I had been sitting for less than a minute. The surrounding expanse of heather played a seemingly infinite set of variations on the theme of purple interrupted by contrasting yellow patches of knee-high gorse. A sudden movement, and a tiny bird disappeared into a taller clump of gorse. As I scanned this with binoculars, it flew across to another bush, paused for perhaps a second then flitted off again to disappear into a line of gorse thicket. But that fleeting glimpse was enough to show me the red breast and long tail that identified it as a Dartford warbler, a rare bird that in Britain is found only in a few scattered heathland areas of southern England.
This was the National Trust’s Dunwich Heath, one of a string of wildlife hotspots that together make up the Suffolk Coast and Heaths Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. A thin strip of land, running for some thirty kilometres south from Lowestoft, England’s most easterly town, it contains a succession of Sites of Special Scientific Interest, Special Protection Areas and Ramsar wetland sites. At the northern boundary of Dunwich is the Westleton Heath National Nature Reserve, while to the south lie the lagoons and reedbeds of Minsmere bird sanctuary.
In Your Bucket Because…
- This is one of the best birdwatching places in England, containing large numbers of both residents and migrants, winter or summer.
- Several contrasting wildlife habitats are concentrated into a small area, each with its own distinctive species.
- The Suffolk coast is peaceful, never crowded and extremely family-friendly.
- Good for: Nature lovers, bird watchers
These heathland areas were created more than a millennium ago, when Celtic, then Anglo-Saxon farmers cleared the trees to allow sheep to graze. More recently, the spread of agriculture has further eroded the heaths, which remain as a rare habitat reaching to the edge of the sandy coastal cliffs that continue to disappear by the year.
The Dartford warbler, unlike its neighbour, the nightjar, and other heathland warblers, such as the blackcap, remains resident here throughout the year. In harsh winters, this has led to declining numbers when the insect food supply has been seriously depleted, though the small populations have shown resilience in bouncing back when the weather has improved.
There was plenty of bird food here during my visit, for on my meanders around the sandy footpaths, I saw countless butterflies: hedge brown, small heath, small tortoiseshell, red admiral and peacock, as well as dragonflies and damselflies. This bounty was also being harvested by swooping swallows and the heath’s less shy residents, its skylarks and meadow pipits.
Minsmere Nature Reserve
In contrast to Dunwich Heath’s 87 hectares, its southern neighbour, Minsmere, extends to more than 2000 hectares. It is owned by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and its mosaic of woodland, grassland, beach and wetland make it one of the most important wildlife reserves in the country. It came to public prominence in May-June 2014, when the BBC chose it as the venue for its 10th anniversary series of Springwatch live television broadcasts.
It was a month after these broadcasts when I arrived at Minsmere, so perhaps I missed the most exciting period, in which the birds’ breeding activity was at its most feverish. Nevertheless, the sand cliff beside the Visitor Centre, honeycombed with nesting tunnels, was noisy with the comings and goings of dozens of sand martins, frantically feeding up their chicks in readiness for their southerly migrations.
I followed the Coast Trail, one of three circular walks of around 2.4 kilometres that led to various viewpoints. The North Hide looked over the West Scrape, a shallow, brackish lagoon dotted with islands, ringed by reedbeds and populated by terns, gulls and greylag geese. In the distance rose the incongruous outline of the Sizewell Nuclear Power Station, shining with what looked like a pristine cleanliness.
The track continued past reedbeds through which darted sedge warblers and the occasional bearded tit. On reaching the beach, it turned south, past sand dunes and the concrete relics of a World War II coastal defence line and on to a further series of hides.
The birds pecking in the muddy margins of the East Scrape included little ringed plovers, greenshanks, lapwings, common and curlew sandpipers, dunlins and godwits. Wading through the shallow pools were solitary herons and little egrets and several dozen avocets. In the deeper waters, mallards, coot, moorhens and shelducks floated serenely, while Barnacle and Canada geese rested on the islands.
The track crossed a sluice through which water flowed to regulate the levels on the scrapes, then turned back past the extensive reedbeds of the North Levels. Scarlet pimpernels speckled colour onto the dull brown rubble footpath. To the sides stood tall, white blooms of marsh mallow, a plant confined to small areas of coastal wetlands in southern England.
These reedbeds are home to secretive bitterns, whose camouflage makes them almost impossible to see, even when one is looking at them. Marsh harriers can often be seen searching for small birds that are their main prey. In the afternoon heat, however, only chaser and hawker dragonflies and vivid orange and blue damselflies shared the air above the reeds with the swallows.
Other Habitats at Minsmere
While the wetland habitats of Minsmere may be the most important in terms of bird life, the mosaic structure allows for the survival of other environments with their own particular inhabitants. To the northern and western corner are the woodlands and grasslands that are populated with small birds, such as the many varieties of tits, finches and warblers, along with larger species like woodpeckers and jays.
Here can be found mammals of all sizes, ranging from shrews through water voles, stoats, rabbits, grey squirrels and foxes to badgers and deer. On the drier areas leading up to and into Dunwich Heath, one may find lizards, grass snakes and adders, with frogs, toads and newts in isolated damper patches. And there are the grey seals and porpoises that can frequently be seen a short distance offshore.
Spotting some of these creatures requires patience, and a bit of luck, and though many of the birds that spend the summer here will have gone south by autumn, they will have been replaced by migrants from the Arctic. The result is that visitors to the Suffolk coast looking for its wildlife are very unlikely to leave disappointed, whatever time of year they come here.
- The Suffolk Coast nature reserves lie to the east of the A12 road between Lowestoft and Ipswich. They are reached by way of minor roads, but those leading to Minsmere are well signposted.
- A fee is charged for entry to Minsmere, though entry is free to members of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
- Dunwich Heath and Minsmere have excellent Visitor Centres with restaurants and shops.
- Dunwich Heath is owned by the National Trust, Westleton Heath is one of Natural England‘s National Nature Reserves, while other reserves are owned by Suffolk Wildlife Trust.