What is now Greyfriars Wood was probably farmland until the early 1800s – a map of that period names it as Maypole Piece. The Barne family bought the village about then and started planting areas of woodland. This Wood became part of the extended garden of Greyfriars Mansion, the large house they built 200 metres to the southwest. The Wood covers some 7 acres, bounded by the cliff to the east and Middlegate, one of the principal routes into medieval Dunwich, to the south.
Trees: This is a mixed woodland with mainly native trees. There are evergreens – Yew, Holly and the big Holm Oaks (native to the Mediterranean). The deciduous trees include Oak, Ash, Blackthorn, Elder, Sweet Chestnut, and Beech. Woodland like this, close to the sea, is unusual as trees have limited tolerance of salt in the atmosphere and are vulnerable to high winds. Closest the cliff edge, Sycamore is almost the only tree species growing. Many of the trees have Ivy growing on them – the Ivy is independently rooted and does the host no harm except that its evergreen bulk acts like a sail in high wind and can pull the host over.
Plants: Plant life is mainly limited to what can grow in springtime before the thick leaf canopy blocks out the light. So, early in the year there are beautiful carpets of Snowdrops and Daffodils. These are followed by Lesser Celandine, Dogs Mercury and Bladder Campion. Foxglove, Common Nettle and Alexanders will grow where there is enough light. Alexanders is another Mediterranean native (traditionally associated with Roman occupation) but is common on the Suffolk coast. It can be a problem here as it tends to crowd out all other plants. All parts of the plant are edible and it used to be widely used in cooking.
Birds: Many species of woodland birds use the Wood – apart from 5 Tit species (Blue, Great, Coal, Marsh and Long Tailed) watch out for Great Spotted Woodpecker and Treecreeper, listen for the high pitched ‘zzzzzz’ call of the tiny Goldcrest and if you are lucky you may see the rare Firecrest in the tops of the large Holm Oaks. Sparrowhawk hunt through the Wood and Tawny Owl can often be heard at night. During spring and autumn literally anything might turn up along the cliff – the eastern coastal strip is a major migration route between northern Europe and Africa. Black Redstart, Ring Ousel, and many Warbler species have all been spotted on migration here.
Mammals: The largest mammal using the Wood is Red Deer which shelter here during harsh winter weather and feed in the adjacent fields at night. Muntjac are also present – now a pest species. Fox, Badger, Rabbit, Grey Squirrel, Stoat, Weasel, Voles, Mice and Shrews also use the Wood and several species of Bats are present and roost and nest in the ivy-clad trees.
Invertebrates: Many wood-boring beetles help to break down the timber in the dead and fallen trees and in turn provide food for birds and mammals. Look out for wild bee nests – there is one in the top of the old ash beside the path into the monastery precinct.
There is a marked absence of young trees in the Wood. Apart from a few Sycamore which manage to survive, all the trees are large and mature, any young ones are either shaded out or browsed by deer, which can become a major problem in harsher winters when deer will strip bark from young trees. So the Trust is creating wired enclosures where old trees have fallen and left clearings, and planted saplings in areas now protected from damage by deer. Elsewhere, Alexanders is being controlled to allow Snowdrops and other plants some room to thrive. Generally, the Trust’s aim is to protect and broaden the diversity of wildlife in this unusual coastal woodland habitat.