As the name suggests, heathland makes up a special part of the Suffolk & Essex Coast & Heaths National Landscape, and the Suffolk Sandlings is one of our most important landscapes.
Heathlands have become one of the rarest and most threatened habitats in the world. Britain today has 58,000 hectares of lowland heathland, which is about 20% of the total world resource.
An area of grassland, gorse, scattered trees, heather and, very importantly, bare ground, found on some of the poorest, most acidic soils in eastern England, the Sandlings support rare birds and a range of characteristic heathland plants and animals.
The Sandlings take their name from a narrow band of light, sandy soils that run roughly north-south from Southwold to the eastern fringe of Ipswich. The soil was formed from material washed out from the ice sheet during the last ice age, between 10,000 - 70,000 years ago.
The sandy soils are very light, and easy to cultivate compared to the clay-dominated soils to the west, but also acidic and relatively infertile. Farmers were able to grow crops on the land, but the nutrients in the ground were quickly exhausted, forcing people to move to new areas.
Around 1,000 years ago, much of this land had become a virtually continuous area of heath through which huge flocks of sheep roamed, under the care of skilled shepherds, meaning that although the Sandlings heaths may seem like a natural landscape, they are really created by people who exploited the heathland resources intensively and relentlessly.
Large scale tree and woodland clearance continued until the 17th Century. Human settlements were usually on areas of more fertile ground, adjacent to heaths. In the last century, the Sandlings have reduced dramatically in area through the encroachment of modern intensive farming methods, commercial forestry, military use, and development. Over 90% of the once continuous area of Sandlings’ heath of medieval times has been lost.
The importance of the heaths is now well understood and all significant remaining fragments of the Sandlings are protected and under some form of conservation management. Even so, the remaining Sandlings and their wildlife are threatened in various ways. Lack of grazing, lack of open/bare ground, pollution, lack of intensive human activity have all had an impact.
Heathland restoration started in the 1980s. Today many organisations work in partnership to keep, manage, and re-create the Sandlings for you and future generations to enjoy, whilst being mindful not to harm their vulnerable vegetation and sensitive inhabitants.
The Suffolk & Essex Coast & Heaths National Landscape organises regular volunteering activities as part of the ongoing heathland conservation and management. Work has included removing invasive trees and creating diverse ground conditions at Tunstall Common, as well as cutting back a large area of gorse at Westleton Common so that the stumps can be removed to create heath with a more diverse vegetation and ground structure.
Enjoying Heathland Guide
Find out more about the heathland in the area, wildlife, flora and fauna you will see out on the Sandlings, as well as much more information about heathland with our downloadable guide.