Suffolk Coast & Heaths AONB celebrates its 50th birthday

PUBLISHED: 11:54 15 April 2020

Dunwich Heath Picture: JUSTIN MINNS

Dunwich Heath Picture: JUSTIN MINNS


It’s 50 years since Suffolk’s first Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty was established. John Grant explains why it’s so significant and why it deserves our protection

Fifty years. In humanity’s hectic, helter-skelter fast-paced frenzy of modern life, it’s a significant timespan.

But such a milestone, marking the onward march of two-score-years-and-ten since the designation of the Suffolk Coast and Heaths Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty on March 4, 1970, doesn’t represent an especially long time in the aeon-arching lifespan of this subtle, sublime landscape.

Rather, for this eastern edgeland of Suffolk, mercifully still largely spared the onslaught of overdevelopment, 50 years is but the blinking of an eye.

Its estuary-indented, sinuous shoreline, its mile-after-mile marshlands, its purple-hazed heathland and all the fertile farmlands in between have been formed under vast, famed, wide-horizoned skies for millennia.

suffolk coast & heathsaonb  logosuffolk coast & heathsaonb logo

Nature’s immense and relentless forces, spanning century after century from the far-off time of ice sheet retreat, have scoured and scraped and scarred and sculpted a beguiling beauty. Here, it is often said, change is the only constant.

The changes wrought by nature’s unstoppable might have taken place on a truly monumental scale – the ancient important port of Dunwich devoured, the strange shingle finger of Orfordness first created, then extended to point ever further southwards.

The litany of upheaval is long indeed. But change has not only occurred naturally. Human hands have been hard at work here, tilling the land in ever-more intensive ways, housing an ever-expanding population and providing for ever-increasing tourism.

Were it not for this coastline’s five mighty estuaries such human influence surely would have been far more dynamic, and far more damaging.

Suffolk's coastal landscapes have captured the imagination of many writers over the yearsSuffolk's coastal landscapes have captured the imagination of many writers over the years

The snaking, difficult-to-bridge tidal zones of the rivers Blyth, Alde/Ore, Deben, Orwell and Stour have ensured that Suffolk, thankfully, has no major coast road and therefore development east of the A12 has been, with the obvious exception of Sizewell’s nuclear power stations and some structures on Orfordness, relatively unobtrusive.

Entwined with this handsome handiwork of nature, this triumph of topography, has been an enlightenment over the many-faceted values of such engaging landscapes.

There were stirrings as far back as the dark days of the Second World War. In May 1945, the Dower Report on the establishment of National Parks, in what can now be regarded as an understatement, included the Suffolk coast and heaths in a ‘Division C’ list of ‘Other Amenity Areas’ that, although not suggested as National Parks, had landscape beauty that merited some form of protection in the future.

In 1947, 128 square miles of Suffolk’s coast and heaths were included in an official list of Conservation Areas. Low priority was given to the area during a review of Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) designations in 1957 but, somewhat ironically perhaps, the emergence in 1958 of a proposal for a nuclear power station on the Suffolk coast moved things on.

The Suffolk Coast has inspired many great works of fictionThe Suffolk Coast has inspired many great works of fiction

By 1958 the National Parks Commission had approved a draft AONB boundary and consultations began.

Designation was not universally accepted, and there were some fallow years in the process, until 1968 when initial opposition from the National Farmers Union and the Country Landowners Association was withdrawn.

The Suffolk Coast and Heaths AONB Designation Order was at last officially confirmed on March 4, 1970. It covered 151 square miles, from Kessingland in the north to land along the southern side of the River Deben, also taking in land alongside the Orwell and Stour estuaries.

Our AONB, formed by nature, was protected by officialdom to be enjoyed by all. Forty-six AONBs have been designated in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Like the membership of any family, this network of cherished landscapes varies greatly in its characteristics.

covehithe church suffolk coast & heaths aonbcovehithe church suffolk coast & heaths aonb

From Antrim and Arnside to Scilly and Solway, Northumberland and north Norfolk to Cornwall and the Cotswolds, these natural wonders are afforded national acclaim and legal protection.

Within the Suffolk Coast and Heaths AONB a stunning landscape variety also exists and enchants throughout its current 155 square-mile area.

The sometimes serene, sometimes stormy North Sea caresses or crashes into low-lying beaches of shingle and sand that are interspersed with crumbly cliffs that afford us commanding, inspiring views but which are fast being lost to the angry waves whipped by wintry winds.

Behind this fragile beach barrier lie rippling reedbeds and vast, ancient grazing marshes. The coast is cut by those five great estuaries, each with its twice-daily exposure of oozing grey mudlflats as the rhythm of the tides draw the waters inexorably in and out.

Bittern at RSPB Minsmere Picture: RSPBBittern at RSPB Minsmere Picture: RSPB

The hinterlands are crowned in the most special of special places by heath – priceless purple remnants of the once-great swathe of the Suffolk Sandlings that for centuries heather-veiled the sheep-grazed sandlands in virtually uninterrupted glory from Lowestoft to Felixstowe.

Although imbued with a refreshingly remote and, for the most part, relatively tranquil character, the AONB is far from being an area kept in aspic. It’s a working, thriving area where evidence of human toil is clear to see.

Farmlands and vast commercial forests are among the country’s most productive and, of course, while urbanisation is relatively sparse, there are the historic towns and villages which our residents call home and to which our welcome visitors are but transient admirers.

These communities house most of the area’s 675 listed buildings and 40 scheduled monuments. With such a wealth of natural and man-made attractions it is hardly a wonder that the AONB’s tourism sector is such a key part of the local economy, resulting in well over £200million being added to the area’s economy each year and supporting more than 4,600 jobs.

Beach clean volunteers on one of Suffolk's shingle shores Picture: SUFFOLK COAST AND HEATHS AONBBeach clean volunteers on one of Suffolk's shingle shores Picture: SUFFOLK COAST AND HEATHS AONB

This then is a living landscape of such immense and wide-ranging value, for people and for wildlife, that it is legally protected, as are all our nationally designated AONBs.

Crucially, public bodies, such as local authorities and utility companies, have a legal obligation to have regard to the purpose of such designation in any of their relevant activities.

The Suffolk Coast and Heaths AONB is administered on three levels. There is a small staff operating from a base at Dock Lane, Melton, and funded by Defra and local authorities, with supplementary funding by grants from various bodies.

The team is overseen by an advisory committee consisting of funding partner representatives. Over-arching the staff and the advisors is the AONB Partnership, made up of advisory committee members and representatives of the environmental, agricultural and business sectors, which has a strategic role and helps develop the area’s management plan.

Beach clean at Trimley Marshes Picture: SUFFOLK COAST AND HEATHS AONBBeach clean at Trimley Marshes Picture: SUFFOLK COAST AND HEATHS AONB

Work is carried out on a relatively modest core budget of about £250,000 a year, which is more or less doubled through grants.

The area’s AONB manager, Simon Amstutz, says: “Our AONBs meet so many of our society’s aspirations for the economy, for getting fitter and leading healthier lifestyles, for our mental and physical wellbeing, for protecting landscapes and wildlife – over 50 per cent of our wildlife species are in decline and in AONBs we deliver projects to help wildlife recovery.

“These are nationally designated places of national importance and we have a duty to make sure these places are the best they possibly can be.”

Inappropriate development in such outstandingly beautiful places is clearly a concern and the AONB team comments on many planning applications submitted to local authorities in the area.

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“AONB designation does not stop development – it is not a straight-jacket,” says Simon.

“It encourages development that sits well in the landscape and development that contributes to the natural beauty and special qualities of the area. We have criteria for commenting on planning applications and public bodies have a legal duty to have regard to the purpose of the AONB when considering them.”

The looming possibility of two more nuclear reactors being built within the AONB at Sizewell, dreaded by many, is obviously one that has exercised the AONB team.

“The view of the AONB Partnership would be that Sizewell has been identified as the site for new nuclear, that argument has been had,” says Simon.

The AONB have launched a new set of 
walking guides for the Suffolk coast.
Walberswick on a beautiful day.
Picture:Sarah Lucy BrownThe AONB have launched a new set of walking guides for the Suffolk coast. Walberswick on a beautiful day. Picture:Sarah Lucy Brown

“It is recognised that there will be residual negative impact on the AONB and we will be working with all relevant bodies to minimise that impact.”

Alongside protection, enhancement is a key strand of the AONB team’s work, with practical conservation work carried out by hard-working AONB volunteers and significant amounts of grant-funding being awarded through the team to community groups.

Among several funding streams, the Community and Conservation Fund has been developed by the team in partnership with local businesses and supports grassroots conservation, access and education projects in the AONB area.

The Sustainable Development Fund is money provided by Defra to promote sustainable developments that support the conservation objectives of AONBs and National Parks.

A spectacular view of the Suffolk coast, with Orfordness lighthouse visible on the far right of the picture, and the Sizewell power station site in the top left of the picture.A spectacular view of the Suffolk coast, with Orfordness lighthouse visible on the far right of the picture, and the Sizewell power station site in the top left of the picture.

In addition, the Amenity and Accessibility Fund has been set up by EDF Energy, and the Galloper Wind Farm Fund has been established by Galloper Wind Farm Ltd to help people enjoy and improve their local environment within the AONB.

Protection and enhancement are the watchwords, the guiding principles, for the Suffolk Coast and Heaths AONB. But, in this celebration 50th year, enlargement may come as something of an AONB birthday present.

Forty more square kilometres have been recognised by Natural England as being of AONB quality and a formal sign-off by Environment Secretary Theresa Villiers is awaited.

The extension would cover virtually the whole of the Stour Estuary, along with land on the river’s Essex side, from just east of Mistley to a point near Copperas Wood at Ramsey, an area stretching from Brantham and Stutton towards Capel St Mary, and a smaller addition in the Freston and Tattingstone area.

Bluebell Walk - DunwichBluebell Walk - Dunwich

It would be fitting indeed if the Suffolk Coast and Heaths AONB, which has found such a cherished place in so many hearts in the 50 years since its designation, could begin its next 50 years bigger – and with even more beauty to behold.

John Grant is president of the 400-strong Suffolk Bird Group and former environment correspondent for the East Anglian Daily Times.

AONB 50 years

It’s not just beautiful, it’s brimming with biodiversity. The amazing array of habitats to be found within the Suffolk Coast and Heaths AONB gives rise to a dazzling diversity of wildlife, with some scarce and rare species being of national and international importance.

View over Covehithe Broad 2View over Covehithe Broad 2

There are the headline-grabbers, for sure. Great Bitterns stalk the reedbeds over which Marsh Harriers tumble and turn in the spring skies, and elegant Avocets swish their up-turned bills in shallow lagoons and electrify a winter estuary with their mass fly-rounds.

Red Deer bellow and bash antlers in their famous autumn ruts and Otters porpoise and play in waters that sparkle and gleam.

These are some of the eye-catching species – the crowd-pullers and crowd-pleasers. But the jaw-dropping wonder of biodiversity is also about the unobtrusive species, the usually unseen inhabitants of their complex ecosystems.

The Starlet Sea Anemone, for example, is not exactly a looker. It’s largely colourless, translucent and tiny, rarely more than 1.5cm long. But it lives its humble life in shallow saline lagoons along the Suffolk coast - and precious few other locations in Britain.

Red deer hinds among the heather on Dunwich Heath, Suffolk; the area between the Alde and Blyth estuaries on the Suffolk coast is home to one of the biggest herds in the UK.Red deer hinds among the heather on Dunwich Heath, Suffolk; the area between the Alde and Blyth estuaries on the Suffolk coast is home to one of the biggest herds in the UK.

Then there’s the White-Mantled Wainscot moth. That’s not a looker either. In fact, it’s remarkably dull. But it’s an absolute star for naturalists as, in the UK, it is only found in a handful of east Suffolk reedbeds.

There are numerous other cryptic and clandestine characters that are never seen by the vast majority of people who explore and enjoy the AONB but which are integral parts of the natural systems in which they live.

Many of those systems have special wildlife designations that add to the AONB’s protection. It is not merely by chance that more than one-third of the AONB’s area has additional safeguarding designations for wildlife – for example, nearly 11,500 of its 40,537 hectares are Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

That is special by any yardstick. It is quite likely that of all the 46 AONBs designated in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, Suffolk Coast and Heaths has the greatest biodiversity of all. It truly is outstanding.

Marsh Harrier

ES 27.11.12Marsh Harrier ES 27.11.12

Join the celebration

Dedham Vale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty on the Suffolk-Essex border will also celebrate its 50th anniversary later this year.

Both AONBS have been awarded £129,000k from National Lottery to celebrate the milestone.

The grant will help the AONBs connect people with the landscape, raising awareness of the special qualities of the AONBs, and track changes to the landscape through a photography initiative that will see the installation of fixed-point photography posts across both AONBs.

Visitors will be invited to share their photographs on a dedicated website with the aim of building a unique record of the changing landscapes through the seasons over the next five years.

Why not send us your images of the AONBS?

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