By Ed Hutchings
Blythburgh’s Holy Trinity is queen of the Suffolk coast. The glorious exterior of this ship-like church juts out into heathland and the Blyth Marshes. The latter are components of one of the most regal birding sites in East Anglia – Walberswick National Nature Reserve. My family and I spent many a happy holiday in the sleepy village when I was a child. I used to wander onto the reserve with my grandfather’s old Carl Zeiss binoculars he had used in the war. It holds a special place in my heart.
A combination of the forces of nature and the hand of man have created the landscape seen at Walberswick today. Shingle is a mobile habitat, which proved significant for the busy port of Dunwich – home to a prosperous boatbuilding industry and the Royal fleet in the 14th Century – when it blocked up the harbour and the villagers of Walberswick cut a new route for the River Blyth to the sea. Although it may look wild, the reserve has been intensively managed for centuries.
The land around Westwood Marshes was drained for use as grazing pasture and Tinkers Marshes were reclaimed for farming between the 16th and 17th Centuries, with grazing creating good conditions for breeding Snipe and Lapwing. That all changed in the 20th Century when the land was flooded to fend off the risk of invasion during World War II.
Pillboxes are scattered across the landscape and signs warn of unexploded ammunition from military training. By the end of the war, reeds had started to spread out from the flooded dykes. Aerial photographs from 1946 show much of the marshes still covered by water and a decade later the reeds had spread over much of them.
The sea regularly overtops the shingle beach and increasingly floods Westwood Marshes. Natural England is working with the Environment Agency to ensure that the wildlife has a chance to adapt to these changes over the next half century. It is an endless battle against the tide.
Few reserves possess such a varied range of habitats as Walberswick, which boasts a huge reedbed, woodland, scrub, muddy scrapes, seashore, heath and river. Such variety means it is possible to see more than 100 species of bird in a single day in May. The reserve has about 500 species of Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies) too, including Silver-studded Blue and White Admiral butterflies.
Walberswick’s impressive reedbed extends inland for more than two miles. Along its ditches lurk booming Bittern, while Bearded Tit and Marsh Harrier are much more easily seen. A network of paths criss-cross the reedbed and leads one to the other habitats the reserve has to offer.
The songs of Cetti’s and Reed Warblers pour forth from the reeds, while several Hobbies scythe through the sky overhead. Dragonflies are on the menu for the latter – these are deftly despatched and eaten in mid-air.
Stealth, camouflage and a secretive nature mean the Bittern is one of the hardest of Britain’s breeding birds to see. At Walberswick, the Bittern is most likely to be seen in flight, with fast wingbeats, neck retracted and flying low over the reeds. Even then it does not make things easy. The best chance of seeing a bird in flight is to visit in early mornings when they fly to and from fishing sites. In June and July, when they are feeding young, a patient wait should be rewarded.
Birds: heathland specialists
The heaths are part of the Suffolk Sandlings – a once extensive area that has been eroded to the remnants that are left today. They attract all the typical lowland heath specialities. A dusk visit would locate Nightjar, which belie their presence with a distinctive churring call.
During the day in spring, the heath resonates with the scratchy song of Dartford Warbler and the liquid, fluty notes of Wood Lark. If you’re planning a visit for next year, then spring is when the reserve comes to life. The skies are full of birds swooping and calling in spectacular aerobatic displays – first to attract mates, later turning to calls of alarm to distract predators away from eggs and young chicks. Both are extremely vulnerable to trampling and attack from predators. Little Tern nest on the ground, their young relying on camouflage to keep them safe. The absence of these tiny terns on my visit suggested that they may no longer breed here.
As spring turns to summer more flowers appear and young wader chicks can be seen running around in the long grass searching for food. By August, the heather is in flower, turning the heaths above Walberswick into a bright purple haze. Other flora found in the reserve include the wonderful sounding Marsh Sowthistle, Bog Pimpernel, Sneezewort and Greater Bladderwort in the wetland areas, while heathland areas feature botanical delights such as Fenugreek and Mossy Stonecrop. Scrub and woodlands are home to a variety of resident species, joined in summer by migrants that include Nightingale and Redstart.
The River Blyth, marking the northern boundary of the reserve, fans out into the Blyth Estuary, a little way upstream from its mouth – a favoured haunt of Avocets, Lapwings and Oystercatchers at low tide.
Little Egrets stalk the shallows, too. The adjoining marshes are grazed by winter wildfowl such as Wigeon and occasionally graced by small parties of Bewick’s Swans.
There are three permanent bird hides on the reserve: one on the south side of the Blyth estuary overlooking Angel Marshes (follow the path down alongside the White Hart pub for about five minutes), another looking over a reedbed pool at East Hill, and a third in Dunwich Forest overlooking Westwood Marshes. The former is a great winter spot to see Avocets, Black-tailed Godwits, Pintail and Wigeon. Shelduck and Shoveler are found on the marshes all year round.
Owing to the size of this reserve, a whole week could be employed to explore. However, if limited by a day as we were, then a walk out through Hoist Covert and through both Corporation Marshes and Westwood Marshes is as good a route as any to discover some of Walberswick’s birds.
The beauty of the extensive system of paths is that circular routes of varying lengths can be planned, based on the time available. This is a reserve to wander at will, while allowing yourself to be utterly absorbed.
The overriding attraction with Walberswick is that, unlike neighbouring Minsmere, it doesn’t attract crowds of people. I spent a leisurely six hours wandering the paths of the reserve and yet we must have seen a dozen other people at most.
Furthermore, there are no real differences in species between the two reserves. You have more chance of unearthing a rarity here yourself (if that is your kind of caper).
More importantly, you can really feel that you have the entire place to yourself.
How to get to Walberswick
By foot: Walberswick is on the Suffolk Coastal path, look out for the blue and yellow waymarkers on the route – you can pick up the path in the harbour car park in the village. There are a total of 14 miles of paths on the NNR.
By rail: Nearest stations five miles away at Darsham and Halesworth.
By bus: Anglian Buses 601 Halesworth-Lowestoft via Blythborough and Southwold.
Coastlink: To make a request to be picked up by the on demand bus service, which is priced at a level similar to regular bus services, call 01728 833526 before 12noon on the day before you want to travel. Booking hours are 8am-6pm.
By car: Turn off the A12 Ipswich to Lowestoft road, on to B1387 signposted for Walberswick, or to Blythburgh for spectacular views of the estuary.
Source: Nature England