Suffolk's maritime woodlands: where jellyfish swim beneath oak trees
PUBLISHED: 10:46 14 September 2019 | UPDATED: 11:22 14 September 2019
The coastal woods of the Shotley Peninsula near Ipswich are under-appreciated and on a national level represent a unique natural habitat where beach meets bough.
When thinking of natural landscapes that define Suffolk, people tend to point towards the rivers and big skies made famous by Constable, the heathlands of the east, or the sandy terrain and Scots pines of Breckland.
But, says Simon Leatherdale, there is another landscape that should be recognised as almost unique to this part of the country and of special interest - namely the maritime woodlands of the Orwell and Stour estuaries.
Retired from a 37-year career with the Forestry Commission, Mr Leatherdale has dedicated some of his free time since to studying these slivers of broad-leaf woodland that butt up against the shore at locations on the Shotley Peninsula near Ipswich such as Nacton, Harkstead and Stutton. This meeting of beach and bough is a phenomenon as yet unmentioned by virtually all natural history guides and Mr Leatherdale is contemplating writing a book on the subject.
"Suffolk and Essex are not particularly wooded but we do have some fascinating sites that have been overlooked," he told the audience at the recent Stour & Orwell Forum event organised by the team at the Suffolk Coast & Heaths Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).
There are other parts of the country, such as Devon and Cornwall, where you can see ancient woodland coming down to the sea - the late, great chronicler of British woodland Oliver Rackman wrote about the spectacle on the Cornish Helford River - and Mr Leatherdale has visited these places. But what sets Suffolk's coastal woodlands apart, he says, is the sheer size of the trees found here, in particular the giant oaks that have prospered in East Anglia's fertile soil and in many cases have been shaped by their close vicinity to tidal salt water.
Trees growing next to the sea will naturally lean towards the water because there is more light coming from this direction and no competition from other fauna, said Mr Leatherdale. This inclination can be accentuated by the lapping of the tide, slowly eroding ground and roots on one side and killing any low-hanging branches that droop too far into the briny.
"The tree is literally undermined," said Mr Leatherdale, resulting in large upper boughs arching across into the water to support the tilting trunk. Where the erosion of the ground is extremely slow, some roots that are exposed but remain above the salt water will adapt by growing bark to protect themselves.
Mr Leatherdale's passion for this unique coastal landscape has as much to do with the unusual natural sculptures that it creates as it does with any rare ecology it may have developed.
After the forum closed, he hosted a guided walk into the woods of Woolverstone on the banks of the Orwell and we stop at some dying oaks, still standing, which during the tidal surge of 2013 were flooded with enough salt water to start their slow demise.
Whether sea water kills a tree or not can depend on a number of localised factors, according to Mr Leatherdale, including the lie of the land and how long the water stays in contact with the roots.
"The local topography may define whether inundation of saltwater kills a tree - whether it pools and is kept there or whether there is a slope and the water simply flows back towards the sea," he said.
Mr Leatherdale is a big fan of dead and dying trees, as they provide vital food and habitat for countless species. He points to some bark peeling away from the side of an oak, creating a space big enough, he says, for 200 barbastelle bats to roost in.
"That dying tree has a great future," he remarked.
Dead wood lying on shores can create fantastic natural monuments, as well as habitats for wood-boring marine isopods called gribbles, and molluscs like ship-worms, notorious for boring into wood that is immersed in sea water, including structures like wooden piers, docks and ships.
Much of this debris on beaches and shores gets cleared away or chopped up by water sports enthusiasts keen to remove a potential hazard, or walkers wary of obstacles. Mr Leatherdale says he is concerned that Natural England's ambitions to create a coastal path around the entire coastline of England will result in more tidying up and damage to waterside trees as countless hikers trample across their roots.
But for the moment, we should enjoy these magical places. Where else can you stand in woodland and hear the call of the curlew, he asks, or see jellyfish floating beneath the bough of a great oak, as he did recently at Harkstead?
Remnants of old deer park, these narrow strips of shoreline woodland are too small to have been recorded on any inventory but Mr Leatherdale is hopeful that, as a result of his presentation, conservation groups will begin to chart their existence.
"We have these wonderful places on our doorstep and they should be recognised at least for being interesting and unique," he said.