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Explore Orford Ness National Nature Reserve

The remote and fragile habitat at Orford Ness National Nature Reserve, Suffolk
The remote and fragile habitat at Orford Ness National Nature Reserve, Suffolk | © National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

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.

Airfield Marsh

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.

King's Marsh

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.

Reed marshes

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.

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.

Animals on Orford Ness

A hare at Orford Ness National Nature Reserve, Suffolk
A hare at Orford Ness National Nature Reserve, Suffolk | © National Trust Images/Justin Minns

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.

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A large grey seal sunbathing under a bright blue sky on Orford Ness, with the Black Beacon visible in the background
Grey seal sunbathing at Orford Ness | © Andrew Capell

Grey seals at Orford Ness

Orford Ness is now home to a colony of grey seals, thought to be the first in Suffolk.

The first 200 adult seals arrived on the seaward side of the site in 2021. Since then, numbers have steadily increased, with over 130 pups counted during the most recent pupping season, which started in November 2023.

Orford Ness has so far proved an ideal habitat for the colony thanks to its remote location. Due to the complex nature of the site, there is little wildlife disturbance and no direct visitor access. The 10-mile shingle spit, which is the largest in Europe, also provides them with lots of places to move inland during bad weather.

To help protect the colony, we’re asking people to refrain from visiting out of season and to clarify that there are no public permissions in place for using drones or other aerial equipment.

We will be looking at what options we have in terms of possible seal viewing routes or guided tours in the future, but at the moment, the safety of our visitors and the wellbeing of the seals is our top priority.

Plants on Orford Ness

Beach Pea (Lathyrus japonicus) growing at Orford Ness National Nature Reserve, Suffolk
Beach Pea growing at Orford Ness | © National Trust Images/Andrew Capell

Sea pea

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.

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Pagodas at Orford Ness National Nature Reserve, Suffolk

Discover more at Orford Ness National Nature Reserve

Find out when Orford Ness is open, how to get here, things to see and do and more.

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