National Trust Suffolk site is heathland hot-spot for wildlife
- Credit: Archant
The National Trust recently marked its 50 years of guardianship at Dunwich Heath - and careful management has enhanced the site’s biodiversity.
Lions, tigers and wolves roam the Suffolk coast’s most popular purple patch - the beguilingly beautiful Dunwich Heath.
These exotic creatures are not mammals, however, but invertebrate heathland specialists - antlions, green tiger beetles and beewolfs - that are among a dazzling array of wildlife found on the National Trust site that positively bristles with biodiversity
The recent celebrations that marked the 50th anniversary of the trust taking over the care of the site triggered plenty of memories and flashbacks to the events of 1968, but the presence on this hallowed heath of much of its immense wildlife interest is rooted in events that took place hundreds of thousands of years ago.
Dunwich Heath, together with similar adjoining habitat at neighbouring RSPB Minsmere, forms the largest remaining block of Suffolk’s glorious Sandling heaths that once stretched virtually continuously from Felixstowe to Lowestoft. The sadly fragmented remnants now cover about 1,681 hectares - a mere 8% of what once existed. They are prime examples of internationally rare lowland heath, with more than 80% of these jewels of Suffolk being designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest and the rest designated as County Wildlife Sites.
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The Sandlings’ sandy soils derive from the shelly, muddy and sandy sediments deposited more than two million years ago when the area was under the North sea. In the Anglian glaciation of about 450,000 years ago great ice sheets covered the land but retreated about 400,000 years ago, when the exposed sands and gravels were spread across the landscape by winds and waters.
Sheep farming and rabbit warrening maintained the east Suffolk heathlands for centuries but declined in the 19th and 20th centuries when they became less economically viable. First conifer plantations, then intensified arable agriculture, took their tolls on heathlands that were planted and ploughed. Airfields and housing development also covered the heather - soon we were left with the relatively small purple patches that today are so precious in terms of landscape and wildlife value.
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Dunwich Heath - which affords some of the finest views that can be obtained of a vast swathe of the nationally designated Suffolk Coast & Heaths Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty - is certainly one of the best examples of these remnant wonders.
It clearly has immense landscape importance and offers a sense of beauty and tranquillity to thousands of visitors each year. It is also home to a wide range of wildlife species that, because they are so specialised, sensitive and can live only on such lowland heath, are nationally rare. Some of the key creatures of Dunwich Heath are:
Dartford warbler - perhaps the best-known of all the heath’s wild inhabitants, this nationally rare species has surprised many naturalists with its re-colonisation of Suffolk’s Sandling heaths in recent years. It was lost as a breeding species in Suffolk in the 1930s and was absent until records of vagrants - or pioneers - at Felixstowe Ferry in 1987 and RSPB Minsmere in 1988. One on Dunwich Heath in the winter of 1992 and 1993 heralded the triumphant return to the site and there are now up to about 30 breeding pairs there. Other avian “stars” of the heath include the mysterious nightjar, whose mechanical “churring” calls can be heard as dusk falls in summer, woodlarks, whose outpourings of song are said by many naturalists to be the most beautiful of any British bird, and stone-curlew, which bred at Dunwich Heath for the first time under National Trust guardianship last year, thanks to skilful targeted habitat management by trust staff.
Invertebrates - Dunwich Heath is renowned for its solitary bees and wasps, such as red-banded sand wasp, red-legged spider hunting wasp, mining bee, cuckoo bee and hairy-legged mining bee. These inhabit the south-facing banks and bare ground, with many species excavating their nests in the sandy soil.
Perhaps the two best-known invertebrates on the heath, however, are the antlion and the beewolf. Antlions are damselfly-like insects that are rarely seen, either in adult or larval form. Discovered as recently as the 1990s, at nearby RSPB Minsmere, antlions are now being found at several East Anglian sites, with Dunwich Heath an obvious stronghold. The only sign of their presence is usually the small, round pits made by the larvae which lie in them in wait, covered by sandy soil, until an unsuspecting invertebrate falls in to be munched with outsized jaws.
Beewolfs are also highly predatory. They are large wasps that dig tunnels with nest chambers leading from them. They prey on honey bees that are paralysed and carried to the chambers, where they are devoured by the beewolf larvae.
Green tiger beetles are another ferocious predator of the heath. It is an attractive beetle that can be seen on sunny days - but it is a wily, agile and effective hunter of invertebrate prey such as spiders, caterpillars and ants. It has ferocious jaws and long legs that make it one of Britain’s fastest insects.
Add to these a small colony of rare silver-studded blue butterflies, frequent visits from mighty red deer, a wide range of migrant birds and the heath’s wildlife importance become even more clear. It should be noted that much of the wildlife, especially ground-nesting birds, are susceptible to disturbance. The trust appeals to visitors to stay on the footpaths at all times, keep dogs on leads on the heath (the beach and farm are lead-free zones), not to linger in one spot for too long as this may prevent birds incubating eggs or feeding chicks, and not to use equipment to play bird song to lure species into view.
More information about the heath and its events can be found at www.nationaltrust.org.uk/dunwich-heath-and-beach