National Character Area 82

Suffolk Coast and Heaths - Summary and Headline Statements of Environmental Opportunity


The Suffolk Coast and Heaths National Character Area (NCA) lies on the North Sea coast between Great Yarmouth and Harwich. It is a narrow area, extending inland just 10 to 20 km.

This landscape reflects the influences of geology, the sea and the generations of people who have shaped the land. While it is mainly flat or gently rolling, there are a few commanding viewpoints. Habitats and landscape features combine to create a small scale pattern, most notable near the coast. This provides great variety in a small area. Just under half of the area is designated as the Suffolk Coast and Heaths Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). The south-western tip contains a small part of the Dedham Vale AONB.

Rainfall is two thirds of the national average, meaning this is one of the driest parts of the country. In the past, most of the area was heathland, with little value. During the second half of the 20th century, fertilisers and irrigation were used to improve the land for agriculture. Today, farming occupies 57 per cent of the NCA. Cereal crops are most common, but vegetables, free range pigs and turf growing are also important.

The area’s coast and lowland heaths are known as the Sandlings. Although affected by farmland, forests and development, these areas are an important part of the landscape. The mix of dry, semi-natural habitats found in this NCA is important for biodiversity. Typical species include gorse and heather, woodlark, nightjar, Dartford warbler, adder and the silver-studded blue butterfly. Nature reserves such as the Sandlings Special Protection Area (SPA) reflect this diversity. The area includes large conifer forests at Dunwich, Tunstall and Rendlesham, known as the Sandlings Forests.

The coast is cut by the Stour, Orwell, Deben, Alde/Ore and Blyth estuaries with their wildlife-rich mudflats and salt marshes. Over centuries, land has been reclaimed from the estuary. Protected by old river walls this land is now important for agriculture. In some places, old river mouths have been blocked by sand and shingle bars. These have created large brackish or fresh water marshes, many of which are now nature reserves.

The shoreline is mainly made up of long shingle beaches. It includes important coastal features, including the 16-kilometre Orford Ness. The coast’s soft, sandy cliffs provide evidence of past glacial activity nearby, and sometimes reveal ancient human artefacts.

The area’s rich archaeology reflects a long history of settlement, including periods of wealth and cultural importance. Significant sites include the famous Anglo-Saxon burial site at Sutton Hoo. Evidence of more recent eras include country house estates and historic parklands on the estuaries. The coast is dotted with a range of military sites. These include the 12th-century Orford Castle, 19th-century Martello towers and 20th-century research centres at Orford Ness and Bawdsey. The Suffolk Heritage Coast was designated in 1973 to reflect the area’s historic importance. It runs along the coast from Kessingland to Felixstowe.

Settlement is generally sparse. It consists mainly of small villages and iconic coastal market towns. Larger settlements (Lowestoft, Ipswich and Felixstowe) are restricted to the northern and southern fringes of the NCA. It remains a lightly populated, less developed area. The NCA is appreciated for its tranquillity, high-quality environment, rich heritage, and outstanding wildlife. The area offers authentic and revitalising experiences for people, making it popular for outdoor recreation and tourism.

Large developments have the potential to affect the special qualities of both the landscape and seascape. Major human features include Felixstowe and Harwich docks, Sizewell nuclear power station and transmission cables for offshore wind farms.

Today the management of the NCA aims to balance the interests of farming with conservation and recreation. Nature-friendly farming is encouraged by incentive schemes. Conservation projects protect and improve the area’s many wildlife sites. This is reflected in the good or improving condition of most SSSIs in the NCA.

Climate change is bringing new challenges to the area. Longer and more severe droughts increase the risk of wildfires and threaten wetland habitats. Rising sea levels will increase flooding and the loss of land to the sea. Coastal management will aim to avoid the worst effects, but some change is inevitable. There will be the chance to create new habitats and landscapes along this ever changing coast.

Headline Statements of Environmental Opportunity (SEO)

See the Statements of Environmental Opportunity section for more details on the headlines listed below.

Manage the nationally significant coastal landscapes, ensuring that coastal management decisions take full account of landscape, environmental and visual impacts as part of an integrated approach working with coastal processes. Improve people’s understanding of the process of coastal change.

Manage the components of characteristic productive agricultural landscapes to benefit food production, biodiversity and soil and water quality. Promote sustainable farming practices that are able to adapt to changing agricultural economics, the considerable challenges of climate change and water availability.

Increase and enhance public awareness and enjoyment of the distinctive assemblage of historic landscapes. Sustainably manage the agricultural, semi-natural, geological and rich archaeological and historic environment, as well as seeking opportunities for more integrated access to support recreation and education, while protecting the area’s wildlife habitats and tranquillity.

Manage the forest plantations, to combine commercial forestry and fuel production with a mix of habitats for rare and endangered plants and animals, enhancing both their capability as a strategic recreational resource and their role in climate change adaptation and regulation.