Apart from the coastal marshes and the inter-tidal area that is included within the AONB, the great majority of the designated area is arable farmland, where the primary function is the more-or-less intensive production of food.
Although the majority of the area's most important wildlife sites are not on farmed land, arable farmland supports its own suite of characteristic and sometimes rare wildlife and its importance for the area's overall landscape character is clear.
Land close to the coast in north Norfolk is particularly suitable for the production of malting barley because of its soils and climate, and is justly famous in this regard. You can find out more about the process and sample the final product at the Real Ale Shop at Branthill Farm, signposted off the B1105 south of Wells-next-the-Sea.
Other important crops include potatoes and sugar beet, the discarded leaves of the latter providing an important food source for the tens of thousands of wintering pink-footed geese.
Some grazing, predominantly of beef cattle but also a few sheep, takes place on coastal, river valley and other small areas of grassland, where maintenance of a suitable habitat for conservation is often a parallel, or even primary, purpose.
There are also some smaller areas of intensive outdoor pig and poultry units, for example on the former World War II airfield near Langham in the latter case, and some where grazing land is used for horses, often divided into paddocks.
For information of where you can buy the high quality locally produced food, see our local products guide.
Statistics collected by the Government's Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) for 2010 indicated that there were 142 agricultural holdings in the Norfolk Coast AONB, 67 (47%) of which were over 100 ha in size. About 15% of holdings were cereals totalling about 10,500 ha and another 55% 'general cropping' totalling about 5900 ha – a total of about 16,400 ha in arable production, about 63% of the total area involved in agriculture.
The Defra survey recorded 95 full-time and 92 part-time farmers, 21 full-time and 17 part-time farm managers, and 116 full-time, 36 part-time and 36 casual employees; despite the large areas involved, relatively few people are employed in agriculture.
Agricultural and landscape change
The intensification of agriculture after the Second World War is often cited an important force of change, but the agricultural landscape throughout the AONB has changed over a much longer period, and at different times and in different ways in different parts of the area.
From as long ago as the 14th century, periodic encroachment by the sea in low-lying coastal areas affected agriculture and the subsequent construction of defence banks from the seventeenth century onwards changed the landscape and the use of the areas protected by the banks.
Enclosure acts from around the mid eighteenth to mid nineteenth centuries affected different parts of the area at different times, changing the open fields, heaths and commons into an enclosed landscape, although some characteristics and features relating to the pre-enclosure landscape can still be found today .
Enclosure took place largely without enclosure acts in some places, a notable example being the Holkham Estate, the largest estate in Norfolk. The general pattern of large, regular fields and large farms was produced by rationalisation in the late eighteenth / early nineteenth centuries and the estate was famous for the 'Norfolk four-course rotation' which was developed to sustain arable production on the generally light soils.
An historical perspective and overview of the area produced for the Norfolk Coast Project in 1993 gives more detail about agricultural and land use change.