on the beach. Merganser pair just taking off – three o’clock.’

A running commentary sends us birders lurching from one side of the wind-lashed deck to the other, hunting through our misty bins for flecks of white on the storm-grey sea.

For the hobbying birder, this trip is all about spotting new species. When the commentator announces a Slovenian Grebe at four o’clock, there is quite the commotion, let me tell you.

I stare blindly over the hunched shoulders of twitching bin-bearers. I’m as astonished as anyone: Slovenia is all but land-locked – I wouldn’t have thought it’d be known for its sea birds.

Slavonian Grebe. Slavonian. They can swallow fish whole and eat their own feathers. And they’re so rare that they’re on something ominously called the Red List.

Despite frantic Wikipedia research and my rapid identification of a Swan at eleven o’clock, I think it’s fair to say that I’m still not a birder.

My favourites are the bobbers: those birds who bob on the tide, waiting patiently until I catch them in the rings of my borrowed bins before beating their wings against the spray or pulling a dive into the choppy waves.

Other than that, I still rank my birds by the romanticism of their names. Avocet. Little Stint. Black-tailed Godwit.

And, of course, the Wigeon. ‘Isn’t that just a wet pigeon?’ I ask a friend, also not a birder. ‘I thought Wigeon was a Pokémon character,’ she says.

After two hours of chasing feathers, we dock at the John Lewis castle and make our way onto the island.

Brownsea Island has been a National Trust nature reserve since the sixties, after the people of Poole somehow raised £100,000 to save their island from Billy Butlin, he of holiday camp notoriety.

But the only reason there was ever any question of Brownsea becoming a nature reserve was thanks to the whim of a monied misanthropist.

Mary Bonham-Christie bought the island in 1927 and immediately ordered the mass eviction of the 200 people who lived there, then banned the Boy Scouts from their historic campsite and finally hired goons to eject any meddling intruders.

By the time she shuffled off this mortal coil (the ultimate act of any self-respecting misanthrope), only she and her boatman lived on the island. It’s fair to say that Bonham-Christie was not a people person.

But her loathing for the human race did open up a hitherto overcrowded corner of the ecosystem for other wildlife. Red squirrels most famously, but also other cute animals including voles and sika deer (the pretty ones with spots).

This imposed haven from humanity made the island an appealing acquisition for the National Trust who completed the purchase in 1962 with help from the Dorset Wildlife Trust, the Scout and Guide Movements and John Lewis (whose staff holiday in the castle). Now goon-free, Brownsea Island has been open to the public for nearly sixty years.

Birders in particular are drawn to Brownsea thanks to the work of another, shall we say ‘energetic’, aristocrat, Colonel William Petrie Waugh.

When he bought the island in 1852, Waugh saw an opportunity in the shallow water to expand his territory. With a bulk order of over a million bricks, he and his lackeys built a wall in the middle of the sea, enclosing a vast paddling pool from which wind-powered pumps extracted the water. Hey presto – pasture for grazing cattle.

But you can’t keep the sea out forever, not without constant investment (see also: the Netherlands), and gradually the sea wall started leaking. As the salt water joined forces with freshwater leaking from inland, an enormous lagoon was created.

Cue cheers of delight from a multitude of invertebrates – and the sea birds who prey on them: the Shoveler and Teal and Turnstone and Dunlin that us birders had all come to inspect through our rain-splattered bins.

One morning wasn’t nearly enough, but it was a glimpse, a respite in a day battered by storms. We can, if we allow ourselves, be bewitched by nature. I returned to the fraying town doused and refreshed, content.