Dunwich Heath, a patchwork of diverse and rare habitats...

Dunwich Heath early morning landscape

Dunwich Heath is a precious landscape with a wide variety of habitats, providing a home for a wealth of different species. Read on to find out more about each unique part.

Habitats of the Heath

Dunwich Heath and Beach has been in the care of the Trust since 27th March 1968, the landscape returned to its traditional heathland and maintained ever since. Further sections of land were added in 2002 thanks to Pizza Express who sold their ‘Neptune’ seafood pizza to raise funds, and in 2015 thanks to the WREN land acquisition fund and the Enterprise Neptune Campaign. This land now forms the acid grassland and heathland of Mount Pleasant Fields.

The big question you might be asking though, is why? Why is the heathland, grassland and neighbouring habitats important enough to take ownership and preserve them? The answer lies beneath your feet…

The soil that makes the gently rolling slopes of the former Dunwich Common is mainly sand. This creates perfect conditions for the successful growth of Heather, forming lowland heath. Lowland heath used to be prevalent across England, but in the last 120 years has declined by 92%, making Dunwich Heath one of the very few habitats of its kind left, supporting the many rare wildlife and plant species that rely on its ecology. Acid grassland covers large parts of the Mount Pleasant Fields, though patches of heather do crop up. No less diverse than the heath to its south, these fields are also an important habitat for threatened species such as the Stone Curlew.

There are several other smaller habitats that have important roles to play in the ecology of Dunwich Heath. Firstly, Docwra’s ditch, the belt of wetland running along our southern boundary. This area supports all manner of amphibians, insects, waterfowl, water mammals such as Otters and Water Voles, and reed birds. The second is the beach and cliffs. The beach supports rare plant life, such as Sea Pea, and the cliffs provide the perfect soil for Sand Martins to make their nests. Finally, there are several areas of sun baked sandy cliffs, ideal conditions for rare insects such as the Ant Lion and the Spider Wasp.

All these habitats make up the patchwork of Dunwich Heath, protected by the National Trust Forever, For Everyone. The land is further protected by the Suffolk Coasts and Heaths Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, guarding the different habitats within its bounds for generations to come. As for how we protect and manage these extraordinary and essential areas, read on to find out…

Heather Heaven

Heather, despite being a hardy species, requires management to thrive. We cut the heather to keep a mosaic of varying ages across the site, so that the whole won’t suddenly reach the end of its life in one go. Large areas of young single age and similar height heather we cut and leave to regrow from the plants. If the heather is degenerating or there is unwanted vegetation growing like bracken, gorse or scrub we cut them down, then scrape to expose the dormant heather seeds. Heather seeds can lay dormant for up to sixty years, which is equivalent to two heather plant life cycles!

In some parts of the UK, management of heathland is achieved through burning. This is not the case for us however, as the risk of fires getting out of control and destroying the entire heath is far too great, unlike the upland moors which cover a large enough area for it to be low risk. Furthermore, by cutting and scraping the heather we create sun traps for reptiles and insects and can use the cuttings and seedlings to encourage or restore new heath. We also share the cuttings with other organisations, such as the RSPB and private owners, to help their sites.

A sea of purple heather on Dunwich Heath
Heather on Dunwich Heath
A sea of purple heather on Dunwich Heath
Heather scraping on Dunwich Heath
Heather scraping on Dunwich Heath
Heather scraping on Dunwich Heath

Green and Pleasant Fields

The management of the Mount Pleasant fields is much lower tech than that of the heath. There are no machines employed here, instead we go to nature’s own mowers, sheep! Over the winter we host several herds of sheep of different breeds, that munch their way around managing the land for us, keeping the Heather and Gorse down and allowing the acid grassland to flourish. Currently we host four different breeds; White-Faced Woodlands, Hebrideans, Herdwicks and Manx Loaghtans.

The sheep return to their usual grazing, on Orford Ness for example, in the Spring and the scrubby vegetation grows up again to provide shelter for the rare bird species that rely on it, such as the previously mentioned Stone Curlew, and the Woodlark. Without the specific habitat of Mount Pleasant fields these already rare birds would be under even greater threat, so caring for this habitat is providing both diversity, and giving rare species the space they need to survive.

The four breeds of sheep we have here at Dunwich Heath; clockwise from top left - Hebrideans, White-Faced Woodlands, Manx Loaghtan and Herdwick
Sheep breeds at Dunwich Heath
The four breeds of sheep we have here at Dunwich Heath; clockwise from top left - Hebrideans, White-Faced Woodlands, Manx Loaghtan and Herdwick

What about the Trees?

Think of National Trust properties and you often think trees and woodland on former estates. Being mainly heathland at Dunwich however, trees are at a premium. That does not mean there aren’t any though. Silver Birch and Pine crop up on the heath in places, and where the heath gives way to less sandy soil other varieties such as Oak, Ash, Sycamore and Chestnut spread their leafy boughs. Being such a fast-growing tree, we have to manage the Silver Birch on site, removing the occasional wayward branch. We also keep a sharp eye out for the various diseases that the trees are susceptible to, such as Ash dieback and Dutch Elm Disease.

Some sites within The National Trust have suffered immeasurably from Ash Dieback, as at Hughenden below. Luckily for us there are few Ash trees on Dunwich Heath, so we can manage Ash Dieback relatively easily. The disease itself is spread by spores carried on the wind and kills the tree’s new growth from the top down. This leaves dead wood in the crown, which is liable to drop, and weakens the trees immune system allowing other pathogens to get in and further weaken the tree’s structure. We carefully monitor the Ash trees on site, and so far they are all healthy or resisting the disease. The trees won’t necessarily die, some recovering and therefore becoming immune, and even if the trees do die the standing dead wood left behind is a fantastic habitat for bats and owls. As for Elm trees, unfortunately the disease has already run its course, so all we can do is take out the tops of dead trees to make them safe. As mentioned though, whilst sad to be losing a tree, it does provide perfect nesting spots for bats and owls!

The devastating effects of ash dieback are clearly visible in woodland on the Hughenden Estate in Buckinghamshire
The effects of ash dieback are clearly visible in woodland on the Hughenden Estate
The devastating effects of ash dieback are clearly visible in woodland on the Hughenden Estate in Buckinghamshire
One of several beautiful arcades of Silver Birch at Dunwich Heath
Silver Birch at Dunwich Heath
One of several beautiful arcades of Silver Birch at Dunwich Heath

Good to Know

Now for some more frequently asked questions, and maybe a few facts that you did not know before:

When is the Heather in bloom?

There are three types of Heather at Dunwich; Bell Heather, Cross Leaved Heather and Ling Heather. The Bell and Cross Leaved Heather are at their best flowering in late July, whereas the Ling Heather is at it's peak in early August. The purple-pink flowers are a delicate contrast to the tough, wiry stems they grow on. In long hot spells the flowers do dry out, so for the best results aim to visit after recent rainfall.

Does Gorse smell of coconut?

In a word, yes. More specifically it is the flowers that have a scent of coconut about them. Just be careful when you lean in for a sniff not to get jabbed by the prickles!

Is there much to see in Autumn?

Dunwich Heath hosts several migrant bird species over the winter, from Merlins to Fieldfares, so look out for them on a visit. In terms of the habitats, Dunwich Heath is not heavily wooded, but where there are trees there is the traditional blaze of reds, oranges, yellows and browns. If you look closer to ground, you will see a plethora of fungus of all shapes and varieties too. Along Docwra’s ditch for example, our southern boundary, Fly Agaric sprouts regularly with its glossy red toadstools.

What about wildflowers?

On the heath there aren’t many wildflower species, but along the beach, Docwra’s ditch, through the woods or around Mount Pleasant fields you will find many more. Keep a keen eye out for Sea Pea and Yellow-Horned Poppy on the beach for example.

Do you get Snowdrops and Bluebells?

In the woodland yes, so if you are out for a Spring walk look out for their pretty white and silky purple flowers.

Are there different types of Gorse?

Yes, there are two types on the heath, Common and Western Gorse, which flower at different times of the year. Common Gorse flowers from January to June, while Western Gorse blooms from July to November.

How fast are the cliffs eroding?

The cliffs are currently being eroded at less than half a metre a year, which is great news for the beach vegetation, though the rate does vary depending on the effect of longshore drift on the width of the shingle beach in front. A wider beach protects the cliffs, while a slimmer strip leaves them vulnerable.