Natural England - Winterton Dunes NNR

Winterton Dunes NNR

These spectacular acidic dunes and heaths are internationally important for the rare groups of plants and animals which they support, in a habitat more common in northern Europe than England.

Winterton Dunes NNR

County: Norfolk

Main habitats: Coastal sand dunes, dune heath and slacks, freshwater pools

Why visit: Winterton Dunes NNR is part of Winterton-Horsey Dunes Site Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and Special Area of Conservation: (143kb)pdf document (SAC) and lies within the Norfolk Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). Great Yarmouth North Denes Special Protection Area: (93kb)pdf document (SPA) extends to Winterton beach, designated for its breeding little terns.

The NNR covers an area of 109 hectares, and shows good coastal habitat succession from the open sand and shingle beach, through embryo and fixed dunes to acid heathland and low-lying wet dune slacks, with areas of scattered scrub. 

The plant and animal communities are similarly diverse, with many rare and local species.

Star species: The range of habitats here provide suitable homes for many rare insects such as sand wasps, many dragonflies and damselflies and a variety of butterflies including grayling and dark green fritillary.

Little terns and ringed plover nest in shallow scrapes on the sandy beach, nocturnal nightjars which use the heath to feed and breed can be heard ‘churring’ on warm summer evenings, and skylarks and stonechats are often seen or heard.

The temporary pools in the dune slacks provide breeding sites for nationally important colonies of natterjack toads. 

Royal ferns grow in the slacks where their roots can reach fresh water, while the rare grey hair grass colonises areas of bare sand.

Grey and harbour seals may be seen along the coast and beach throughout the year.

Seasonal highlights

In spring, migrant birds such as wheatear and ring ouzel pass through, often with rarities mixed in. Little terns arrive in May, settling on the beach to breed, while natterjack toads can be heard calling from considerable distances. Many plant flower now, before the sandy soils dry out in summer.

Summer is good for butterflies and other insects, and nightjar call at dusk. In a wet year, flowering plants may persist all summer. On calm days, porpoises can sometimes be seen close to the shore.

Autumn is good for migrant birds. Short-eared owls are often seen hunting over the dune heath, and may stay all winter.


The site’s history includes use for rabbit warrening, a nineteenth-century lighthouse, and use as part of coastal defences during the Second World War, some of which can still be seen. After the war, the Ministry of Defence used it as a training area for several years, leaving more evidence on the ground. It is significant today as a popular place for local and visiting walkers and naturalists.


Most of the management is done by a large population of rabbits, which keep the dune heath open, although NNR staff help out with scrub control.

Natterjack breeding ponds are kept topped up with fresh water, and breeding little terns are protected from disturbance by fencing and wardening.

How to get there

The majority of the reserve is a coastal strip north of, and almost immediately adjacent to, the town of Winterton-on-Sea. To the north it extends as far as a local coastal landmark known as Bramble Hill, two km to the east of the village of Horsey.

On foot

A public footpath runs along the coast from Hemsby, near Great Yarmouth to Horsey, and passes through the reserve, linking in with the extensive local footpath network.

By cycle

Winterton-on-Sea is also on Regional Route 30 of the Sustransexternal link National Cycle Network.

By train

The nearest train station is in Great Yarmouthexternal link.

By bus

Bus services from Great Yarmouth to Winterton-on-Sea are provided by First Groupexternal link.

By car

From the A149 Great Yarmouth – Stalham road follow the B1159 to Winterton-on-Sea. Parking is available at the end of Beach Road, Winterton, the reserve begins a short distance to the north.

Visiting the reserve

Access to most of the NNR is open by permission of the owners, but we ask that visitors keep to existing paths.

Public toilets with disabled facilities are located on the beach front near the pay and display car park and cafe, at the end of Beach Road. Winterton-on-Sea also has a pub, a beachfront cafe, a fish and chip shop as well as a Post Office and a couple of general stores.

The southern end of the NNR is a short walk north of the Beach Road car park.

A public footpath crosses the length of the reserve and interpretation panels are provided for visitor information.

From March to August, ground nesting birds like nightjars, skylarks, ringed plover and little terns are nesting on the reserve and are vulnerable to disturbance.  For this reason, we ask that dogs are kept on short leads during these months.

Adders can be a hazard, especially to children and dogs, often on cool days when they may be slow to get out of the way. Avoid walking though rough vegetation by keeping to paths, and keep dogs on leads. If bitten, try to keep still and calm and seek medical attention.

School and community groups

Many school and further education groups already use the site for practical visits, often to demonstrate dune succession. Input from NNR staff, from brief introductions to guided walks, can be available on request.

Want to get involved?

There are opportunities for volunteers to assist with breeding little tern and grey seal visitor management, and species survey. Contact  or telephone 07899 901 566.

Further information

For more information contact the Senior Reserves Manager on or telephone 01603 720788.