Explore Orford Ness National Nature Reserve
Orford Ness has diverted a river, formed an estuary, created over 10 miles of coastline and over 2,000 acres of land. See the rich and varied habitats that have developed on this internationally significant nature reserve and former military testing site and spot the wildlife that makes its home here.
This part of the site was drained and levelled and used as an airfield during the First World War. Some of the reclaimed marshes were later farmed for arable crops until 1989 when they were abandoned. Since the Trust began management of the Orford Ness marshes in 1993, natural regeneration of grassland has been allowed.
The river walls have stopped salt water from flooding the marshes on normal high tides. However, due to seepage and periodic flooding, a residual salinity remains, creating a sward composition in the pastures dominated by the rough grass, sea couch. Salt marsh plants occur around the edges of the scrapes. Grazing and mowing aims to provide a variation in sward height that will encourage wading birds to breed within the open pasture areas.
On King's Marsh, the bulk of the salt water has been prevented from flooding onto the marshes. However, there is seepage, some tidal exchange, and periodic inundations from the sea when the natural shingle sea bank is overtopped.
As a result, these marshes are more saline. These marshes are grazed but less intensively, and a more extensive approach is adopted to management of the wet pasture.
Kings Marsh is home to coastal brackish lagoons, a priority habitat in the EC Habitats Directive and a key habitat within the UK and Suffolk Biodiversity Action Plans (BAPs). They support a small but significant group of unusual plants and animals, including the starlet sea anemone (Nematostella vectensis), a species within the UK BAP.
Shingle is a mobile and transient habitat, rarely stable in the long term, and many of the world's shingle features are bare of vegetation. In Suffolk there are 859 hectares of vegetated shingle, about 20 per cent of the national resource. Orford Ness is the largest vegetated shingle spit in Europe and the second largest, but best-preserved, area of vegetated shingle in Britain.
The shingle ridges and valleys evident on Orford Ness have been deposited over many centuries by the action of the sea. The ridges are a visual record of the evolution of this complex landform, with each ridge showing the position of an ancient shoreline.
Unlike the growth rings of a tree, shingle ridges don't necessarily show a progressive sequence of time. In many places an older series of ridges has been destroyed and replaced by a new series. The date of formation of Orford Ness is therefore still unknown.
Plants on Orford Ness
The sea pea grows in the annual drift line communities, the plants that tend to seed each year after being thrown up by the sea at the top of the tide. Sea pea disappears in the winter but its extensive root system, used to gather scarce water can remain if undisturbed. Its seeds can survive long periods in the sea.
Reed-bed communities are relatively scarce on Orford Ness. In late 1997, under an EU LIFE-Nature project, one site was extended by 2 hectares.
Since the work was completed the areas of reed have expanded, and the new habitat is benefiting, with marsh harriers and bearded tits, as well as many invertebrate species, having been seen. Marsh harriers have bred and successfully raised broods on this site since 1999.
Animals on Orford Ness
Ness's brown hares
Hares can sometimes be spotted on the shingle bank from the top of the Bomb Ballistics building. Look across the vegetated ridges and if you're lucky, you might spot an Orford hare. Often claimed locally as a breed in their own right, Ness's brown hares tend to be bigger, fatter and healthier than their mainland cousins.
Stony Ditch – salt marsh and mudflats
Found on John Norden's map of 1600 and named Stone Eye, this tidal creek, which joins the River Ore about a mile downstream, is wide and shallow and at low tide an expanse of mud is exposed with only a tiny tidal channel.
The mud provides excellent feeding for many hundreds of waders and wildfowl and is one of the most productive ecosystems. At the edges of the creek are areas of salt marsh, providing valuable feeding and roosting areas for large numbers of overwintering wildfowl.
Within a salt marsh the type of plant species found changes from the high to low water marks, according to the length of time each area of the marsh is covered with salt water. More species occur at the uppermost edge of the marshes, where they're exposed to salt water for a shorter time. Most salt marsh plants flower in late summer or autumn.
Find out what you'll discover inside the many fascinating military buildings you'll see as you walk through Orford Ness.
From a military testing site to an internationally significant nature reserve, discover the history of Orford Ness from the 16th century to the present day.
Orford Ness re-opens for the 2024 season on 29 March. Please check this page nearer the time for information on how to book a place before visiting and what to expect on your visit.
Discover the ways you can explore Orford Ness National Nature Reserve as a group, from guided walking tours to special interest visits, plus information about how to book.
Plan a visit to one of the special countryside places in our care and discover the benefits of being in the great outdoors. Pack your walking boots and get ready to explore woodlands, valleys and rivers.
Explore the varied landscape of Suffolk, including heathland, an Anglo-Saxon burial ground and scenery made famous by the landscape artist John Constable.