Scenic Suffolk is still special

IN the second part of our series on what makes Suffolk so special, PAUL GEATER looks at how the landscape and wildlife combine to give the county a unique character.

By Paul Geater

IN the second part of our series on what makes Suffolk so special, PAUL GEATER looks at how the landscape and wildlife combine to give the county a unique character.

FOR many years when I told people from other parts of the country that I come from Suffolk, I was surprised by the reaction of many: “Oh, it must be so nice to live near the sea.”

And in fact it is only over the last few years that I've come to appreciate just how important the sea is to my life and the county that is home. The fact is that the sea has always been there for me. As a young child I was born and lived the first six years of my life within two miles of the coast.

Going to Sizewell or Minsmere beach wasn't an adventure - it was somewhere I was taken just about every day during the summers of early childhood.

If I was really good I'd be taken a couple of miles further up the coast to Walberswick. That was an adventure. Walberswick has sand!

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As I grew older and the delights of building sandcastles faded, so did the lure of the sea - but it was still a place we went walking. And it was noticing the difference between the different kinds of seagulls that was eventually to spark an interest in birds and wildlife that pulls me back to the area time and again even though I now live in the metropolis of Ipswich!

I'm a regular visitor to the RSPB bird reserve at Minsmere. There's always the promise of something interesting, something unusual to see there.

What is particularly special about Minsmere is that it is untamed. It's not completely natural because it is carefully managed by the RSPB to provide a perfect habitat for birds and it was largely created during the second world war as part of Britain's coastal defences against the threat of invasion.

But its untamed nature means you cannot ever be sure what you are going to see - to a degree. It's not like going to a zoo. The birds and animals are not served up on a plate for you.

If you go during the high summer you can be pretty confident that you'll see hundreds of avocets and terns - but you cannot be certain that you will see or hear bitterns. If you do it's a real bonus.

When I first started paying regular visits to the reserve 20 years ago there was a real sense of excitement if you saw a marsh harrier.

That's one of the reserve's great success stories. There are now so many marsh harriers breeding there that if you don't see them during a visit to the island mere hide you'll feel disappointed.

Another great thing about Minsmere is that it's out of range for most mobile phone companies. You go there and you have the perfect excuse to be out of contact with the boss or anyone else who might want to contact you!

But if the few dozen people you're likely to bump into during a walk around Minsmere is too many, try walking down from the sluice to the northern boundary of British Energy's Sizewell B site.

This is a fantastically remote area with great wildlife to be seen.

During the spring you can catch all kinds of relatively rare birds like wheatears, warblers of every type, stonechats, and even the occasional kingfisher and bittern - and you will be completely alone.

Suffolk has a wide variety of landscapes (okay, it's rather lacking in the mountain department) but of all of them the stretch of coast between Sizewell and Walberswick is the most special - it's the part of the county I would miss most if I moved away from the county.

SUFFOLK'S delightful heritage coast may be the county's real glory - but the landscape found in other parts of the county are also a real delight.

In the years after the first world war much of the county was planted with conifers by the Forestry Commission set up to find a use for land which was not good enough to grow traditional crops.

Conifers thrive in sandy soil, and two areas of the county became significant lowland forests.

Along the Suffolk coastal sandlings, new forests were planted in a strip from the northern bank of the River Deben to the southern bank of the River Blyth. Rendlesham, Tunstall and Dunwich Forests are important features of the Suffolk landscape, even if they are rather more sterile than native woodlands.

Rendlesham Forest, in particular, was devastated by the hurricane of 1987 - but it has been reborn.

Now the forests of the Suffolk coastal sandlings are to enter a new era after the Forestry Commission announced recently that the non-native, but fast-growing, conifers would be replaced by traditional British hardwood trees as they are felled over the next 20 to 30 years.

That should be good for native species - and the new forests should eventually be much more wildlife-friendly.

But Suffolk's real forest heritage can be found on the other side of the county, in fact straddling the Suffolk/Norfolk border between Thetford and Brandon. Thetford Forest is Britain's largest lowland forest, and is a superb playground for people of all ages.

At its heart is the High Lodge visitor centre at Brandon - which is definitely in Suffolk even though it is impossible to reach from most parts of the county with passing through Norfolk! The park has superb activities for all the family, from the Go Ape tree-climbing course to one of the best children's adventure playgrounds you will find anywhere. But what I love about Thetford Forest park is the miles of safe cycling paths where again you can lose yourself.

The wildlife is very different to that on the coast, but there is always the chance of being surprised by an unusual creature.

It was on a ride around the forest that I saw an adder for the first - and so far only - time in the wild. On another occasion I rode through a herd of muntjac deer. They might not be rare. They might be an introduced species that many consider a pest - but they're still a very pleasing sight.

The great thing about a bike ride round Thetford Forest is that you feel so much better at the end - unless you happen to get caught in a deluge when you are half-way around the 14-mile circuit!

Suffolk's landscapes are incredibly varied, from the world-famous Constable country on the Essex border to the fenland of the north and west of the county. While nature reserves attract visitors, Suffolk's countryside - its patchwork of fields and farms - is a vital part of the character of the county.

Over the last 50 years there have been changes to the landscape with the introduction of industrial-scale farms and parts of the county have been turned into Prairie-like landscapes. However the vast majority of Suffolk has seen the retention of the traditional landscape with fields broken by hedges and small copses or woods.

It's a landscape which may lack the grandeur of the Lake District and Snowdonia - but it certainly brings a great deal of character to the county we call home.

Redgrave and Lopham Fen is the home of the largest spider in Britain, the great raft spider.

However you would be very lucky to see one, they are notoriously shy creatures at the Suffolk Wildlife Trust-owned reserve.

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