An ancient landscape, a living landscape
Famous for its Anglo-Saxon treasure trove, Sutton Hoo’s special landscape is also home to an array of rich natural habitats that have supported both man and beast throughout history.
Sutton Hoo’s circle of life
The fortunes of Sutton Hoo’s people, landscape and wildlife have always been closely intertwined.
The Sutton Hoo estate lies within the Suffolk Coast and Heaths Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The site is home to a rich tapestry of habitats: high, dry and acidic soil; low, wet and alkaline mud; and all points in between. Each would have been deeply understood by the Anglo-Saxons, as well as those who came before and after, as sources of food, medicine and building materials.
Today, we can see evidence of the landscape’s evolution through time, as its residents made the most of the natural resources around them.
Down by the river
As the M1 of its day, providing access to and from the North Sea, the River Deben allowed for ambitious travel in Anglo-Saxon times. The benefits of a riverside home also drew an array of wildlife to Sutton Hoo.
The Deben Estuary salt marshes and mudflats are now nationally recognised as vitally important habitats for breeding birds, including waders and wildfowl. The muddy areas where salt water meets land are packed full of little creatures, offering a rich feeding area for wild ducks, geese and wading birds, especially in the winter. The saltmarsh on the sides of the estuary also supports special salt-tolerant wildflowers including sea lavender, sea aster, orache and sea purslane.
In turn, the wildlife found here will have sustained Anglo-Saxon life. The birds provided valuable additional winter food and feathers, and reeds growing in areas where fresh water seeped into the saltmarsh will have been used for thatching.
A disappearing heathland
Sutton Hoo is part of a sandy soil landscape called the ‘sandlings’ that once formed a continuous heathland along the coast of Suffolk. When the Anglo-Saxons arrived, much of the landscape would have consisted of open grass heathland, with no trees to obscure the view of the river.
A distinctive element of the heathland is acid grassland, a wildlife rich home to diminutive plant species including wavy hair-grass, sheep’s sorrel, bentgrass and harebells.
Over the years, agriculture and development have contributed to diminishing these heaths, which are now divided into a number of small and isolated pockets like those found at Sutton Hoo and Dunwich Heath.
Wildlife rich woodland
There have been a variety of wooded areas found at Sutton Hoo over the centuries.
In Anglo-Saxon times, there will have been far fewer trees in the landscape than in the present day, and those that did grow here will have been native species such as birch, oak and sweet chestnut. Birch would have been used as cattle fodder and the hard wearing oak and sweet chestnut were perfect for building homes and ships. The Anglo-Saxons also practiced coppicing, a process that sees young tree stems repeatedly cut down to near ground level and used to make poles for fencing and housing.
Very gradually, much of the heathland has naturally given way to woodland, and a number of large Scots Pine plantations have been added by subsequent landowners.
Today, the woodlands at Sutton Hoo are home to wildlife including badgers, tawny owls, woodpeckers and goldcrest. Notably, Top Hat Wood is the summer home to nightingales, a threatened species whose rare song is well known for lifting the spirits.
Custodians of a special landscape
Whilst the special habitats found at Sutton Hoo continue to be as important for wildlife now as they were in Anglo-Saxon times, they have been slowly disappearing from the UK landscape. This means that the plants and creatures they are home to are disappearing too, making us custodians of a very important place.
Unlike the owners and occupants of the past one thousand years, the National Trust is lucky not to have to live from the land by farming or hunting. Instead, we can focus on looking after the landscape and it’s wild residents. As well as protecting the legacy of the Anglo-Saxon burials and the stories of Sutton Hoo’s human residents, we also have ambitious plans for safeguarding the wildlife at Sutton Hoo.