The ABC of a SSSI

One of the most unusual coastal sites in the UK, Orford Ness is also one of the most unusual places cared for by the National Trust.

A place where military history and rare wildlife come together. Photo: David Crawshaw

A place where military history and rare wildlife come together.
Photo: David Crawshaw

A National Nature Reserve (NNR), the Ness has been looked after by the Trust since 1993.
There are parts of the history of this special place that are shrouded in mystery, such as its former life as a military weapons testing site. We have learnt a lot about that history over the years, but there are some secrets about the work that took place here that we will perhaps never know.

Looking at the Ness as a haven for nature and wildlife, it is a place with so many national and international designations that whilst there are no secrets about the special nature of this land, it can be a confusing subject.

Orford Ness is managed principally as a conservation site and we work hard to find a balance between that conservation work and ensuring access for visitors, which is why we have specified visitor routes and take bird breeding seasons into account when planning our opening times.
It is a delicate balance with a site that is recognised on the international stage for the value of the wildlife and nature here.

From breeding sites for wetland and ground-nesting birds, to the rare and constantly changing shingle coastline to unusual plantlife and rare aquatic invertebrates, Orford Ness is a valuable place that we are caring for both now, and for the future.

Such is the recognition of the Ness, that reading the list of designations it holds can feel a bit like a trip to the opticians – as well as an NNR, it is also a SSSI site and holds GCR, SAC, SPA, Ramsar and Natura 2000 designations.

So what do all those designations mean for the site and the wildlife here?
Here’s our whistle-stop tour of the ABC of a SSSI!

NNR – National Nature Reserve
Natural England is the body that will declare an NNR in England and it manages around two thirds of them, with the rest managed by approved organisations, which includes the National Trust.
Natural England describe NNRs as: “Initially established to protect sensitive features and to provide ‘outdoor laboratories’ for research. Their purpose has widened since those early days. As well as managing some of our most pristine habitats, our rarest species and our most significant geology, most Reserves now offer great opportunities to the public as well as schools and specialist audiences to experience England’s natural heritage.”
You can find out more by visiting the Natural England website.

SSSI – Site of Special Scientific Interest
Like many NNRs, Orford Ness is also a SSSI, again, this is a designation given to a site by Natural England, who say: “SSSIs are the country’s very best wildlife and geological sites. They include some of our most spectacular and beautiful habitats: large wetlands teeming with waders and waterfowl, winding chalk rivers, gorse and heather-clad heathlands, flower-rich meadows, windswept shingle beaches, remote uplands, moorland and peat bog.”
Just like Natural England, we believe that these special places, such as the Ness, need to be cared for in a way that respects wildlife and ensures it will be there for benefit of future generations.
You can find out more about SSSI here.

SAC – Special Area of Conservation
All SAC sites in England are SSSI and this is a special protection given under the European Union’s Habitats Directive. The addition of an SAC designation means that some or all of the wildlife habitats are particularly valued in a European context.
The designation information for Orford Ness says the site was chosen because: “it supports some of the largest and most natural sequences in the UK of shingle vegetation affected by salt spray”.
It is a requirement that SAC sites are managed favourably for conservation.
You can find out more about SAC from Natural England or from the Joint Nature Conservation Committee.

GCR – Geological Conservation Review
The Geological Conservation Review was launched in 1977 as a major initiative to identify the most important geological sites in Britain.
The initiative is described by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee as: “The GCR was designed to identify those sites of national and international importance needed to show all the key scientific elements of the Earth heritage of Britain. These sites display sediments, rocks, fossils, and features of the landscape that make a special contribution to our understanding and appreciation of Earth science and the geological history of Britain, which stretches back hundreds of millions of years.”
You can find out more at GCR by visiting the JNCC website.

SPA – Special Protection Area
This designation is all about birds and birdlife. Using criteria that were set by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, SPA sites are also SSSI.
Natural England describe SPA as: “… an area of land, water or sea which has been identified as being of international importance for the breeding, feeding, wintering or the migration of rare and vulnerable species of birds found within the European Union. SPAs are European designated sites, classified under the European Wild Birds Directive which affords them enhanced protection.”
There is an incredible array of birds that are attracted to Orford Ness, and the habitat available to them has been greatly enhanced thanks to the completion of a major project that has been underway for the last few years.
We are fortunate to also have a team of British Trust for Ornithology-registered volunteers who monitor the birds at Orford Ness. There are often opportunities for our visitors to meet them and see them at work as they ring the birds and collect valuable data.
You can find out more about SPA by visiting the Natural England website.

Ramsar
An international agreement signed in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971, this agreement is focused on the conservation of wetland sites of international importance.
Orford Ness is protected under this agreement for its wetlands and marshes that offer vital habitats for breeding birds and wildlife.
Ramsar status can be given using a number of different criteria, one of which is if the site “supports vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered species of threatened ecological communities.”
You can read more about the designation on the Natural England website or visit the Ramsar website.

Natura 2000
Last, but certainly not least, is Natura 2000.
This is a network of sites across Europe and designed to ensure the survival in the long-term of Europe’s most valuable and threatened habitats.
Natura 2000 is a network of SPA and SAC sites and was created in 1992.
Orford Ness is home to a such a wide range of species that as already listed, it is both an SPA and SAC site as well as being part of the Natura 2000 network.
You can find out more about Natura 2000 here.

Take a closer look

Summer holidays may be over for the year, but there are still plenty of opportunities to visit the Ness for one of our special events and tours.
Whether your interest is photography or learning more about our conservation work, why not consider joining us for a more in-depth experience.

Photo tours

Each year we hold a number of guided photography tours, led by a professional photographer and one of our rangers. The tours offer a chance to see the Ness in new and unusual ways, as well as getting up close to some of the wildlife that thrives here.
We also spend time in and around the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment buildings and the distinctive ‘pagodas’ for a chance to capture some unique images of these unusual buildings.
Booking for the tours is essential and our next dates for a full-day tour are Saturday October 4 and Saturday October 18 and they cost £50 for NT members and £60 for non-members. We’ll take you over to the Ness on the National Trust boat, Octavia at 9am and return to Orford Quay at 5pm.
We’ll be walking long distances throughout the day, so only bring equipment you can carry and sufficient clothing for all day outdoors on what can be a very windy site!
You can book your place on the two remaining tours of the year by calling 01394 450900.

On September 21, the Marine Conversation Society will be holding a beach clean-up as part of the International Coastal Clean-up, which takes places in more than 70 countries.
We’ll be meeting at the barrier beyond the Martello Tower at Slaughden, near Aldeburgh at 10am. You’ll need to dress for what could be mucky work, but equipment will be provided. Please register to let us know you’ll be taking part by calling us on 01394 450900.

In both September and October, there are chances to find out more about the work of the our bird ringers.
We are lucky to have a team of volunteer ringers who carry out this important work on the Ness and you’ll be able to spend an hour with them to see them at work.
There’s no additional charge for these, just meet outside the Rangers Office at 11am on either September 27 or October 11.

Route to the beach re-opened

Several severe winter storms and the tidal surge that hit the East Coast of the UK in December 2013 caused significant damage to many stretches of coastline, towns and villages, and the clean-up operation is still underway in many of those places.

On Orford Ness, there was severe damage caused to embankments and the drainage infrastructure. The stormy weather, high winds and the sea whipped up by the wild conditions also badly damaged two structures close to the beach.

The 19th century Coastguard Lookout, which closed in 1957, was already in a poor condition and an annexe accommodation building was destroyed, with the remainder of the main structure further de-stabilised.
Further along the beach, a wooden, lattice structured tower, known as the Police Tower as it was part of a security perimeter around the Atomic Weapons testing facility, was undermined, further damaged and left tilted at a rather rakish angle as a result of several metres of shingle beach being washed away.
More than sixty years of the rigours imposed by the very saline environment has not helped the structures either.

Police Tower after the December 2013 tidal surge

Police Tower after the December 2013 tidal surge

Coastguard Lookout building after the December 2013 tidal surge

Coastguard Lookout building after the December 2013 tidal surge

The two structures sat at each corner of a section of the main visitor route on the Ness, so, with safety in mind, we decided it was sensible to close this section until the buildings could be made safe and secure.
That work has now been completed and the route has been re-opened, so once again visitors can enjoy the full experience of Orford Ness and walk to and along the beach on their way around the visitor route.

As well as structural surveys, some fencing and clearance work was also carried out.
However, as you might imagine on a former weapons testing site, things are rarely simple and as the work sites were adjacent to the main bombing ranges, an Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit had to be called in to make sure the site was free from explosives before even a single fence post could be driven in.
Luckily, and unusually for the Ness, nothing was discovered!

LIFE+ breeds new life!

The EU-funded LIFE+ project on the Ness is now complete and we are delighted to report that 2014 has been a hugely successful breeding year, highlighted by Common Tern chicks fledging here for the first time in 50 years!

Common Tern Picture: North East Wildlife

Common Tern
Picture: North East Wildlife

Breeding birds play a huge role in the diverse wildlife on the Ness. Sometimes, we ask visitors to avoid an area or a certain part of a route to avoid disturbance, and we are grateful to all those who help us give the birds some space – it has certainly paid off.

We have had more Redshank and Lapwing chicks fledging than in recent years, whilst areas cleared of rush and rank grass in the late autumn and the creation of a network of foot-drains (linear scrapes) in 2013 also proved attractive to the Lapwings, with juveniles regularly seen from the red route feeding on invertebrates around the muddy edges.

Three Oystercatcher chicks have fledged so far and are the first known to do so on site since 2006. Avocets have also had their most productive year for a while with 47 pairs and at least 18 juveniles fledging.

Avocet and chicks

Avocet and chicks

One of the highlights of the year has been the return of Common Tern to Orford Ness as a breeding species. At the time of writing, two chicks have fledged and another is close to doing so. Since the 1960’s, the only breeding record was an unsuccessful attempt on King’s Marsh in 2012, so the chicks are probably the first in 50 years, and we are absolutely delighted to see them here.

The new lagoons on King’s Marsh held over 90 pairs of Black-headed Gull, many of the breeding pairs of Avocets and also at least 15 pairs of Common Terns.
As water levels start to drop, flocks of Dunlin, Godwit, and Spoonbill are being attracted in to feed and roost on the exposed mud whilst large numbers of Little Egret on the marshes give the site a rather exotic feel.

We couldn’t do it without them!

A dedicated group of volunteers who give up their time every week to help keep Orford Ness open to visitors have been thanked by the National Trust.

The National Nature Reserve’s unusual landscape is home to such rare wildlife that it is recognised as being of international conservation importance.
Visitors to the National Trust site are always keen to learn more about the wildlife habitats and it is largely thanks to the hard work and dedication of volunteers that they are able to find out so much about this special place.

More than 30 National Trust Volunteers at Orford Ness carry out a wide variety of roles, from helping bring people to the site, helping them find their way around, answering questions about the wildlife and history of the former MoD weapons testing site, to gathering detailed data about the birds and wildlife that make the Ness their home.

On Sunday July 13, the annual Community Day that invites residents from the surrounding villages of Orford & Gedgrave, Butley, Iken, Sudbourne and Boyton to visit the Ness for free took place.
After a day of welcoming visitors, the team held their annual summer barbecue, with a number of volunteers receiving awards for dedication that has seen them clock up 130 years of volunteering between them.

Countryside Manager Grant Lohoar presented 12 volunteers with their commemorative five year badges, whilst there was also applause for volunteer and specialist bird ringer Gillian Stannard, who received her ten year badge.
A celebration cake, commemorative badges and letters from Regional Director Ben Cowell were presented to three volunteers who have each given 20 years of volunteering to the Ness.
Silke Miles, Mike Marsh and David Crawshaw were all thanked for their hard work.

Mr Lohoar told the volunteer team: “We have all said that we couldn’t do it without you, and we are so lucky to have you all here, doing the jobs you do.
“Through all the continued hard work, some of the team have amassed a huge amount of information that is so valuable to us and they continue to do so, and we can only thank them from the bottom of our hearts.”

Peter Whiley, himself a volunteer of 16 years who is also the Volunteer Co-ordinator for Orford Ness, said: “More than half of the team have done ten or more years of volunteering here. We are team who all get on well and everyone mucks in.
“We’re all people who like to be out and about and enjoy helping to care for the wonderful wildlife and birdlife here – it’s not a bad way to spend your time!”

Community Day is on the way

Every year at Orford Ness, we have a day when people living in the surrounding communities can visit for free, meet with our team and find out the latest about what is happening on the Ness.

This Sunday will see the 2014 Community Day take place, and, as always, we look forward to welcoming people from the villages of Orford and Gedgrave, Butley, Iken, Sudbourne and Boyton to the Ness.

There will be lots of news to share with you this year, particularly as we are now in the final stages of completing the LIFE+ project, which has seen us create habitats for a wide range of birds and other wildlife. We have been delighted with the numbers of birds breeding on the Ness this year and our conservation work on this very special place will continue to grow.

As many local people will know, Orford Ness is a place of great importance, both here in the UK and on a wider international stage too. A National Nature Reserve, it is also a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and has been given some of the most important nature designations in Europe.

People come from far and wide to visit the Ness and we are always pleased to meet them and share information about what makes this place so special.
For those visitors living closer, we hope our Community Day is a great opportunity to visit the Ness, find out the latest news, discover more about our conservation work and how we care for a landscape that has such an extraordinary past, but always with the future in our minds.

People living in Orford and Gedgrave, Butley, Iken, Sudbourne and Boyton will have received a voucher in the parish magazine, which can be exchanged for tickets at the National Trust Quay Office on Sunday.
The first boat over to the Ness will leave at 10am and the last boat over at 1.40pm. The last boat returning to the Quay will be at 5pm.

We hope to see you there!

The Secret Landscape

The challenging landscape of Orford Ness has taken on a new artistic appearance, thanks to the arrival of a new art installation.

The installation, by Anya Gallaccio, is made up of a series of large panels featuring images made using extreme magnification photography, that have been placed around the site for visitors to discover.

The project is part of the 1418NOW programme, which has commissioned a series of artists to create artworks, installations, poetry, sculpture and more to mark the centenary of the First World War.
The installation, called The Secret Landscape, was commissioned by the SNAP arts project, which is part of the annual Aldeburgh Festival, and Anya’s works will also be on display at Snape Maltings.

The installation references the almost abstract quality of early war aerial photographs as well as the experiments in air bombing and weapons development that took place at Orford Ness.
In keeping with the theme of the 1418NOW programme, Gallaccio was inspired to create the panels by the mysterious miltary past of the Ness as well as its unique geological landscape.
The photography used on the panels references these two elements of the Ness and are actually of a pebble taken from an area reserved for safely exploding the live ordnance that is still found here.
The broken pieces of the pebble have been magnified 20,000 times under a microscope to look like early aerial photographs.

The panels have been created using a canvas that will allow the wind to blow through them – an essential on the Ness! – and have been sited so visitors walking near to the Bomb Ballistics building, the Black Beacon and Lab 1, all buildings that date back to the Ness’ time as a military test site, will be able to get up close to view them, or choose to look from a distance.

This week, we welcomed a number of journalists to Orford Ness to see the artworks up close and to meet Anya and the SNAP team and hear more about both the installation, and the history of the military experimentation on the Ness.

The Secret Landscape

If you are visiting us this month, be sure to take a look The Secret Landscape, which will be here throughout June.

An excellent day!

Orford Ness is very unusual amongst National Trust properties – there is challenging terrain here, a unique story and very little that feels like the stereotype some might have of the Trust!

TripAdvisor June 2014

As we’re able to meet so many of our visitors as we take them to and from the Ness on our ferry boat, we’re often delighted to hear what a great day so many of them have had. We hear that they enjoy experiencing the remote and quiet landscape, coupled with the wonderful wildlife we have here.

So, you can just imagine how pleased we were when we opened some of the post this week and discovered a Certificate of Excellence from the Trip Advisor website.
All thanks to the positive reviews from our visitors.

We’ll be proudly displaying the certificate in our Quay Office and thank you to all those who took the time to write reviews about their visit.

Wildlife is thriving in this special place

National Trust Wildlife Advisor Stuart Warrington takes a look at just some of the species that call Orford Ness their home.

Orford Ness is one the most important coastal shingle sites in the whole of Europe. Shingle is a harsh place for plants and animals to live, so those that do survive here can be rare and special.

The shingle at Orford Ness has been thrown up into ridges by the sea, and the first and second beach top ridges have scattered plants of Sea Kale, Yellow-horned Poppy, Sea Beet and extensive patches of Sea Pea.
Orford Ness probably supports the greatest concentration in the UK of Sea Pea, a beautiful and nationally scarce plant. The Sea Pea is very susceptible to trampling, and is one of the plants that we care for best by asking our visitors to avoid walking on the shingle ridges.

Sea Pea and Sea Kale on one of the ridges at the Northern End of the Ness

Older ridges have an abundance of the white flowered Sea Campion with False Oat-grass, Sheep’s Sorrel, Sea Mayweed and English Stonecrop, plus numerous lichens. Dust and debris around the buildings allows more wildflowers to get a toehold, so here look for Shepherd’s Cress, Slender Thistle, Early Forget-me-not, Sticky Mouse-ear, Procumbent Pearlwort, Suffocated Clover, Spotted Medick and Weld.  Thousands of plants of the rare Cudweed grow in the cracks along the concrete military roads.

The grazing marshes are the best place to see the abundant birdlife of Orford Ness. The shallow pools and their muddy margins are great for Lapwing, Redshank, Oystercatcher and Avocet.
The slightly deeper lagoons attract loads of ducks such as Teal, Wigeon, Shoveler and Shelduck. If you are lucky you can see Little Egret, Grey Heron and even Spoonbill.
Look out for Kestrel, Marsh Harrier and even a day-flying Barn Owl – they all live on the Ness in the summer.

This barn pwl was photographed on the Ness in May 2014

This barn owl was photographed on the Ness in May 2014

Water Voles live in the ditches, but they are very secretive, so you may have a better chance of seeing a Chinese Water Deer or Brown Hare, both of which thrive on the Ness.

There are hundreds of insect species, many of which are classed as nationally rare.
They each have a preferred habitat on the Ness, from the shingle, to the saltmarsh, saline lagoons, grazing marshes and ditches.
One rare specialist is the Ground Lackey moth, whose caterpillars feed together on the saltmarsh plants and they are able to survive being covered by the tide every day.
Another is the Bombardier beetle, which live around the rubble of the old buildings, and is able to fire a hot liquid from its tail to ward off enemies.

Everything’s Coming Up Rosettes

Sheep from Orford Ness have been strutting their stuff in the presence of royalty in the competition ring of the Suffolk Show this week, competing in a series of classes.

Shepherd Andrew Capell and Ranger Glen Moon took two Jacob rams and a Whitefaced Woodland ewe, together with her two seven-week-old lambs, to the show and they were just as big a hit outside of the show ring as well as in – ewe could say that visitors flocked to see them!

The rams, Ben and Sam, were competing in a class of Jacobs and both earned praise from the judge for their looks, although they weighed-in on the slim size compared to their competitors.
Being conservation grazers, the Orford Ness flock are not given supplementary feed, and, in the world of sheep at least, some fat on their bones would have gone in their favour, although fourth and fifth place rosettes were very welcome for a first-time outing.

Andrew and Ben Suffolk Show

It was a double-rosette appearance for Wendy, the Whitefaced Woodland, who not only came third in her class of ewes, but was also awarded the Special Prize for Rare Breed Animals on a Watch List.
Wendy’s two lambs almost stole the show with their comedy antics in the ring – although thankfully there were no prizes for the naughtiest sheep in the show.
On Thursday, when HRH Prince Harry attended the Suffolk Show, both the rams and Wendy were invited to compete in the Presidents Ring in a class reserved for previous prize winners – the Champion of Champions class.

Wendy and lambs Suffolk Show

Kite, the Orford Ness sheepdog, also showed he has great potential as he beat off competition to scoop fourth place in the sheepdog class, even though he is still in training.
All in all, a very successful first visit to the Suffolk Show and perhaps the start of things to come for Orford’s prize-winning flock.

The rams, Ben and Sam, were hugely popular with visitors who enjoyed giving them lots of attention, whilst Wendy Woodland and her lambs were a huge draw for families. We think they might just have been the most photographed sheep at the show!
Visitors to the show were interested to learn more about the work of these conservation grazing sheep, who help to create habitats for ground-nesting birds, encourage insects and help maintain this important National Nature Reserve.