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Our work at Sutton Hoo

Using a trowel during a costumed recreation of the 1930s archaeological dig by Basil Brown at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk
Recreation of the 1930s archaeological dig by Basil Brown at Sutton Hoo | © National Trust Images/John Millar

Learn about the vital work the National Trust carries out at Sutton Hoo, from improving the woodland for wildlife and using different sheep breeds to keep the grass down to studying the geophysics of the land.

Caring for the Sutton Hoo 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.

While the special kinds of habitats here continue to be important for wildlife today, they’ve been slowly disappearing from the UK landscape. This makes us custodians of a very important place. As well as protecting the legacy of Sutton Hoo’s Anglo-Saxon residents, we have ambitious plans for safeguarding the wildlife here too.

Woodland management

Our plans to improve Sutton Hoo's woodland for wildlife have a foot firmly in the past. We’re gradually returning the Scots pine plantations back to mixed deciduous woodland, by thinning the pines and planting native tree species such as oak, silver birch, beech, sweet chestnut and hazel.

This will create more space to support greater numbers of existing woodland wildlife. We’re also hoping that it will encourage the return of species lost from this area in recent years, such as the melodious woodlark.

Borrowing from the past

In the existing deciduous woodlands, Home Wood and Wiffen Wood, we’re using the Anglo-Saxon land management technique of coppicing.

By continually cutting young tree stems down, we’ll be creating a rich natural environment below the tree canopy, called the understorey. This will allow a new generation of saplings to grow alongside plants such as holly, hazel and hawthorn.

This new layer of vegetation will provide the perfect breeding ground for songbirds and invertebrates.

Reawakening an ancient landscape

By felling small areas of trees, we’re creating glades within the new deciduous woodlands. Glades are great for conservation – a well-managed glade can support the largest number of species over the smallest area of land.

With scrubby edges and patches of short and long grass, the glades will provide micro-habitats within the wider woodland area that will allow birds, plants and mammals to thrive.

Much like Sutton Hoo’s buried treasure, the true magic of the glades will be watching long-buried seeds and pods come back to life after many years lying dormant. We’ll have to be patient, as this process can take decades, but we’re looking forward to seeing which of the sleeping beauties make it back to the surface to thrive once again.

Sunlight filtering through trees in March at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk
Sunlight filtering through trees at Sutton Hoo | © National Trust Images/Justin Minns

Improving the health of the heath

Sutton Hoo is part of a sandy soil landscape, known as the sandlings, that once formed a continuous heathland along the coast of Suffolk. When the Anglo-Saxons arrived, much of the landscape would’ve consisted of open grass heathland, with no trees to obscure the view of the river.

A distinctive element of the heathland is acid grassland. Rich in wildlife, it's home to diminutive plant species including wavy hair-grass, sheep’s sorrel, bent grass and harebells.

Over the years, agriculture and development have diminished these heaths, and they now exist as small, isolated pockets like the one at Sutton Hoo.

Clearing bracken and bramble

Much of the remaining heathland at Sutton Hoo has become overgrown with bracken over the years. To increase the amount of rare lowland acid grassland, we’re undertaking a programme of bracken control in the valley and across areas of rabbit field on the estate.

Removing bracken and bramble will revive this habitat, encouraging wildlife to flourish, including rarer plants such as viper’s bugloss, cudweed and sand spurry, as well as insects such as groundhoppers, brown argus butterflies and red-banded sand-wasps.

We’ll see species returning to the new areas of acid grassland in waves, some appearing within a year or so, and many more following in the years that follow. We’ll continue to protect this scarce habitat by ensuring that the acid grasslands at Sutton Hoo are lightly grazed by rare-breed sheep.

Sheep at Sutton Hoo

By grazing on the Royal Burial Ground, the sheep at Sutton Hoo are keeping the grass down in a natural way. This helps us look after the precious acid grassland landscape without damaging it by using mechanical human methods.

The flock is made up of several different breeds, most of them rare ones that you may not be familiar with.

Sheep breeds at Sutton Hoo

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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Protecting the salt marshes and mudflats

The Deben Estuary salt marshes and mudflats are 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 winter.

The salt marsh on the sides of the estuary also supports special salt-tolerant wild flowers including sea lavender, sea aster, orache and sea purslane.

Deben Estuary Partnership

The National Trust is a proud member of the Deben Estuary Partnership. As part of this commitment, we’re involved in an ongoing project with our friends and neighbours to encourage the spread of wildlife-rich salt marsh in the intertidal areas of the estuary. Together, we’re helping rare birds and wild flowers to continue to prosper here.

Geophysics at Sutton Hoo

When you think of archaeology at Sutton Hoo, you might think of the 1939 discoveries and Basil Brown. But did you know that archaeology is still ongoing here?

Thanks to funding provided by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, we've been working on the Releasing the Sutton Hoo Story project. As part of this, we’ve been able to train our volunteers to study this landscape’s geophysics using an earth resistance meter, which measures the resistance of the soil.

By scanning the soil, we can build up an image of what lies under the surface. Generally, human-made features such as earthworks, walls or buildings will show up as a dark patch, indicating high resistance. Lighter spots, or low- resistance areas, are usually natural geological features.

Anglo-Saxon cemetery

We are currently working in Garden Field – an area of the site adjacent to the High Hall exhibition. During the construction of the exhibition building in the early 2000s, we found an Anglo-Saxon folk cemetery. It was also in Garden Field that the Bromeswell bucket was discovered. Who knows what else lies beneath our feet in this part of the landscape?

Thank you

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

Visitors with dog enjoying an autumnal walk at Sutton Hoo


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