Holkham National Nature Reserve

Location Details


Off the A149


North Norfolk Coast between Burnham Norton and Morston.


Holkham National Nature Reserve stretches from Burnham Norton to Morston and covers about 4,000 hectares. It is possible to explore most of the area by following footpaths from the main settlements or from car parks. The core section of the reserve, from Wells to Holkham Bay, is crisscrossed by paths allowing access to all the best wildlife habitats. Please stay on the agreed access routes. Please do not walk on the farmland or grazing marshes (which form much of the reserve), or to the marked breeding colonies on the beach in the summer.

To the east of Wells, the Norfolk coast footpath runs parallel to a large area of saltmarsh and mudflats which is dissected by a number of tidal creeks. These are dangerous on a rising tide and this area should not be walked over without detailed local knowledge. Please keep dogs on a lead or under close control, keep to paths to reduce erosion, and minimise disturbance to birds and other wildlife. Do not light fires of any description and please take your litter home.

The reserve is on Route one of the Sustrans National Cycle Network and on the route of a National Trail, the Peddars Way & Norfolk Coast Path.

Car parking: There are car parks at Lady Anne's Drive and Wells Beach Road. Both car parks are linked by the Norfolk Coast Path. To the east of Wells the footpath skirts a large area of saltmarsh and mudflats; tidal creeks are dangerous on a rising tide and this area should be avoided unless you have expert local knowledge.

A few facts about Holkham

Holkham Fort, near Bones Drove, dates back to around AD47 and is the remains of an Iceni settlement. Warriors of this tribe fought with Queen Boadica against the Romans.

Holkham is the home of Coke of Norfolk, whose Holkham Shearings (gatherings of farmers and friends to discuss agricultural matters) helped to encourage agricultural reform. A memorial to Coke of Norfolk can be seen in Holkham Park to the south of the reserve.

Saltmarsh reclamation began on this coast at Burnham Overy in 1639 and was completed in 1859 with the construction of the Wells sea wall.

The Vikings sailed up a creek through the saltmarshes during the first millennium and built a fort at a bleak place they called Holkham ('ship town' in Danish).

As recently as 1986 Wells Harbour handled up to 200 large vessels and 100,000 tons of cargo (mostly animal feeds) annually. Nowadays a few crab boats and pleasure craft are all that remain.

Lord Nelson spent many of his boyhood days exploring this stretch of coast.

Won from the wilderness

As with so much of the English countryside the look of the Norfolk coast is an intimate blend, part wilderness and part working landscape. From Burnham Overy to Wells, the low-lying marshes north of the coast road used to be tidal saltmarshes, separating offshore shingle and dune ridges from the main coastline. The tidal creeks were large enough to allow ships to load cargo from a staithe at Holkham village. From 1639 onwards a series of embankments were constructed by local landowners, including the Cokes of Holkham. By the time the Wells embankment was completed in 1859 about 800 hectares of saltmarsh had been converted to agricultural use.

In the middle of the 19th century pine trees were planted on the dunes, creating a shelter-belt to protect the reclaimed farmland from wind-blown sand. Today the ribbon of mature woodland still separates seascape from farmscape. The fields and dykes, ridges and trackways have become part of the natural mosaic. Nature moves on; Thomas Coke, the great agricultural pioneer whose memorial can be seen above the treeline in nearby Holkham Park, would hardly recognise the place.


Seawatching and beachcombing are a speciality of the Norfolk coast; a walk along the wide open shore can be interrupted by spotting a seal or slipping on a jellyfish.

The foreshore itself is an extreme sort of place, exposed to the elements. Very few plants can gain a roothold, and even shellfish find it hard to find any food in the sand. But mud is a different matter. The mouth of the Wells Channel and parts of the eastern shore are muddy and beneath the grey surface there are hidden hordes of lugworms and cockles - perfect food for wading birds with long beaks such as curlews and oystercatchers. Shorter beaks come in useful too; thousands of knot and a seasonal mix of redshank, greyplover and dunlin dibble about over the surface of the mud to find small invertebrates like worms and mussel larvae. Elsewhere, the tideline attracts packs of ringed plovers and sanderlings; birds that find food by running to and fro between the breaking waves.

Growing on the lower-level muddy shores, and transformed by the sea into dense swaying forests, are intertidal carpets of enteromorpha algae and eel-grass. These plants may look unappetising but are the staple diet of one of Holkham’s key birds, the brent goose. Several thousand of these Siberian brents overwinter here, grazing in the shallows and roosting on the wide open mudflats among the shelduck and the waders. It may seem odd to seek safety in a place where you can be seen from three miles away but, conversely, nothing can creep up on you. Geese have learned to keep themselves to themselves. The same reasoning applies to seals. You can see both common and grey seals hauled out in the distance and looking like driftwood tree-stumps beside the Blakeney Channel, but getting anywhere close to them is another matter. The best sightings are to be had from the boat trips from Morton and Blakeney.


Sheltered from the pull of the tides, any sediment from the sea soon builds up into a skim of mud and silt. Over the years the layers of sediment evolve into saltmarsh. In summer, exposed to wind and sunshine, the lower mudflats dry out and are frosted by salt crystals; glasswort and annual seablite are the only plants to cope with the sudden shift from chilly ooze to salty desert. By contrast, the middle and upper levels of Holkham's saltmarshes are covered with plants. Sea aster looks like Michaelmas daisy and its flowers are a pale magenta; sea lavender forms extensive carpets and creates a misty-blue haze around creeks and grey levels. A closely related plant, the matted sea lavender, is a North Norfolk speciality and forms cushions rather than carpets.

The plant which gives the upper marshes their distinctive character is the shrubby seablite. This is a dark green chunky shrub with a mass of tiny cylindrical leaves. Although it is common on the Norfolk coast it is very local anywhere to the north or west. It also has the distinction of being the first shelter when weather-blown migrant birds arrive on the coast, which is why bird-watchers pay seablite bushes special attention in October.

In the breeding season the mid and upper marshes ring to the loud, fretful call of the redshank, which nests in tussocks and feeds in the creeks and muddy saltpans. In the winter these same marshes are grazed by brent geese, shelduck and waders. Against evening sunshine the shimmering herds of grazing wildfowl and the wide horizon of the saltmarshes combine to create a lasting impression: one of the wildlife sights of Europe.


In some parts of the world deserts stretch for miles and are a pitiless wilderness of parched days, old nights and storm-blown sand mountains. With a temperate British climate it is hard to believe that such severe conditions can apply here but, in miniature, this is exactly what happens to coastal sand dunes.

The dune systems at Holkham are formed on old shingle ridges. With the interplay of wind and water the landscape can change very quickly. To the east, the coast is eroding whilst elsewhere shingle banks are building above the tideline and gathering windblown sand. The tall dune islands on the foreshore in Holkham Bay have appeared from nowhere in the last 60 years. And sometimes after severe storms whole sculpted ridges have vanished overnight.

In this harsh environment pioneer dune plants have to be tough. Among the first colonists are sand couch grass and sea sandwort, then marram grass which is renowned for its ability to bind the loose sand and start the dune-building process. The young dune and shingle systems create important nesting areas for shore birds. Oystercatchers and ringed plovers lay pebble-patterned eggs among tideline flotsam and marram roots. Little terns, often seen hovering and diving for fish just offshore, are a special summer visitor to Holkham. Unfortunately sandy beaches with patches of shingle are in short supply; the birds have to compete with holiday-making humans. To give them a fair chance to raise their young the most vulnerable colonies at Holkham are cordoned off with notices explaining to people how they can help the terns by giving them plenty of space.

Mature dunes, often rich in lime because of the shell fragments in the sand, soon grow a mat of vegetation. Cropped by rabbits and subject to surface temperatures of over 30 degrees, flowers like bee orchid and carline thistle thrive in the extreme conditions. So do solitary wasps and bees, and butterflies such as the grayling, small heath and common blue. And in the evenings natterjack toads emerge from their burrows and join a noisy chorus at the spawning pools.

Sand dunes are fragile - and the plant communities are easily destroyed by trampling, leading to disastrous wind erosion. Boardwalks and steps help visitors to cross the beach without damaging the hard-pressed vegetation.

Pinewoods and scrub

The silence of the pinewoods comes as a surprise after a walk along the shore. The cushion of needles absorbs every footfall and the high canopy keeps away the wind. So the scurry of a grey squirrel or the cone-tearing activity of a flock of crossbills can sound like a riot. Three kinds of pines grow in the woods, Corsican (grey trunk, small cones), Scots (orange upper trunk) and maritime (large cones in tree-top clusters). The dense shade and thick carpet of needles make life difficult for most other plants but there are a few specialities, such as the pretty little creeping lady's-tresses orchid and yellow birds nest. Where the canopy lets in a little more light there are patches of ramble, privet and honeysuckle, and on the wood-edge there are even some holm oaks: all of them planted by the 2nd Earl of Leicester in the mid 19th century.

On its landward side the ribbon of pines is edged by deciduous scrub, a priceless asset to the nature reserve. In summer the birches and brambles provide nest sites and feeding areas for breeding warblers such as lesser whitethroat, blackcap and willow warbler. In autumn this is the place to look for Siberian waifs like yellow-browed and Pallas' warblers-tiny vagrants well adrift from their usual migration routes.

The main Pinewoods/Holkham Gap track runs through the scrub and is always a good place to see both birds and butterflies. In spring the early flowers attract post-hibernating species like the brimstone and the peacock; these are followed by the orange tip, then the meadow brown, ringlet, common blue and large skipper.

Reclaimed saltmarsh

Perhaps the most spectacular change in the ebb and flow of Holkham’s wildlife has been the increase in birds breeding and overwintering on the grazing marshes.

The broad band of level farmland between the pine ridge and the coast road was reclaimed in the 18th and 19th centuries. Until the 1940s this was a sweep of pasture for grazing sheep and cattle, but in the Second World War some areas were ploughed for arable crops. Modern farming methods meant that the water table of the whole marsh was gradually lowered. The old grazing marshes dried out and became much more productive for winter cereals, but were far less attractive for wildlife. However, in recent years things have changed again. In partnership with the Holkham Estate and its tenants a system of dams and water control points has been introduced to raise water levels. This in turn has brought back the wildlife.

The population of many breeding birds like lapwing and redshank has increased dramatically. Avocet, shoveler and marsh harrier have colonised the marshes. Wintering wildfowl have made an astonishing come-back and recent peak counts underline the international importance of Holkham for species such as Pink-footed Geese, Brent Geese and Wigeon.

To look out from the hides on a winter's evening, over the golden marshes towards Holkham Park, and watch as the geese flight in or a harrier drifts past against the breeze, is a memorable experience.

Holkham Estate

Home to the Earls of Leicester for nearly 300 years, the 10,500ha Holkham Estate, with the vast sandy beach of Holkham bay at its centre, stretches nearly 15km along the North Norfolk coast.

Move away from the coast and the land rises noticeably, becoming gently contoured rolling country, much of which is in arable cultivation. The centerpiece is the great Palladian mansion of Holkham Hall. This imposing building stands secure within a 1,200ha parkland mosaic of extensive woodlands and pasture encircled by a continuous 15km-long wall.

Holkham history

The story of how this great agricultural estate came into being begins with Sir Edward Coke, who founded the family fortunes in the 16th century.

Regarded as one of the most brilliant lawyers of his time, Sir Edward invested his wealth wisely in land. From these shrewd investments grew the fortune that 150 years later, his descendant Thomas Coke, the first Earl of Leicester, used to fund the building of his Palladian mansion at the heart of the estate.

In the late 18th and early 19th century, the first Earl's descendant, Thomas William Coke, championed innovation in agriculture. An MP for 50 years, Thomas William instigated the Holkham Sheep Shearings, foreshadowing the agricultural County Shows of today. He also pioneered the four-course rotation system, all of which earned him the nickname 'Coke of Norfolk'. Queen Victoria elevated Coke to the peerage in 1837, at the age of 83. He took the title of Earl of Leicester - the second creation of this title in the Coke family, the first title having died with Thomas, the builder of the house. Coke of Norfolk planted more than one million trees at Holkham during his lifetime.

Farming at Holkham

Holkham has a total of 20 tenanted farms, made up of approximately 6,100 hectares, plus 3,100 hectares that is farmed in-hand by the Holkham Farming Co. The in-hand land is farmed on a rotation based around wheat, malting barley, sugarbeet, oilseed rape and root vegetables.

The livestock enterprise consists of 210 head of suckler herd of South Devon Cross cattle. The Holkham Farming Company has a formal conservation policy, which operates over all the in-house farms. This consists of Countryside Stewardship schemes, Entry Level and Higher Level Schemes all funded by CAP. The estate has reverted some arable land to grassland within the former deer park.

Conservation at Holkham

Holkham Estate has an enviable history of both shooting and conservation. The Earls of Leicester strived through three centuries to enhance the aesthetic value of the estate by planting thousands of trees, but more importantly, to create a rich and varied habitat, that has been maintained through careful management. As a result the Estate can boast a healthy population of many species that are considered rare or endangered with skylarks, grey partridge, lapwings and barn owls and brown hares a common sight on the Estate.

The 14 hectare Holkham Lake, situated in tranquil surroundings, is a feature of the park. There are also many ponds, which add to the diversity of the area. In summer, the ponds are home to breeding duck, such as mallard, gadwall and tufted duck, as well as newts, frogs, toads and dragonflies.

The deer park supports a diverse flora and fauna. In spring delicate yellow primroses appear at the woodland edge while under the woodland canopy you may find twayblade orchid and Herb Robert. In high summer, the ground beneath the mature oak, beech and chestnut trees is carpeted with nettles. The nettle beds provide good breeding habitat for a host of insects including butterflies like the peacock and small tortoiseshell and valuable shelter, where fallow deer may give birth and hide their fawns.

Wildlife is thriving at Holkham, but it does so at a cost and it is fair to say some of the wildlife habitats might not be maintained but for the shooting interests of the Estate.

The Estate employs a team of eight gamekeepers who are dedicated to wild game conservation and countryside management. Fundamental to the gamekeeper's work is a programme of predator control, which gives our ground nesting birds and mammals, such as hares and water voles, a better chance of survival.

The keepers also plant game cover and brood rearing crops, which produce insects throughout the summer and seeds in the winter. Main beneficiaries of this work are gamebirds and a host of other farmland birds, such as yellowhammer, tree sparrow and skylark, that have suffered serious declines in their populations in recent years.

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