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Minsmere levels

Minsmere is a place along the coast of Suffolk, south of Dunwich Heath, encompassing a single beach bank behind which is caught an extensive area of marshes and broads. Once Minsmere was inhabited, but all traces of the village and abbey here have vanished.

Much of the area now constitutes Minsmere RSPB reserve, in the marshes where Leiston Abbey once stood. All is within the ‘Suffolk Coast and Heaths Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’.

The site is on the North Sea coast, the waters here being named Minsmere Haven, though there is no sheltered bay on this straight, flat coast. It is around 3three and a half miles north of Leiston and a mile and a half south-east of Westleton.


The landscape is largely flat along the line of the river. This is known as the Minsmere Level, an area of drained and re-flooded marshland with underlying alluvial geology.[1] The area to the south of the Minsmere New Cut drainage ditch, built in 1812, is used a grazing marsh.[1][2] To the north the wetland areas are flooded and managed as part of the RSPB's habitat management strategy for its Minsmere reserve. This area includes drier areas of sandlings, including areas of mixed woodland rising up to 20 metres above sea level on sandy ridges.[3]

The area provides a number of important habitats, including for species such as bitterns, marsh harriers, hen harriers, avocets and Dartford warblers. The wetland areas include flooded lagoons and much of the area is designated as a Ramsar site.[2] The grazing marshes to the south of the Minsmere Levels provide over-wintering grounds for a variety of different waterfowl species.[2]

The coastline at Minsmere consists of a narrow shingle beach with some areas of sand dune with a shingle bank protecting the low lying coastal areas.[2][4] This area is at risk of flooding from coastal surges although, unlike areas to the north and south, it does not suffer significantly from coastal erosion.[4] To the north Minsmere Cliffs are found within Dunwich Heath, a National Trust property. The cliffs consist of loose, unconsolidated sand and shingle glacial deposits and suffer from coastal erosion.[2][4]


Minsmere beach with tank traps

In the Domesday Book of 1086, Minsmere was known as Menesmara or Milsemere.[5] It is recorded as having six households headed by freemen with one plough team.[6] The manor, was in the Blything Hundred, was held by Roger Bigot.[6]

Ranulf de Glanvill, King Henry II's Lord Chief Justice, founded an abbey on the marshes at Minsmere in 1182,[7] but, probably due to an increased risk of flooding, this was abandoned in favour of Leiston Abbey in 1363.[1][8][9]

Peat cutting is recorded to have taken place at Minsmere dating back to at least the 12th century[10] and a 1237 description of the coastline describes Minsmere as a port.[10] Minsmere is recorded in the 14th century as being a small village with around 10 homesteads, but these had all been lost to the sea by the 16th century.

A survey of 1587 records that the early Tudor period 'entrenchments' at Minsmere were in ruins and recommended that they be rebuilt.[11] During the 18th century Minsmere, Eastbridge and the Sizewell gap were renowned as a hotbed for smugglers.[12][13] A coastguard station operated at Minsmere in the 1840s in an attempt to control smuggling along this stretch of the coast.[14]

The marshes along the Minsmere River were drained for agricultural use in the 1840s[1][15] but reflooded during the Second World War to defend against invasion along the East Anglian coast. A number of military defences were built in the area, including pill boxes, anti-tank blocks and barbed wire defence lines.[7] Cottages and a beach cafe on the coast at Minsmere sluice were evacuated, used as target practice and later demolished.[16][17]

The Minsmere RSPB reserve was established in 1947, making use of the wetland habitats reintroduced by wartime flooding.[1][18]

Minsmere Sluice Chapel

The remains of the chapel of St Mary

On the original site of Leiston Abbey, on the Minsmere Level to the south of the Minsmere New Cut, stand the remains of a chapel.[7][9][19][20] These are the only visible remains at the site of the original Premonstratensian Abbey.

The chapel was probably built when the abbey was relocated and stands in the site of the original monastic church, the stone from which was probably used to build the new abbey at Leiston.[19] It is thought to have been used as a chapel dedicated to St Mary until the dissolution of the monasteries in 1537.[19][21] The abbey was originally built on an island in the marshland but is believed to have suffered from frequent coastal flooding which led to its relocation to Leiston in 1363.[1][19] Geophysical surveys have shown that a number of archaeological features lie buried in the immediate area, including remains of the abbey church, cloisters and fish ponds.[7][19]

The chapel remains include a pillbox built in the early stages of the Second World War.[9] The site and its surrounding area is a scheduled ancient monument.[19] The chapel remains were restored in 2011 to preserve them and to allow some public access.[7][22]

RSPB Minsmere

Looking west over the scrape at Minsmere

RSPB Minsmere is a nature reserve in Minsmere owned and run by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. It is legally protected as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, a Special Area of Conservation, a Special Protection Area and a Ramsar Site.

The site was established in 1947 and covers areas of reed bed, lowland heath, lowland wet grassland, and shingle vegetation. The nature reserve is recognised for its high diversity of bird species and other wildlife and is used as a demonstration of successful reed bed management. It is known as one of Britain's premier birdwatching sites.[23]


The Minsmere reserve includes 442 acres (2 km²) of reed bed habitat, representing 3.6% of the UK's reed beds,[24] as well as areas of open water, lowland heath, grassland, scrub, woodland, dune and shingle vegetation. The reserve is an important breeding, roosting and feeding site for many bird species with over 100 resident species and around a further 240 species of migratory visitors being recorded at the site.[25]

Up to 30% of the UK's breeding population of great bittern are to be found at Minsmere.[26] It is also of particular conservation importance for its populations of western marsh harrier, pied avocet, Savi's warbler, bearded reedling and reed bunting.

The Minsmere crimson underwing

Heathland areas are particularly important for populations of Dartford warbler and antlion and woodland areas are important for common nightingale populations. Other species found at Minsmere include adders, otter, water vole and one of the largest herds of red deer in lowland Britain.[24]

Over 1,000 species of Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies) have been recorded at Minsmere. The 32 recorded butterfly species include the silver-studded blue, the Camberwell beauty and the Queen of Spain fritillary. In September 2004 the moth species Catocala conjuncta, previously unrecorded in Britain, was found on the reserve. To acknowledge its place of capture it was given the common name Minsmere crimson underwing.[27]


Protected status

The Minsmere nature reserve, its habitats and wildlife, are protected under law as a part of the Minsmere–Walberswick Special Protection Area.


The RSPB, through the work of employees and volunteers, actively manage the habitats of Minsmere nature reserve to maintain and improve the site for the benefit of wildlife and visitors. The reed beds are maintained by controlling water levels to prevent drought events and through rotational cutting to control ecological succession. The main reed beds are cut on a seven-year rotation, with around 7.4 acres cut annually and with ditches on a five- to seven-year rotation.[24]

Konik horses grazing at Minsmere

Grazing of animals is used throughout the reserve to prevent the expansion of scrubland and to control ecological succession. In 2001 eight Polish Konik horses were bought to the reserve from a herd run by the Suffolk Wildlife Trust and now form a separate breeding herd. This breed is used at a number of nature reserves in England to provide year-round, low-intensity grazing of wetland areas. They are selected for their hardiness and ability to graze in very wet conditions. At Minsmere they, along with a herd of Highland cattle, help maintain the boundary between reed beds and open water areas and help control reed density, providing open water feeding pools for bitterns within the reed beds.[24][28]

Away from the reed beds, Exmoor ponies and sheep are used to graze grassland and heath areas. The water levels and salinity of lagoons are controlled and, during winter and spring, grassland areas are flooded for the various bird populations. In woodland areas invasive plants are controlled and some areas fenced off to prevent damage from deer.[29]

The heathland and acidic grassland areas of Minsmere are managed with grazing, heather and scrub control and removal of invasive plants. In 1989, 390 acres of former arable land was purchased in a project to recreate lowland heath and acidic grassland habitat by acidification of the soil, the aim being to join fragmented patches of heathland together and to provide increased habitat for the stone curlew, woodlark and nightjar, three threatened bird species.

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Minsmere)


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 Coastal levels, Suffolk Landscape Character Typology, Suffolk County Council. Retrieved 2012-10-31.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Suffolk Coast and Estuaries Coastal Habitat Management Plan, Posford Haskoning Ltd, October 2002. Retrieved 2012-11-01.
  3. Estate sandlings, Suffolk landscape character typology, Suffolk County Council. Retrieved 2012-10-31.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Suffolk SMP2 Sub-cell 3c - Policy Development Zone 4 – Dunwich Cliffs to Thorpeness, Shoreline Management Plan, January 2010. Retrieved 2012-10-31.
  5. Minsmere, Domesday book online. Retrieved 2012-10-31.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Minsmere, Open Domesday. Retrieved 2012-10-31.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 Archaeology and history, RSPB, 2011-02-14. Retrieved 2012-10-31.
  8. A stranger in Leiston, Suffolk Magazine, 2010-06-25. Retrieved 2014-03-04.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Minsmere Sluice chapel, Eastbridge, Suffolk Churches. Retrieved 2012-10-31.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Minsmere peat cuttings, of at least 12th century date, Heritage Gateway. Retrieved 2012-11-01.
  11. Mediæval battery 1485-1540&nbps;- Heritage Gateway
  12. History, The Eel's Foot Inn. Retrieved 2012-10-31.
  13. Suffolk, Smugglers' Britain. Retrieved 2014-03-10.
  14. White W (1855) History, Gazetteer, and Directory of Suffolk, and the Towns Near Its Borders (second edition), Sheffield: R. Leader, p.505, (available online)
  15. White W op. cit. p.318
  16. A Walk around Suffolk's Minsmere Bird Reserve, Griffmonsters Great Walks. Retrieved 2014-03-10.
  17. Sluice Cottages Minsmere, Leiston cum Sizewell newsletter, Autumn 2013. Retrieved 2014-03-10.
  18. Milestones, RSPB. Retrieved 2012-10-31.
  19. 19.0 19.1 19.2 19.3 19.4 19.5 National Heritage List 1015687: Leiston Abbey
  20. 38: Leiston Abbey, Eastern Daily Press, 2010-04-15. Retrieved 2014-02-19.
  21. Page.W (1975) 'Houses of Premonstratensian canons: The abbey of Leiston', A History of the County of Suffolk: Volume 2, pp. 117-199 ([1])
  22. New life for old chapel, Ipswich Star, 2008-07-04. Retrieved 2012-10-31.
  23. Rix, Juliet (2006-10-08). "Days Out: Minsmere RSPB Reserve, Suffolk". London: The Independent. http://www.independent.co.uk/travel/news-and-advice/days-out-minsmere-rspb-reserve-suffolk-419233.html. Retrieved 2010-05-13. 
  24. 24.0 24.1 24.2 24.3 "Minsmere Management". Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. http://www.rspb.org.uk/ourwork/conservation/managingreserves/casestudies/reserves/minsmere/. Retrieved 2010-05-15. 
  25. "M is for Minsmere". BBC. http://www.bbc.co.uk/suffolk/dont_miss/a_z/minsmere.shtml. Retrieved 2010-05-15. 
  26. "Nature features - Booming Bitterns". BBC. http://www.bbc.co.uk/suffolk/content/articles/2006/02/08/booming_bittern_feature.shtml. Retrieved 2010-05-15. 
  27. "Moths at Minsmere – 1000 species and counting". BBC News. http://www.bbc.co.uk/suffolk/content/articles/2006/09/18/rspb_moths_2006_feature.shtml. Retrieved 2010-05-15. 
  28. "Minsmere - What we have achieved". Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. http://www.rspb.org.uk/ourwork/conservation/managingreserves/casestudies/reserves/minsmere/achieved.asp. Retrieved 2010-05-16. 
  29. "Minsmere - Our work here". Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. http://www.rspb.org.uk/reserves/guide/m/minsmere/work.aspx. Retrieved 2010-05-16. 
  • Axell, Herbert; & Hosking, Eric. (1978). Minsmere. Portrait of a Bird Reserve. Hutchinson: London. ISBN 0-09-128840-1