Despite its urban character, Sunderland is home to a complex mosaic of habitats including woodlands, meadows and wetlands all of which support a range of species such as water vole, badger, brown hare and great crested newt.

Calcareous Grassland

The semi-natural Magnesian Limestone grasslands of Sunderland are nationally as well as regionally important. They are mainly found in the east of the City. The limestone bedrock runs north to south parallel to the North Sea coast from Boldon through Sunderland almost to Hartlepool.

On the limestone, the soils are shallow and strongly alkaline and, though often dry and poor in nutrients they support a unique and varied flora.

Predominant species are blue moor glass, meadow oat-grass and quaking grass, with herbs such as cowslip, wild thyme, lady's bedstraw, salad burnet, birds-foot-trefoil, rock rose (the food plant for Durham Argus butterfly) and several species of orchid.

Quarrying of Magnesian Limestone has created and diminished many of the Magnesian Limestone grassland sites. Quarries often remain dormant for long periods, providing habitats that are easily colonised by the plant species from the semi-natural grasslands nearby.

Quarries provide a range of landforms and exposures, including sheer cliffs, heaps of soft rock and flat areas of rock on the quarry floor, all of which can affect the speed of colonisation of a variety of species. Former quarry sites with Magnesian Limestone grasslands include Tunstall Hills, Claxheugh Rock & Ford Quarry, Houghton Hill & Cut, Mowbray Park, Penshaw Hill and Fulwell

Neutral Grassland

South Hylton Pasture Special Site of Scientific Interest (SSSI) is one of the few remaining examples of lowland herb-rich hay meadow in Britain, and the only example in Sunderland. Evidence shows that 95% of lowland hay meadows have been destroyed since 1949 and only 3% are now undamaged by agricultural intensification (particularly through the use of chemical fertilisers and weed killers).

The traditional management of the pasture for hay production followed by winter grazing has maintained a herb-rich sward.

Also of particular interest in Sunderland are flushed grasslands, which consist of small areas of grassland irrigated by water from the Magnesian Limestone escarpment. These can be found at Hetton Bogs Local Nature Reserve (LNR), Eppleton Railway Site of Nature Conservation Importance (SNCI) and Moorsley Railway Site of Nature Conservation Importance (SNCI). Flushed grasslands have also been included within wetland and calcareous grassland categories. Such areas are very vulnerable to drainage and agricultural reclamation.

Neutral grassland constitutes an increasingly rare habitat, as their continued existence depends on traditional farming practices. South Hylton Pasture SSSI is owned by the Council and a management agreement has been drawn up for the site's long term protection.

Acid Grassland

Acid grassland contains only species which can tolerate acidic conditions (pH <5.5), and is restricted to 14.5 hectares in the west of the City.

Examples are found at Elemore Golf Course, Hetton Lyons and Hetton Park, where acidic herbstrongs and grasses such as bedstraw, tormentil, sweet vernal-grass and mat-grass occur.

Eppleton Railway provides the only heath land (about 2.5 hectares) that remains in Sunderland, an area dominated by heather rather than grass. Many butterflies, moths and other insects are associated with this habitat.
Acid grassland and heath land is often invaded by bracken and affected in many cases by over-grazing. Careful management is required in order to safeguard the remaining areas, including maintaining light grazing levels, cutting where there is a threat of scrub establishment, avoidance of fertilisers and lime and, in some situations bracken control.

Wetland Habitats

Whilst the North East has a wealth of running water, there are relatively few surviving ponds or other wetland areas, Indeed wetlands are often regarded as non-productive wastelands or derelict and dangerous and are drained or used for tipping, though in fact they provide some of the richest wildlife habitats.

Hetton Bogs for example supports a wide range of herb-rich fen communities, receiving base-rich waters from the nearby Magnesian Limestone escarpment. The complex mosaic of habitats along the Hetton and Rainton burns include tall-fen, flushed fen-meadow, springhead, swamp and willow carr, providing dense breeding cover for birds such as reed bunting and sedge warbler and water vole.

There are around sixty hectares of pond and marshland within the City, either free-standing or fed by streams. Many have been formed as a result of colliery working or subsidence, poor drainage on clay soils or fun-off from the Magnesian Limestone escarpment. Others like the Washington Wildfowl and Wetlands Centre, have been specially created for wildlife. Barmston Pond and Rainton Meadows and Herrington Country Park.

Wetlands support a range of interesting pond life with floating, submerged and marginal pondweeds, invertebrate species, and breeding populations of amphibians.

They are also extremely important as feeding grounds for wintering wildfowl and for wading birds on passage migration.

Coast and Estuary

The River Wear and the Sunderland coastline act as important natural corridors for wildlife. The river Wear within Sunderland is tidal, with the steeply sloped wooded riverbanks giving way to saltmarshes and mudflats to the east of the A19 bridge. Saltmarsh occurs where sea water is diluted by the inflow of fresh water, and a zone of salinity is formed.

There a few examples of this increasingly rare habitat within the region and in Sunderland it is restricted primarily to Baron's Quay, Timber Beach and Claxheugh Riverside. Plants at these sites include sea thrift, saltmarsh grass, sea plantain, glasswort, sea couch and sea rush.

The saltmarsh and intertidal mud are feeding grounds for redshank, dunlin, curlew, turnstone, ringed plover, lapwing and oystercatcher.

Our coastline has been recognised as a site of international importance and has been designated as a Special Protection Area (SPA) under the European birds Directive and is also listed as a RAMSAR site under the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance.

The Sunderland coast constitutes a significant wildlife habitat including Magnesian Limestone Cliffs and rock shoreline. The cliffs at Hendon and Ryhope have geological, botanical and ornithological interest, providing nesting sites for small numbers of fulmars and supporting an interesting flora including sea plantain, thrift, thyme and common spotted orchid.
At Roker there are examples of the famous "Cannonball Limestone". The rocky foreshore contains a vast range of marine life with many seaweeds, molluscs and crustaceans providing feeding grounds for wading birds including purple sandpiper and turnstone.
These are joined by large numbers of roosting common, artic and sandwich terns on passage migration. A small site at Whitburn Bents contains a small area of sand dune vegetation on the Sunderland coast.


Mature deciduous woodland is the richest and most diverse habitat in the country, having taken hundreds of years to develop its complex interdependent community of plants and animals. In Sunderland, tree cover is relatively poor; the 500 hectares of recent and mature coniferous and deciduous woodland covers just 3.7% of the land area, as opposed to 10% nationally. However approximately 246ha. of this woodland in Sunderland, over 49%, is protected through designations such as SSSI and SNCI, 31 hectares is classed as ancient semi-natural woodland a very important and irreplaceable habitat.

Mature woodland is primarily found in the Wear Valley between North Hytlon and Fatfield as scattered dene woodlands at Burdon, Ryhope and Hetton.

The main species of tree are oak, ash and sycamore together with small-leafed lime and various kinds of willow, as well as holly, hazel, cherry, birch, rowan and alder.

Mature woodlands are also home to a great variety of other plants and animals, whilst those of more ancient origin also have well developed soils and rich fungal flora.

Many of the botanical features of interest in Sunderland owe their existence to the Magnesian Limestone geology. Magnesian Limestone covers the eastern half of the City, ending abruptly in a steep escarpment between Houghton-le-Spring and Sunderland. Sunderland and County Durham are internationally famous for the superb exposures of such rocks which were deposited in the arid 'Permian' geological period during conditions which ranged from desert to tropical. Indeed one of the most remarkable features of this geology are the remains of a barrier reef which extended at least 25 miles from Downhill (north of Sunderland) to Hartlepool and can be seen in geological exposures throughout the City.

The Built Environment

The City of Sunderland is also made up of bridges, tunnels, walls, domestic and industrial buildings, pylons, roads and railways which all make up our built environment.

The built environment is a major and growing part of the modern landscape. Many species have adopted to use man made sites as natural habitats have decreased.

Bats roosting and breeding sites are decreasing at an alarming rate causing pipistrelle bats to find alternative homes which can be in buildings less than 30 years old, bridges and tunnels.

Swallows, house martins and swifts all use buildings as a substitute for cliffs. Waste land is another important habitat and can support an array of invertebrates including dingy skipper and peacock butterfly. The natural succession of wasteland encourages small mammals to move into the area which in turn support birds of prey such as barn owl and kestrel.
Gardens, parks and allotments are generally managed for enjoyment and personal gain. However, they do provide a very valuable wildlife resource for many species of birds and small mammals . The song thrush is just one bird which seems to be benefiting from suburban 'good life'. the British Trust for Ornithology report (Oct 2004) that pairs of song thrushes has increased by 100,000 to 3000,000 in the last year

The Mammal Trust reported populations of hedgehog, vole, shrew, dormouse and hare have generally been declining in rural areas but their populations have been rising in towns and cities.
In an effort to help prevent the loss and halt the decline of these creatures Sunderland City Council are working with Durham Wildlife Trust, local action groups and members of the public to record locations of important species.

This information will then be used to help program essential habitat works for species such as a great crested newt, hare and water vole to name but a few.

For more information or to report a sighting contact the Countryside Team (giving the date, name of species, address and/or OS grid reference and habitat details).