Suffolk Coast and Heaths

By Sargent, Jo | Geographical, September 2007 | Go to article overview

Suffolk Coast and Heaths

Sargent, Jo, Geographical

Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty

Threatened by rising sea levels and a growing flood risk, the Suffolk Coast and Heaths AONB reportedly has one of the UK's driest climates. And although it's home to Britain's newest nuclear plant, it also contains some of the country s most important bird reserves. Jo Sargent explores an AONB seemingly riddled with contradictions.

Clouds of rich, brown dust roll over the ground, whipped across the fields by a hot, dry breeze. But although the dust devils forming in front of me resemble something you'd expect to see while driving in the Nevada desert, I'm actually standing in the Suffolk countryside. It's a rare sunny day in what's shaping up to be the UK's wettest summer since records began and I've come to the Suffolk Coast and Heaths Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB)--which is nestled at the heart of a county that, along with Norfolk and Essex, is a contender for the title of Britain's driest region-in an attempt to escape the seemingly endless rain.

'Driving along, you can literally see the soil being blown off the fields,' says Malcolm Farrow, communications officer for the AONB. 'I've been in some of the remoter parts of the area and found the roads covered in soil. It's incredibly light--if you were to walk out into this field it would crumble and fall apart in your hand because it's mostly sand.

'And when you think we haven't had very much dry weather this year,' he continues, 'you can imagine what it's like when we have a real dry spell coupled with windy conditions.'

Designated in 1970, and covering 403 square kilomettes from the Stour estuary in the south to Kessingland in the north, the Suffolk Coast and Heaths AONB is a mixture of shingle beaches, cliffs, estuaries, heathland and marshes, overlying some of the youngest rocks in Britain.

Although the west of the county is primarily underpinned by 50-million-year-old London Clay, in the east, the land gently rises to form the Sandlings, a much younger, low-lying plateau of heathland that once ran almost unbroken from

Ipswich to Lowestoft and covered nearly the whole of the AONB. 'The heaths are essentially a manmade feature,' Farrow explains. 'They developed over centuries, through the creation of huge grazed corridors called sheep walks. Originally all of this would have been forest: And although during the past century, development and farming have reduced the heath by nearly 80 per cent, some areas have survived unscathed--here at Upper Hollesley Common, swathes of mauve bell heather blanket the ground, and the heavy smell of bracken fills the air.

Regardless of how the landscape initially developed, the heaths are now a vital habitat for local wildlife. The nightjar and the silver-studded blue--a rareheath-dwelling butterfly--both have important colonies along the Suffolk coast, and what remains of the Sandlings is fiercely protected. But the heath is only half the reason the AONB received its designation, because although tourism is the main economic provider for the region, Farrow believes much of the AONB's appeal stems from the lack of coastal development.

'It's one of very few undeveloped coasts in southern England--the Kent, Sussex and Hampshire coast is all pretty developed--so as you come up into East Anglia, this is one of the first really undeveloped bits of coast: One of the key reasons the Suffolk coast has remained so undeveloped are the five estuaries that dissect the county, which make the construction of a major road adjacent to the shore impossible.

The estuaries are fringed by saltmarshes, and at low tide, vast expanses of glistening mudflat are exposed, creating the perfect feeding ground for a wide variety of wading birds and wildfowl. It comes as no surprise then that the area is home to Minsmere, the RSPB's flagship reserve. 'River estuaries such as the Stour and Orwell support internationally important wintering populations of birds,' Farrow explains. …

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