Roughly bounded east and west by the North Sea and the A12, and stretching from Lowestoft into Ipswich, lies the lowland heath, or Sandlings. On its surface, or at least what is left – we have lost about 80% in the last century – we may observe a skin of heather overlying yellow sand and gravel.
Prior to the advent of the motorcar, the Sandlings were the shepherds’ province, where sheep reigned supreme, grazing over the heather and poor grass. Present day Ordnance Survey maps show evidence of this with old sheep “walks” still named; sheep were used to cover up the nocturnal tracks of local smugglers, their hooves obliterating horse and cart progression. But now, and since 1953 when myxomatosis decimated the rabbit population and sheep have long ceased to bolster the rural economy, the landscape continues to change, thus affecting Sandlings flora and fauna. The Stone Curlew is rarely seen, the Nightjar is no longer common, and many heath-land flowers, Rest Harrow, Heath Milkwort, Harebell, Sheepsbit and others, have been ploughed into oblivion. The attendant insect life has suffered too.
Heathland changes to woodland when Birch and Pine invade, with no browsing or gnawing animals to eat away the emergent tree shoots. The 1918 Forestry Act, designed to replace home-grown stocks of timber felled in World War I, introduced the Forestry Commission to the Sandlings and the resulting stands of indigenous Scots Pine and alien Corsican Pine grow and spread their seeds across open heathland. In World War II, airfields were built, and remain. Golf courses, housing, roads and the need to feed extra mouths have all reduced the acreage of this once plentiful habitat.
Small, isolated pockets of heathland remain, but, being scattered, are not conducive to the spread of local flora and fauna. This is a gloomy tale and any habitat loss is a threat to human life and culture. But when Spring eventually arrives, walk on the heathland and open your eyes to one species which is spinily resilient – the Gorse or Whin. This dark, prickly bush, burning yellow in May, with its aromatic flowers, is a sight to gladden the heart. It might move you, as it did the Swedish botanist Carl von Linné. Visiting English heathland, for the first time, he fell on his knees, thanking God for this glorious, golden vista.
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