Poole Harbour's Marine Habitats and Wildlife

Poole Harbour important habitats and wildlife slideshow imageClick image to watch in YouTube

Internationally Important Waders and Wildfowl

Over 20,000 birds visit Poole Harbour each year to feed and roost including Britain’s largest over-wintering population of spoonbills.  These bird assemblages along with supporting habitats of salt meadows, reedbeds, coastal saltmarsh and intertidal mudflats are protected under the Poole Harbour Special Protection Area (SPA), Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and Ramsar.  

Bird Sensitive Areas (BSA) are found throughout the Harbour and are important for overwintering and breeding.  The sheltered BSA on the northern shore of Holes Bay is one of the few sites in Poole Harbour to attract the highest number of species and largest number of birds according to research on recreational disturbance.  

Watch our Brownsea Lagoon webcam and learn more about the Birds of Poole Harbour. 

Spoonbills in Holes Bay by Steve Davis

Spoonbills  © Steve Davis

More Than Just Mud at the Bottom of Poole Harbour

The invertebrate communities of worms and bivalves found within the mudflats of Poole Harbour are a rich and important food source for avian and marine predators at low and high tide respectively.  Deeper still, in the tide swept channels are exceptional dense forests of peacock worm, extending their beautiful tentacles to feed upon passing plankton.  If danger appears, they are quick to retract into their self-built sediment tube. The peacock worm is listed as a notable community under the Poole Harbour Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

The vulnerable eelgrass beds stabilise soft sediments with their complex root systems and as a habitat, attract a wide variety of marine life.  Eelgrass provides refuge for countless juvenile species including the spiny seahorse and the short-snouted seahorse, pipefish and many commercially important fin fish and shellfish. Eelgrass is vulnerable to irreversible damage if dredged or trawled and the beds in Whitley Lake are therefore protected under the  Prohibition of Gathering (Sea Fisheries Resources) in Seagrass Beds. and the Bottom Towed Fishing Gear Byelaw.  This legislation maintains the health, productivity and economic value of the marine environment for both fishermen and conservation.

Peacock worms Sabella pavonina by Peter Tinsley

Peacock worms © Peter Tinsley

Fisheries, Angling and Aquaculture

The estuary is important as a natural resource for both wildlife and fisheries.  The seagrass beds of Poole Harbour provide refuge for juvenile species such as pollack, flounder and bream that grow on to support the commercial fishery and recreational angling.   Much of the area is a Bass Nursery Area and there are prohibitions on fishing from boats, using sandeel as bait 30th April - 1st November.  

Southern Inshore Fishery and Conservation Authority (IFCA) regulate and enforce byelaws to protect the vulnerable habitats and conserve spawning fish and shellfish.  They also work with stakeholders to promote voluntary conservation measures such as the Memorandum of Agreement for Bait Digging to reduce bird disturbance and the Netting Code of Practice to reduce seabird entanglement. Legal restrictions apply to commercial fishing during the overwintering and breeding seasons.   

Poole Harbour supports shellfish aquaculture of mussel and oyster which are naturally sustained by filter feeding the nutrient-rich water.  The Portuguese oyster bed is known to be the largest farm in the UK. 

Wild populations of clam and cockle are fished using the pump scoop dredge - a fishing method unique to Poole Habour.  This fishery is now officially certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council

King ragworm Alitta virens by Alexander Semenov

King ragworm © Alexander Semenov


Poole Harbour is a popular location for wide-ranging water sports.  However, the noise and visual impact can affect the local wildlife.  Disturbance to overwintering birds can reduce their feeding times which is essential for their breeding, roosting and migration. 

Bird Sensitive Areas are sensitive to noise and visual disturbance caused through the human use of Poole Harbour and there are guidelines for the various activities. Users are asked to avoid approaching large assemblages of birds on the water or shore and to keep boat speeds low.  Dogs should also be kept on leads near Bird Sensitive Areas to prevent them chasing birds.   

A guide to sea safety and wildlife in Poole Harbour for kayaking and canoeing in Poole Harbour is available here.  

Brownsea Lagoon by Tony Bates

Brownsea Lagoon © Tony Bates

Stakeholder Working

The Holes Bay Nature Park and Lytchett Bay Nature Park are key areas for wildlife and were established under the Great Heath Living Landscapes Project.  Dorset Wildlife Trust (DWT) is working with the landowners and stakeholders to understand the ecological status and human uses of both Nature Parks.  A report will be published soon.

Visitors to the Slipway Bar and Breakout Room at the RNLI College in Poole can now watch beautiful images and videos (as shown in the YouTube link above) from Poole Harbour's important habitats and wildlife along with messages on conservation and sea safety.  Large flatscreen TVs have been placed near the seating area and will be updated regularly.  This Holes Bay Nature Park project was funded thanks to Natural England,  Royal National Lifeboat Institution DWT and Southern IFCA.

Let us know what you find

We would love to hear about your marine sightings in Poole Harbour.  Please send details, with a photo if possible, to info@dorsetwildlifetrust.org.uk or via Facebook or Twitter.

Holes Bay Nature Park Project Partners

Holes Bay Nature Park Project Partners


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