Lowland heathland is a fundamental part of what defines the Suffolk Coast & Heaths AONB and what makes it distinctive from other areas. In the UK today, there are estimated to be 58,000 hectares (ha) (143,000 acres) of lowland heathland. This is about 20% of the total world resource.
Perhaps as long as 4,000 years ago, large expanses of heathland had already developed in this area, a patchwork of grassland, gorse, scattered trees and heather. Grazing intensified with the introduction of sheep, around 1,000 years ago, and dominated farming in the Sandlings until comparatively recently.
While the Sandlings heaths may seem like a natural landscape they were actually created by people. In the last century, the Sandlings heaths have changed dramatically and much of the area’s heaths have been lost due to modern farming methods, commercial forestry, military use and urban development.
The sandy, free-draining acidic soils allowed the development of a characteristic heathland flora, variously dominated by heathers, acid grassland or lichens. Over millennia a distinct fauna became associated with the open heathland habitats. Characteristic and now very rare reptiles, insects and bird species such as adder, silver-studded blue butterfly and nightjar made this habitat their own.
Heathland is as important for wildlife as it is beautiful to look at so, to maintain this vital and historic landscape and to conserve the habitat, careful management is essential and grazing has been successfully reintroduced in some areas.
Fortunately, the ecological value of the heaths is now well understood and all the significant remaining fragments of the Sandlings are now protected and under some form of conservation management.
Visit our Publications pages to read more about Suffolk's heathlands in our 'Enjoying Heathland' leaflet, available to download free of charge.