What is an SSSI?

The Easton Valley from Easton Broad to Frostenden is a Site of Special Scientific Interest. In England there are now nearly 4,000 Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) covering about 935,000 hectares. They are looked after by 23,000 owners and managers. Many are farmers, while others come from statutory, voluntary, commercial and institutional bodies. Natural England is the Government's nature conservation agency in England that works with them to help their stewardship of the country’s most precious areas for wildlife. Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) form a nationally important series which contributes to the conservation of our natural heritage of wildlife habitats, geological features and landforms. SSSIs are areas of land that have been notified as being of special interest under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 or the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949.

Since 1949, Natural England's predecessors have identified areas of land or water of special interest. Before 1981 these areas, known as SSSIs, were notified to local planning authorities so that consideration could be given to their conservation in the planning process. About 2,600 SSSIs in England were notified in this way. In 1981 Parliament introduced new legislation to safeguard SSSIs. Under the 1981 Act they have to be formally notified to the owners and occupiers of the land and the Secretary of State for the Environment, the local planning authority, the Environment Agency, the Water Companies and the Internal Drainage Boards. Sites notified under the 1949 Act remain SSSIs, but the provisions of the 1981 Act relating to owners and occupiers do not apply until the land has been notified to them formally and to the Secretary of State. The process of notifying these existing SSSIs to owners and occupiers is often referred to as ‘renotification’. This process is now virtually complete. Surveys since 1981 have revealed further areas which are of special interest. We continue to notify these areas, which include extensions to some existing SSSIs. If SSSIs or parts of SSSIs lose their special interest, the SSSI designation is withdrawn by Natural England. This process is known as ‘denotification’

Easton Valley is part of the Benacre to Easton Bavents SSSI

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Benacre to Easton Bavents Site of Special Scientific Interest is an internationally important site for wildlife. The SSSI extends along the coast from Kessingland south to Southwold and indudes Benacre, Covehithe and Easton Broads and the cliffs at Covehithe and Easton Bavents. The three broads are classic coastal lagoons separated from the sea by retreating shingle bars, formed by the ponding of a freshwater outlet by a barrier of sea-deposited sand and shingle. They are fringed by extensive reedswamp and both Benacre and Easton are sheltered by surrounding ancient and secondary woodland. The foreshore from Kessingland to Southwold is shingle, behind which there are areas of saltmarsh, relict sand dune, and grassland, bracken or soft cliff.

The Easton Valley as far as Frostenden shows a transition from brackish to fresh water along its length, thus giving rise to a scientifically interesting distribution of saltmarsh, brackish and fresh water plants in the drainage dykes and grazing marshes.

This combination of habitats, together with an exceptional assembly of birds and the geological and physiographical importance of the cliffs and beach, makes this a valuable and internationally important site for nature conservation. It is because the site is one of the best areas in the United Kingdom for lagoons (a European priority habitat) that part of the site is a candidate Special Area of Conservation (SAC). The majority of the SSSI is also recognised as an internationally important ornithological site, a Special Protection Area (SPA) as it sustains nationally important numbers of breeding bittern, marsh harrier and little tern.

The land within the SSSI at Frostenden is recognised as internationally important as it is within the SPA. It is part of the valley running down to Easton Broad. The river flows down the eastern edge of the valley bottom and a number of lateral dykes in the northern marshes connect into it. A mainstream dam keeps the water levels high in the northern marshes. The southern marshes are surrounded by a banks, which hold water on the marshes at differing heights. The land comprises an interesting and special mosaic of habitats, including ditches, ponds, reedbeds, unimproved and semi improved grazing marshes, and alder carr. The ditches contain a rich variety of aquatic invertebrates and plants, including the nationally scarce soft hornwort (Ceratophyllum submersum).

Management of an SSSI

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This sketch map shows part of a farm at Frostenden Corner with marsh land that is managed to conserve wetland wildlife.

The general objectives are to sustain the various plant and animal communities and populations that make Benacre to Easton Bavents of special interest.







To conserve the wildlife on their land, farmers are expected to:
  • Maintain the overall integrity of the site.
  • Maintain the full range and extent of semi-natural communities and geological features. Where possible extend suitable semi-natural communities into areas such as improved grassland and plantation woodland.
  • Maintain the hydrological integrity of the grazing marshes and lagoons.
  • Maintain the populations of nationally rare and scarce plants, invertebrates and birds. Minimise disturbance of sensitive species.
  • Maintain and where appropriate enhance the populations of plants and animals typical of these habitats.

Conservation management

It is important to realise that, ulike national nature reserves, SSSIs are not owned by the public. They are farmed by private landowners or their tenants and the owe their value as national wildlife assets to the year on year management of people who farm the land. To maintain their wildlife in a favourable condition the habitats have to be actively managed. This means that owners with land in the Easton Valley SSSI have to operate special managment plans for their ditches, ponds, reedbeds, grazing marshes and alder carr and scrub. The following sections summarise the managemen advice given to landowers.

Ditches...
drainage_channel.jpgDrainage ditches are important for the range of flora and fauna they support. A notable rarity is the bittern which has recolonised the Frostenden wetlands in recent years. They feed on aquatic prey, notably small eels. A network of rotationally maintained ditches provides feeding sites, act as a refuge for prey and are an important means of dispersal of birds through reedbed. Older ditches have an accumulation of silt that is an important habitat for eels and deep ditches hold fish in winter and can provide suitable feeding habitat if they have shallowly sloped sides.

Ditch clearance, using mechanical methods, should be carried out in rotation so that a range of successional stages are maintained within the ditches. Clearing should be done in short sections or on one side of the dyke at a time to allow recolonisation by plants and invertebrates to the cleared areas from the adjacent ones. To reduce damage, material cleared from the dykes, where possible, should be placed on nonvegetated areas and spread out, rather than left in spoil dumps. Ditch management should not be undertaken between March and July (ideally until after mid-August if reed warblers are present as they breed much later than most ditch-side birds) to avoid disturbance of breeding birds.

Ponds...
There are three ponds in the Frostenden part of the SSSI The largest pond is a resting place for teal and mallard during the day. The main factors governing the biological productivity of the ponds is the amount of unshaded water and the depth of water. The management procedures are therefore periodic thinning of tree and scrub growth at the edges and desilting to obtain a minimum depth of about 0.5m.

Reedbeds...
If dead plant material accumulates tree seedlings will establish and as the land dries out it will revert to woodland. Careful burning will maintain the area and help prevent scrub and bramble invasion, by clearing the litter It will increase stem density and early shoot emergence and will maintain invertebrate diversity if the burn is with the wind Burning may generate high seed production due to the nutrient input from the ash. Burning on rotation will allow the build up of some litter in the intervening years for invertebrates and nesting birds Burning on rotation will ensure that there are refuge stands which will alleviate the impact of burning on invertebrate and mammal populations.

Grazing marshes...
Breeding waders prefer to nest on marshes that are not overgrown or too dominated by rushes, yet need tussocky vegetation for cover and a light level of grazing will create this structure.

easton_valley.jpgCattle action by grazing and trampling produces a tussocky grassland structure that contains many invertebrates. Cattle also improve the sward by breaking up the root system of invading reeds. 'Their manure will host invertebrates and this, combined with their creation of muddy areas, will also encourage waders. Grazed marsh is also more palatable to grazing wildfowl such as geese and Wigeon. These fields are grazed from the end of April or May till the end of September. The marshes ideally should not be grazed till afler Ist May, as birds may be breeding up to mid-June and the aim is to allow them to establish their nests. Mowing, undertaken after the bird breeding season, will help control the spread of rushes and in combination with the grazing it will prevent the invasion of scrub into the meadows. Overgrazing, however. will break up the sward, destroy delicate plants and allow the spread of coarse ones, which is undesirable. In a wet year the churning up of grassland by the feet of cattle (poaching) is difficult to avoid and these wetter marshes would be a good candidate for reedbed reversion.

The use of artificial fertilisers stimulates the growth of competitive species at the expense of others as they gain advantage from the rapid release of nutrients. Organic fertilisers release nutrients over a longer period of time this means that competitive species do not gain an advantage, species richness can be maintained whilst at the same time sustaining the fertility of the soil.'The amount of fertiliser used is being reduced and its use is likely, eventually to be phased out all together.

Alder carr and scrub...
Natural regeneration of the alder carr on the marshes adds to the structural diversity of the site and as a habitat is valuable. However, as it develops it shades out and suppresses the grassland flora. Some of the willow and many-stemmed alder could be coppiced to vary the structure of the carr. Cutting and grazing will slow the encroachment of the alder into the grazing rnarshes. Any cutting, should be done in the winter and it is beneficial for invertebrates and tree nesting birds to leave any dead wood lying and standing. Areas of well established, mature alder carr should be retained, younger recently developed carr could be removed and the area allowed to revert to reedbed