Wolves and lions on Dunwich Heath? Discovering the area's weird and wonderful wildlife
PUBLISHED: 13:15 31 July 2018 | UPDATED: 11:06 08 August 2018
When it comes to wildlife Dunwich Heath is the place to find the bright and beautiful as well as the weird and wonderful | Words: Jayne Lindill
We’re sitting in the Lookout at the Coastguard Cottages at Dunwich Heath, above the National Trust’s delightful tearooms, with 270° views that take in the North Sea (blue on a sunny day like this one), the cliffs and beach stretching into the distance and heather covered hinterland as far as the eye can see. I can’t take my eyes off it.
Head ranger Richard Gilbert, however, sitting opposite me, can’t take his attention off a nifty little gadget he’s trying to connect to his iPad. “It’s a bat detector,” he says, as if revealing his favourite Christmas present.
“It’s brilliant.” I haven’t come to talk about bats – or perhaps I have. Richard’s the expert, after all, who’s going to tell me what to look for at this time of year at Dunwich Heath. That means Dartford warblers, antlions, beewolves and nightjars.
The Dartford warbler excepted, they’re a pretty spooky bunch of creatures, so why not add bats to the list? The detector is for the benefit of Richard’s next meeting with someone who really knows her bats, but he’s keen to show me how it works.
In fact, it identifies bats by picking up the radio frequencies of the cries particular to their various species. At Dunwich this is most likely to be serotines, pipistrelles and noctules, and the best time for seeing them is July and August. So, yes, let’s add bats to the list.
We head out for a walk on the heath with Richard’s serene lurcher, Ghost, in tow, on the lead at this time of year, of course, to avoid disturbing nesting birds. We’re barely out of the car park and descending a sandy path before Richard stops to point out an area that is home to a colony of beewolves.
There’s nothing to see – yet – so I have to take his word for it, but come July the beewolves will emerge to breed and nest in what is an astonishing life cycle. The beewolf is a digger wasp that specialises in catching honey bees and stocking its larder with them as a food source for its young.
Females dig a tunnel up to a metre long in soil or sand, excavating up to 30 little chambers and stocking each one with up to four paralysed bees and a single bee wolf egg. Paralysing rather than killing the bees means they stay fresher and more nutritious for longer.
The female beewolf also coats the bees and the walls of each cell with an anti-fungal substance, a streptomycin type bacterial secretion which is absorbed by the larvae, protecting it while it feeds and pupates over winter, until it emerges the following spring. Beewolves, it seems to me, have a lot to teach us.
We press on. We’re looking for signs of antlions and soon Richard spots them – dozens of tiny ‘pits’, conical indentations in the warm sand at the edge of the path. Antlions are beautiful lacewing insects. Unlike beewolves they make no catering arrangements for their larvae, which have to do their own hunting by waiting at the bottom of the pit for something edible to fall in, such as an ant.
When it does, they inject it with poison which liquifies it, and they suck up the remains. A sort of insect juice bar. Sometimes the larvae move to new hunting grounds and new pits. Eventually, they pupate, and after three years, pull themselves out of the pits, emerging as adults, a much more beautiful incarnation of the ferocious larvae they once were.
We’re running out of time, so we take a short cut back to the car park, looking for Dartford warblers (we spot one) and roosting nightjars (no luck) on the way. Dartford warblers are delightful little birds and Dunwich Heath has a healthy population of 25-30 pairs which arrive from Africa each year to breed.
The gorse provides them with a rich source of insects and spiders for food, and the heather is perfect for nesting. The best time to see and hear them is early-ish morning when they’re quite vocal.
The strange and wonderful nightjar is more elusive by day, as its name suggests. The best way to see it? “In a book,” quips Richard. In truth, at dusk and dawn, you’re more likely to hear them than see them.
They’re well camouflaged but the distinctive chirring is unmistakable. Dunwich Heath has a strong population of seven or eight pairs, so keep your eyes peeled and ears tuned and you could get lucky.
Coastguard Cottages, Minsmere Road, Dunwich, Suffolk, IP17 3DJ