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Press release

Return of traditional woodland management set to restore famous hotspot for endangered songbirds

A nightingale sits on branches
A nightingale in the woods at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk | © National Trust Images / Jonathan Plews

The National Trust is hoping to amplify one of nature’s most beautiful sounds in the woods at Sutton Hoo, the famous Anglo-Saxon burial site in Suffolk and star of the 2021 Netflix film The Dig, by dramatically improving conditions and habitats for nightingales and other songbirds.

The conservation charity is aiming to diversify wildlife habitats on the site by reintroducing the traditional woodland management technique of coppicing, which dates back to the Stone Age and involves the repeated cutting of trees to their base to encourage fast new growth.

Famous for their distinctive song and immortalised in literature as a symbol of love and the arrival of spring, nightingales have seen a staggering population decline of 90 per cent in the last 50 years and are now being listed among the UK’s most threatened birds, featuring on the UK red list of conservation.

Sutton Hoo has long been a hotspot for these elusive songbirds, as single males can be heard singing during the day and at night to serenade migrating females, a connection highlighted in The Dig, where key character Rory – cousin of Edith Pretty, who owned Sutton Hoo at the time of the excavation – tells archaeologist Peggy Piggott how the nightingale song reminds him of the woods at Sutton Hoo.

Jonathan Plews, National Trust Ranger at Sutton Hoo, explains the benefits of reintroducing this traditional technique: “Coppicing has so many benefits for nature. Not only can coppicing help trees to live longer, but it also lets more light and warmth onto the woodland floor, allowing a wider range of woodland flowers such as wood anemone, primrose and red campion to thrive. Different species benefit from different levels of light, so having areas at all stages of tree growth supports a wide variety of wildlife, including many rare species of birds.”

Nightingale nests can usually be found at or just above ground level as this small, secretive bird raises its young in the shelter of thick scrubby habitat. However, these vital habitats have been in decline due to an increase in deer populations, differences in land use and changes to woodland management practices over the centuries.

Jonathan continues: “Currently, there are a small number of nightingales on the estate, limited to one area of woodland. Last year we recorded four singing males at Sutton Hoo and the hope is we can attract many more in the future through this form of woodland management technique.

“This year we are working in Home Wood where the dense tree canopy means there is very little ground flora. As we begin coppicing, we would expect to see flowers such as bluebells, wood anemone and foxglove grow, along with bramble, which is the perfect nesting habitat for nightingales. It will take a few years for the bramble to establish, but in approximately four years we hope to see more nightingales moving in, as well as other protected and ‘at risk’ birds such as spotted flycatcher, wood lark and nightjar.”

Due to the cyclical nature of coppicing, with work taking place on a different area of woodland year to year, the woodlands will be made up of trees of different ages. This is another important factor for improving the site’s biodiversity, as it creates a wide range of habitats where a variety of wildlife can thrive.

Jonathan explains: “As part of the coppicing cycle, we will also be retaining some of the larger Sweet Chestnut standards so they can act as seed trees and develop into future Veteran trees. This step just as important for biodiversity and absorbing carbon from the atmosphere and with more light, these trees will be able to grow bigger and stronger, adding more nature value to the landscape.”

The coppicing will be carried out by a team of staff and volunteers using chainsaws and a mini tractor to limit disturbance to the woodland floor when extracting the timber, protecting the archaeological features in the woodland, which include a Roman quarry and Second World War anti-air platform.

Wood felled as part of the coppicing work will be used to build fences, gateways, benches and sculptures across the estate, as well as to build bird boxes to further support the endangered species.