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 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.
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.
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.