National Character Area 83

South Norfolk and High Suffolk - Landscape Change

The full NCA Profile landscape change page, is temporarily unavailable until publication of the Defra 25 Year Environment Plan Indicator G1 later in May 2024.

Monitoring Landscape Change

Drivers for change
The South Norfolk and High Suffolk Claylands is a gently undulating landscape with numerous watercourses, vulnerable to varied rainfall patterns and drought which may affect the water levels and quality in wetland habitats and farm ponds. Increased rainfall, particularly during storm events, may result in flash flooding in the river valleys as well as across the flat plateau. Increasing development pressure from the traditional market towns and villages close to the main transport links could affect the tranquillity of the landscape.

Monitoring landscape change
This section is temporarily unavailable until publication of the Defra 25 Year Environment Plan Indicator G1 later in May 2024.

Additional information on landscape change

Landscape change reported in 2014

Recent changes and trends (reported in 2014)

Agriculture

  • Arable farming dominates the area, particularly cereals, with oilseed rape and sugar beet. Between 2000 and 2009 the area of farmed land fell by approximately 8,131 ha. As a result there has been some reduction in mixed and general cropping and cereals. The overall area of grass and uncropped land has decreased although dairying remains important in the Waveney Valley. Increases in horse ownership across the NCA have led to some permanent pasture being used as horse paddocks.
  • Between 2000 and 2009 the land used for growing cereals fell by 12 per cent. Land used for oil seed increased by 11,393 ha (119 per cent). The hectarage of grassland and uncropped land reduced by 11 per cent.
  • Livestock numbers increased significantly during the 1990s and then declined from 2000 to 2009. Pig numbers decreased by 66 per cent (225,600 animals) due to falling prices. Sheep numbers decreased by 24 per cent (6,000 animals), and cattle numbers by 14 per cent (5,100 animals).

Boundary features

  • Commercial agricultural improvement combined with a number of other factors has resulted in the loss of some structural landscape features such as hedgerows, ditches, banks, copses and lines of trees. The absence of these features has led in some places to a loss of definition and texture within the landscape although traditionally this has been an open landscape. The extensive removal of hedgerows that took place in the latter half of the 20th century has largely ceased and hedgerow replanting and management under Environmental Stewardship has increased.
  • Between 1999 and 2003, Countryside Stewardship capital agreements for linear features included fencing (79 km), hedge management (116 km), hedge planting and restoration (230 km) and restored boundary protection (12 km). Also further management of hedges through the ESA (Environmentally Sensitive Area). The estimated boundary length for the NCA is about 12,262 km. Total length of agreements between 1999 and 2003, is equivalent to about 4 per cent of this total meaning that the resource had been neglected.
  • Management of hedgerows has improved over recent years with the length of hedgerows in Environmental Stewardship boundary management in 2011 being 4,049 km. As well as this 156 km of woodland, 983 km of ditch, .1km of ditches and .6km of stone-faced ditch bank were also in Environmental Stewardship boundary management schemes.

Coast and rivers

  • There has been significant loss of traditional river-valley wetlands and grazing land along the main river valleys, tributary streams and primary ditches, although historic fens such as Redgrave and Lopham Fen, Roydon Fen and Thelnetham Fen are now managed by the Suffolk Wildlife Trust.
  • Conservation efforts have improved and connected the remaining valley fens and wetlands. Sites along the Little Ouse and Waveney support unique plant communities as well as good numbers of amphibians, reptiles, wildfowl and other wetland birds such as great crested grebes and snipe. Mammals including otter and water vole have seen their populations increase over recent years and the fen raft spider has been reintroduced to new parts of Redgrave and Lopham Fen SSSI which has been restored with 100 per cent of the site now in unfavourable, recovering condition.
  • Restoration of ancient woodlands has taken place with improved management at sites, such as the reinstatement of coppice management including Brockley Wood in Thelnetham and Tyrrels Wood SSSI south-east of Long Stratton. Increased deer management has allowed the recovery of rich and diverse woodland ground flora.
  • Non-native species colonisation of semi natural habitats within the NCA has been on the increase, particularly within the river valleys, with species such as mink, which predates on water vole, signal crayfish, which spreads disease to native white-clawed crayfish, as well as non-native wetland plants including floating pennywort and Himalayan balsam.

Historic features

  • Many historic farm buildings have been converted from agriculture to residential use with a consequent loss of farming character within settlements and the wider landscape, and often with a loss of important, otherwise unrecorded historical / archaeological information within the buildings’ structure. In the period between 1999 and 2003 there were approximately nearly 400 barn conversions. Many more have been converted over the last decade.
  • Fifty per cent of the NCA’s historic parkland was lost during the latter half of the 20th century.
  • There has been some development of former airfield sites, such as Stanton and Eye.
  • Historic landscape restoration has taken place at Heveningham which was one of Lancelot Capability Brown’s last designs before he died. Now 200 years later, his plans for 800 ha of parkland and 2 km of lakes have been realised. The River Blyth has been restored to its medieval meanders and up to 20 ha of broadleaf woodland is being planted each year.
  • Gravel extraction in the river valleys is a concern for both earthworks and archaeological sites visible from cropmarks, but may provide significant opportunities for understanding the nationally and internationally important geodiversity and archaeology of all periods from the Neolithic through to the 20th century, as demonstrated at excavations at Flixton Park Quarry.
  • High concentrations of both nitrate and phosphate in the river systems mean that all the rivers within the NCA are priority catchments under the Catchment Sensitive Farming initiative. Water quality in the rivers has however improved through measures implemented by sewage treatment works and under agri- environment schemes.
  • Increased water abstraction from the groundwater aquifers as well as the rivers for public water supplies, agriculture and industry has led to reduced river flows and water levels in the valley fens resulting in scrub communities taking hold.
  • The invasive non-native floating pennywort was first recorded in 2007 on the River Waveney. Following establishment, the plant quickly spread to cover an 11 km stretch. Combined efforts by a range of conservation focused partners resulted in the plant being successfully purged from the river in 2013.

Minerals

  • River terrace sands and gravels of the Kesgrave Formation and Lowestoft Formation and glacial outwash deposits have provided significant sources of aggregate, with extraction taking place in locations such as Shotford Heath, Homersfield, Flixton Park and Tostock, leaving a legacy of large water-filled former pits. Production levels have dropped over recent years, reflecting the impact of the economic downturn on the construction industry.
  • Chalk quarrying has now ceased in the NCA. Where active sand and gravel quarrying currently takes place and proposals for site extensions exist, there are challenges as well as opportunities for geodiversity and archaeology.
  • Opportunities for restoration include areas for geological conservation, wetlands and woodland.

Semi-natural habitats

  • The condition of 40 per cent of the NCA’s SSSI area has been classified as unfavourable recovering with 41 per cent classified as favourable.
  • The area has a high pond density that supports many species including great crested newts. There has been significant restoration of larger ponds both before and since 1999.
  • Loss of ditches, ponds and pasture (especially in High Suffolk) due to field amalgamation and improved drainage techniques has been an issue although this has generally ceased under improved agricultural management.
  • The remaining areas of species-rich grassland have in many places come under positive management either through hay cutting or grazing to help support their rich and diverse flora, including many species of orchid. Some small areas of species-rich hay meadow have also been created by conservation groups and landowners.
  • Improved land management including the addition of grass margins around arable fields over recent years has seen a significant increase in the number and distribution of barn owls. Other farmland birds such as tree sparrow, grey partridge and corn bunting whose populations have crashed have also been supported through sympathetic land management programmes that have focused on farms where threatened birds are still present so that their populations can build up and spread.

Settlement and development

  • Development pressure across the majority of the NCA has generally been low, although scattered development resulting in creeping suburbanisation of many settlements has occurred. Commuter settlement related to railway routes and proximity to larger towns is having an effect on the character of small market towns. Larger scale housing, retail and commercial development has occurred to the north-east of Bury St Edmunds and around the edges of Diss, Halesworth and Wymondham.
  • Similarly, tourism growth has not been significant, especially when compared to adjacent NCAs such as The Broads and Suffolk Coast and Heaths, although there is a thriving smaller-scale assemblage of attractions and accommodation providers.
  • Development across much of the area has been constrained by the relative lack of employment opportunities with the need for affordable homes for local people high amongst community needs.
  • There has been some increased light pollution from development that has detracted from the rural character of the NCA and increases in traffic volumes on the major roads ( A11, A14, A140 and the A143) has resulted in reduced levels of tranquillity.
  • There has been an increase in small scale wind turbines associated with farm enterprises as well as the development of four 130 metre-high turbines at Eye airfield in 2013. The Tacolneston transmitting mast was also extended in 2013 and now stands at 206 m high.

Trees and woodlands

  • Assessment of 1999 to 2003 data indicates some enhancement in the levels of woodland cover in the NCA.
  • Between 1999 and 2003 an area equivalent to 6 per cent of the 1999 total stock was approved for new planting under a Woodland Grant Scheme agreement (399 ha). Much of the new planting was in the form of small woodland blocks scattered throughout the area, reinforcing existing patterns.
  • In 2003 the proportion of established, eligible National Inventory of Woodland and Trees woodland stock covered by a Woodland Grant Scheme management agreement was about 39 per cent. The proportion of these sites covered by a Woodland Grant Scheme agreement changed from 18 per cent to 39 per cent between 1999 and 2003 indicating that the woodland character was strengthened.
  • Neglect of ancient woodland and other woodland planting, has impacted on woodland character. About 28 per cent of all woodland is on ancient woodland sites, and there are not significant areas of new planting. Deer are an issue, preventing natural regeneration and coppice regeneration of woodland trees and shrubs. There have been recent improvements in bringing existing farmland woodlands into active management and protecting them from damage caused by grazing deer. Some replanting of woodland has also been carried out, such as at Heveningham Hall where up to 20 ha of broadleaf woodland is being planted each year.
  • Semi-natural ancient woodland as well as trees outside of woodland is under threat from the recent arrival of new species of Phytophthora. Ash die back was first reported in 2012.

Drivers of Change (reported in 2014)

Climate Change

  • Changes to rainfall patterns and timings will impact upon wetland features and habitats such as valley fens and farm ponds, particularly the potential for longer periods of drought. Reduced rainfall will impact on water levels and water quality within these habitats, which will impact upon aquatic biodiversity and may also lead to increased scrub incursion. Increased rainfall events will generally benefit these wetland habitats.
  • Climate change impacts may also come from increased levels of rainfall particularly during storm events, which may result in flash flooding in the river valleys as well as across the flat plateau. River valleys prevented from evolving naturally may increase flood risks. Increased flash flood events or seasonal flooding events may also impact on footpaths and infrastructure increasing their maintenance requirements.
  • Adapting agricultural practices in response to water availability and longer growing seasons will result in pressure on traditional pastoral landscapes and grasslands in a move towards drought tolerant crops and grasslands. The role of adaptation strategies will become increasingly important.
  • Potentially longer periods of drought may lead to increased pressures on already stressed levels of water availability. Future development will need to address these potential pressures; new methods of water management techniques will play an important role, including taking forward green infrastructure strategies.
  • Climate change may lead to an increase in longer, drier summers, wetter winters, storms, floods and drought; historic woodlands and native species may not be the most resilient and therefore unable to survive reduced soil moisture or extreme events. There may be potential opportunities to alter species mix to build resilience to climate change.
  • Drying out of bedrock and top soil during periods of drought may have associated impacts on the stability of buildings, especially on the clay plateau.
  • Longer, drier summers may reduce soil moisture resulting in desiccation of top soils/surface deposits and may lead to erosion of geological faces/exposures.
  • Palaeo-environmental deposits and sites may be impacted upon by drying out of sub-soils and the subsequent increased erosion from wind and rain.
  • Increased temperatures may lead to the arrival of new non-native species and diseases/ invertebrates as vectors of disease for livestock and crops that could alter land use practices within the NCA.

Other key drivers

  • Growth is projected at Long Stratton (at least 1,800 new homes and 12 ha of employment land), and Wymondham (at least 2,200 new homes and 20 ha of employment land), as part of the Greater Norwich Growth Area. Additional expansion is planned at Diss and Harleston. Infrastructure constraints remain an issue for continued growth as does the provision and access to employment land.
  • Increased groundwater abstraction could have negative effects on the valley fens found along the Little Ouse and Waveney Valleys as well as to some of the isolated valley meres as at Framlingham and Great Barton.
  • Pressure on tranquillity comes from the proposed growth in and around the traditional market towns and villages close to the main transport links. Increasing car use on the main transport corridors (A11, A12, A14, A140 and A143) causes a gradual erosion of tranquillity. This is especially a pressure along the routes which connect the major settlements that lie in neighbouring NCAs, including Norwich, Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds.
  • The perceived issue of food security may result in further change to farming practices that could impact on ecological habitats and landscape character of the area. Agri-environment schemes provide opportunities to work with land managers to conserve enhance landscape character and develop new networks of linked habitats.
  • There is also a potential increase in the demand for wood fuel and biomass crops as prices for oil and gas for heating and power increase. This could lead to a change in the landscape character of the plateau areas as new arable and biomass crops are planted. The landscape value could be conserved and enhanced if sites are carefully selected to enhance existing landscape patterns, wildlife corridors and increase opportunities for recreation, providing a multi- functional environmental with social and economic benefits.
  • The ever-increasing deer population is altering the structure of woodlands and climate change will most likely result in further ecological change within the woodland habitats.
  • Ash die-back could potentially have a significant impact as ash is a common and characteristic tree species of the NCA.
  • Restoration of former gravel workings and other mineral sites is a major driver for geodiversity and biodiversity gain, providing opportunities for priority habitats and areas for geological conservation to be created.
  • Potential population growth may lead to increases in the importance of the recreational and environmental value of landscapes within the urban surround; the potential for green infrastructure funding; opportunities for improved access and climate change adaptation.
  • Initiatives such as ‘Suffolk – Creating the Greenest County’ can act as a forum for developing new thinking and promoting carbon-reduction solutions within local communities and businesses.