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Our work at Orford Ness

Visitors exploring the Island of Secrets exhibition at Orford Ness National Nature Reserve, Suffolk
The Island of Secrets exhibition at Orford Ness | © National Trust Images/John Millar

Discover some of the work we do throughout the year to make sure we preserve the history, landscape and wildlife at Orford Ness National Nature Reserve now and for future generations. From capturing the stories of people who worked here, to managing a flock of grazing sheep and maintaining the river walls, find out what it takes to care for this special place.

Remembering the workers of Orford Ness

For nearly 80 years from the early 20th century, thousands of men and women served their country by working on top-secret projects on Orford Ness. They were responsible for an astonishing series of developments in weaponry and defence systems that proved vital to the outcome of world conflicts.

Despite their resourcefulness, brilliance, perseverance and courage, their achievements have gone almost unrecognised. But now, at last, they have been remembered with a memorial stone on Orford Quay.

From initial idea to finished memorial

The memorial was proposed by the late Paddy Heazell, who was a National Trust volunteer and who wrote the book Most Secret – The Hidden History of Orford Ness. He suggested that a memorial would be a great way to encourage visitors to find out more about these scientific and technical achievements.

We worked with the Orford Town Trust, Orford Museum and the Touching the Tide Landscape Partnership Scheme to commission proposals from local sculptors. The winning design by Charlotte Howarth is sculpted and engraved in Yorkstone, and you can see it on Orford Quay today.

Can you help add to the memories?

We believe it’s vital to record memories about such an important part of the UK’s military history. The National Trust is keen to create an audio archive to capture the experiences of people who carried out work at Orford Ness. This will enable future generations to explore the history and significance of this iconic Suffolk site by hearing directly from the people who worked here.

Did you work on Orford Ness for organisations such as the Ministry of Defence, Royal Aircraft Establishment, Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, Royal Air Force and Cobra Mist? We’d also like to talk to people who built, equipped, and maintained the various test laboratories and infrastructure. If you can help, please call us on 01394 450900 or email

A shepherding demonstration at Orford Ness National Nature Reserve, Suffolk
A shepherding demonstration at Orford Ness | © National Trust Images/Annapurna Mellor

Grazing sheep on Orford Ness

The marshes on Orford Ness have been used as grazing land for centuries. We still graze sheep here today because they play an important part in maintaining healthy habitats for the many species of wildlife that live on Orford Ness. After the nesting birds have left with their chicks in late spring, we bring in the sheep to prepare the land for the next breeding season.

We cut the grass for hay to feed the sheep over winter and mow the more invasive species like sea club rush. The grazing animals then maintain the mosaic of different vegetation types and heights. This supports a great variety of wildlife. By breeding lambs from pure-bred parents, we also conserve the breeds themselves.

Who looks after the flock?

The flock, which is made up of a mix of several breeds including rare breeds, is cared for by Shepherd Andrew Capell and a gang of dedicated volunteers. Anyone who has been lucky enough to listen to one of Andrew’s talks on an open day will have seen his enthusiasm and knowledge.

Another valued member of the team is Sweep the sheepdog, who travels to Orford Ness by boat, where he rounds up some of the country’s rarest breeds under Andrew’s watchful eye. Sweep is the only dog allowed on the Ness due to the fragility of the habitat.

Moving the flock

While the human staff on Orford Ness brave the weather throughout the year, in winter we move the sheep to other National Trust sites in Suffolk to ensure they have access to dry land year-round.

The Orford Ness flock

The flock on Orford Ness is made up of four different rare breeds. Here are the breeds of sheep you might see when you’re out on the Ness.

A white-faced woodland sheep lying down on grass at Orford Ness National Nature Reserve, Suffolk
A white-faced woodland sheep at Orford Ness | © National Trust Images/Richard Scott

White-faced woodland

The white-faced woodland is one of the larger breeds of sheep – rams grow to an average of 130kg – with a white fleece and white face. Both the rams and the ewes grow horns, and the rams grow large, spiralling horns curling in tight to their faces. In the 1970s the breed was saved from extinction by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. There are only 900 breeding females left in Great Britain, meaning they are still classed as vulnerable. These strong animals can survive in bad weather and on poor-quality grass in rough terrain.

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Managing the marshes on Orford Ness

The river walls on Orford Ness were originally built to create and then protect rich grazing land from what had been salt marsh. The creation of such large new areas of grazing land required a heavy investment and for this reason only rich landowners could afford it – in this case probably King Henry II in the late 12th century.

Now the three areas of marsh on Orford Ness (Airfield Marshes, King’s Marsh and Lantern Marshes) are a mosaic of brackish lagoons, reedbed and grazing areas. This mosaic of habitats is perfect for wading birds, ground-nesting birds and a range of rare plants and animals.

Thank you

With your ongoing support, we're able to continue our vital conservation work. Thank you for helping to protect these special places.

Child playing in the sea at Orford Ness National Nature Reserve, Suffolk


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