Clouds of rich, brown dust roil over the ground, whipped across the fields by a hot, dry breeze. But although the dust devils forming in front of me resemble something you’d expect to see while driving in the Nevada desert, I’m actually standing in the Suffolk countryside. It’s a rare sunny day, and I’ve come to the Suffolk Coast and Heaths Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) – which is nestled at the heart of a county that, along with Norfolk and Essex, is a contender for the title of Britain’s driest region – in an attempt to escape the seemingly endless rain.
‘Driving along, you can literally see the soil being blown off the fields,’ says Malcolm Farrow, communications officer for the AONB. ‘I’ve been in some of the remoter parts of the area and found the roads covered in soil. It’s incredibly light – if you were to walk out into this field it would crumble and fall apart in your hand because it’s mostly sand.’
Designated in 1970, and covering 403 square kilometres from the Stour estuary in the south to Kessingland in the north, the Suffolk Coast and Heaths AONB is a mixture of shingle beaches, cliffs, estuaries, heathland and marshes, overlying some of the youngest rocks in Britain.
Although the west of the county is primarily underpinned by 50-million-year-old London Clay, in the east, the land gently rises to form the Sandlings, a much younger, low-lying plateau of heathland that once ran almost unbroken from Ipswich to Lowestoft and covered nearly the whole of the AONB.
‘The heaths are essentially a manmade feature,’ Farrow explains. ‘They developed over centuries, through the creation of huge grazed corridors called sheep walks. Originally all of this would have been forest.’ And although during the past century, development and farming have reduced the heath by nearly 80 per cent, some areas have survived unscathed – here at Upper Hollesley Common, swathes of mauve bell heather blanket the ground, and the heavy smell of bracken fills the air.
Regardless of how the landscape initially developed, the heaths are now a vital habitat for local wildlife. The nightjar and the silver-studded blue – a rare heath-dwelling butterfly – both have important colonies along the Suffolk coast, and what remains of the Sandlings is fiercely protected. But the heath is only half the reason the AONB received its designation, because although tourism is the main economic provider for the region, Farrow believes much of the AONB’s appeal stems from the lack of coastal development.
‘It’s one of very few undeveloped coasts in southern England – the Kent, Sussex and Hampshire coast is all pretty developed – so as you come up into East Anglia, this is one of the first really undeveloped bits of coast.’ One of the key reasons the Suffolk coast has remained so undeveloped are the five estuaries that dissect the county, which make the construction of a major road adjacent to the shore impossible.
The estuaries are fringed by saltmarshes, and at low tide, vast expanses of glistening mudflat are exposed, creating the perfect feeding ground for a wide variety of wading birds and wildfowl. It comes as no surprise then that the area is home to Minsmere, the RSPB’s flagship reserve. ‘River estuaries such as the Stour and Orwell support internationally important wintering populations of birds,’ Farrow explains. ‘And Minsmere is quintessential Suffolk landscape. It’s a mixture of everything, but the freshwater habitats are the most important feature, supporting important populations of bittern and marsh harrier.’
Keen to explore one of the region’s birdwatching hotspots, we head away from the Sandlings and down towards Orford and the national nature reserve at Orford Ness. Tiny, tumbledown fishermen’s shacks line the shore, a flotilla of fishing boats moored alongside them. As we look out across the river Alde and Ore towards Orford Ness, Farrow tries to put some of the more surprising features of the AONB into context. ‘In some ways, the Suffolk coast challenges a lot of our assumptions about natural beauty,’ he muses, ‘because we tend to think in terms of very pretty, picturesque landscapes, such as the Cornish coast where, although you’ve got industrial remains, it’s all rather picturesque. Here in Suffolk, the abandoned structures have a much harder edge.’
But it isn’t really the abandoned structures that make the AONB unusual – after all, there are few protected areas that can boast not one but two nuclear power stations, with rumours of a third on the horizon.
Seemingly resigned to the current power stations at Sizewell, Farrow is unequivocal in his objection to the suggestion of further nuclear development in the area. ‘There’s no doubt about it – within the terms of our designation, it would be totally inappropriate to build another nuclear power station inside the AONB,’ he says. ‘They just shouldn’t be here.
‘The development on the Suffolk coast is like this,’ he says, gesturing to the deserted shingle beach. ‘It’s just fishing huts, little towns – everything is on a very small scale, so [building another station would be] like building a skyscraper on the coastline.’
If Sizewell represents the present impact of nuclear power on the AONB, the shingle spit of Orford Ness is a symbol of the region’s atomic history. ‘Across the water you can see the famous pagodas, which were bunkers built to test detonators for atomic bombs,’ Farrow says, pointing at the stubby black buildings. In fact, the military history of the site actually dates back nearly 100 years; it was taken over by the military in 1913, when it was drained to create airfields. ‘It’s rather a bizarre contrast really,’ Farrow continues. ‘All around the pagodas you have natural shingle ridges and plants and nesting seabirds.’
The Ness (an archaic word meaning headland) is the second largest shingle feature in the UK (Dungeness being the largest). Normally, shingle is subject to a great deal of movement from the sea, but at Orford Ness, the area of shingle has become so big that it’s practically stationary, allowing a wide variety of rare plants, such as sea pea, yellow-horned poppy and sea kale, to thrive.
‘You get very specialised plant life growing here,’ Farrow says, ‘but it’s very vulnerable, and as the coast has grown more popular, we’ve had increasing problems with trampling. Just by walking along the shingle people are damaging the plants without even realising. We’ve also had issues with little terns nesting in the area – they’re very vulnerable to disturbance and I think their population has declined by 80–90 per cent in the past 20 years.’
But while the flora and fauna of Orford Ness is facing an increased risk from visitor pressure, the land itself is one of the few areas along the coast not suffering the effects of coastal erosion. Over the centuries, the spit formed at the river’s mouth, forcing the water southwards, so that it now runs parallel to the sea for more than 16 kilometres before joining it. But this kind of accretion is the exception rather than the rule, and the majority of the shore affected by coastal geomorphology is eroding rather than growing.
Thanks to coastal erosion, the Suffolk coast, the shoreline has moved back more than 500 metres in the past 500 years, consigning at least five fishing ports to the sea. And unfortunately, the situation seems to be getting worse.
‘The truth is, we don’t know why coastal change is increasing, but it’s possibly to do with the way in which the currents work along the coast and increased storminess in the North Sea, which could be connected to climate change,’ Farrow says. ‘There’s also speculation that it could be to do with aggregate removal, when the sea bed is dredged up for gravel and so on, but I don’t think there’s any conclusive proof one way or the other.’
Sea defences such as rock armour (boulders dropped along the shore to minimise the impact of the waves) and large stretches of sea and river wall are already in place, but as Farrow points out, it would prove impossible to protect the entire coast. ‘You couldn’t put rock armour all the way along,’ he says. And even if you could, would you want to? You would simply destroy the natural beauty of the coastline while trying to defend it.’
Many of the area’s existing sea defences were built during the Victorian era, followed by a renewed burst of construction in response to major flooding in 1953. And although the protection currently in place has served its purpose thus far, much of it is beginning to falter and deciding whether or not to replace it is far from straightforward. One factor is the way in which the presence of flood blockades stops the coast from changing naturally, which can have a negative impact on unprotected areas farther down the coast by speeding up erosion.
According to Farrow, the solution may lie in a process called coastal re-alignment. ‘It’s about accepting that you can’t defend the whole coast and trying to work out what can be done to mitigate the damage that will occur,’ he explains. ‘In effect, you decide that you may end up having to lose certain bits of the coast, or accept that some areas are going to be flooded every winter instead of once every ten years, and then try to find replacement areas to restore freshwater habitats further inland to make up for those lost through coastal invasion.’ It’s a good idea in theory, that would be difficult to implement in practice – a lot of thought needs to be put into which areas are salvageable and how to compensate the landowners who will lose land.
It’s also important to try to accept change as being positive. The creation of new fresh- and saltwater marshes could create new investment opportunities. ‘It could provide not only fantastic opportunities for wildlife but also opportunities for people to enjoy it – if wildlife tourism is set to become more popular, by flooding these areas you could be creating more opportunities for the farmer to make money,’ Farrow says. ‘And there is the potential for growing different crops on the saltmarsh. You could grow samphire for example, instead of farming wheat or something else that you could farm anywhere in the country. The bottom line is that we just have to have a more creative approach to thinking about what can be done with the land.’
This was published in the September 2007 edition of Geographical magazine.