Few visitors to East Anglia,on their way to the Broads or the North Norfolk coast, spare time for the ancient heaths around Thetford, on the Norfolk and Suffolk border. On the meter of national recognition, Breckland doesn't create much of a swing. "People simply don't know about it," explains Tim Pankhurst, Plantlife's regional conservation manager. "There's no 'Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty', or recognised designation. No one really holidays here. Botanists have known about it for ages, but from a general point of view, it's a backwater."
You don't need to spend long exploring the quiet lanes of this under-populated area to discover its charms, though. Under a thick hoar frost, the landscape seems almost ethereally lovely. The bent and twisting trunks of Scots pines – planted by farmers as dense, low wind breaks in the 19th century, but now mature specimens – elegantly frame the field edges and roadsides. The gently undulating Foxholes Heath has the open, primeval wilderness which made the Brecks one of the first places in England to be cultivated by prehistoric man. Even the plantations of Thetford Forest, the much maligned, largest lowland pine forest in the country, have a solemn grandeur.
Breckland has more to offer than visual delights, however. A painstakingly thorough Breckland biodiversity audit, released last month, describes it as a nationally important biodiversity hotspot, containing 12,500 species, 28 per cent of which – plants, invertebrates, mammals and birds – are of national conservation concern. The audit is believed to be the first of its kind to consider every species found in an entire region. Dr Paul Dolman, of the University of East Anglia's School of Environmental Sciences, which led the study, says that the findings demonstrate "what conservationists had long suspected – that Breckland is a unique region, and a key area for conservation in the UK."
Such words would have surprised bygone generations, for Breckland was always seen as an unforgiving and desolate place. Even the name – Brecks means "broken land" – conveys something of its harshness. William Gilpin, connoisseur of the picturesque, called it an "absolute desert", echoing John Evelyn's earlier description of its "Travelling Sands... rolling from place to place, like the Sands in the Deserts of Lybia".
Yet it was precisely the peculiar climatic and geological conditions and the nature of the agricultural cultivation that have made it such a special area, particularly for its site-specific flora, which form the base of the nature chain. Breckland is one of the driest places in England, with Continental temperatures and steppe-like heaths and grasslands. "The sand is so low in organic matter that when the temperature drops, it cools very quickly, but when it heats up in summer it gets scorched, drying everything off," says Pankhurst. "That's tough going for plants."
Many species here are thus highly adapted, and seldom seen elsewhere in Britain. They seem, too, to have evolved alongside prehistoric and medieval "long rotation" cultivation systems. "Cropping takes nutrients out of the soil, and this land was so nutrient poor, once you ploughed it, you couldn't cultivate it again for 15, 20, maybe even 40 years," adds Pankhurst. "You needed to let it rest and to be recolonised by grosser vegetation. They probably gauged when it was ready to cultivate again by the state of the plants."
Dolman points out that the audit has shown that for every priority vascular plant there are eight priority invertebrate species, including such intriguingly named creatures as the Brush-thighed seed-eater beetle and the Basil-thyme case-bearer moth. But it is the flora which has been the calling card for botanists since the 19th century. Like the Brecks, other heaths in England have their heather, their woodlarks and nightjars. But Breckland has wild flowers not seen this side of the Russian steppes and south-east Europe. The fact that the sand overlays chalk also means the floral suite is particularly rich and diverse.
This cut little ice when the Forestry Commission was looking to remedy Britain's acute timber deficit in 1914. The Brecks's marginal agricultural productivity made it the obvious place for a huge coniferous forest that eventually swallowed up 20,000 hectares. Along with agricultural intensification and house building, 86 per cent of the Brecks heaths were lost between 1934 and 1980.
The dire consequences are illustrated in the audit findings. "We have more than 2,000 priority species. However, massive land-use changes mean that many are hanging on by a thread at just one or two sites, while others are extinct," confirms Dolman.
Among the flora losses are three species of orchid, starry breck lichen, pasque flower and spring cinquefoil. WG Clarke, author of the prewar local nature classic In Breckland Wilds, wrote of Spanish catchfly growing in several localities "so abundant as to appear a hay crop", but now it survives at only half the sites where it was known 30 years ago. It might be the Brecks signature species, one that thrives on long-term fallow land, ploughed up and then left for another 40 years – not, as Pankhurst observes, a common form of modern agricultural management.
Another beleaguered local is field wormwood, and Pankhurst takes me to see one of the most dispiriting sites on the Brecks, a pocket-sized piece of land called the Brandon Artemisia nature reserve. It's a dot of fenced-off ground in an industrial estate supporting the largest wild population – and now the only natural one – of the species.
But we're not looking at some fragile, glasshouse exotic. It's big, sprawling and clump-like, and is even sprouting out of a crack in the verge beyond the fence . "It's a perfectly good plant, and easy to grow – so what's its problem?" asks Pankhurst, rhetorically. "It can't take grazing, is quickly overtaken by other plants such as spring sedge, and like most Breckland specialists, needs periodically disturbed ground." It only survives here thanks to the sand heaps that are scraped up into low, bare banks by an excavator.
Recent initiatives to restore the old heaths are described by Pankhurst as well-intentioned, but unsatisfactory. "Forestry Commission efforts to take down trees are successful in that they turn commercial woodland into a semi-natural habitat you can call heath. But they don't have the rich assembly of species that we know are in trouble. The heaths are really skeletal grasslands, and the plants are often small and low-growing, thanks to the hugely stressful conditions." Those conditions, he says, can't be created by conventional heathland restoration, which can simply involve clearing off trees and putting livestock on.
The audit argues for a more targeted approach, and Plantlife has recently launched a £200,000 project, backed by GrantScape funding, to carry out experimental conservation work on 30 Breckland sites. One plot has already been created in the sort of collaborative effort that the audit is calling for. The area adjoins Grime's Graves, the famed archaeological site, with its series of cup-marked hollows and shafts of Neolithic flint mines. Forestry had been planted hard up against the earthworks, but now the Commission has cleared a large belt of trees, and the Norfolk Wildlife Trust has scraped away leaf litter, exposing patches of bare sand and flints. It's possible that seeds could yet be lying dormant and regenerate. But Pankhurst is monitoring to see if the chalk-loving species that have thrived on the banks thrown up by prehistoric miners naturally recolonise.
It's long been fashionable to condemn Thetford Forest as detrimental to wildlife, but it actually preserved features that would have been destroyed by intensive agriculture. Many of the forest rides follow ancient droveways, so that in the grassy margins can be found red-tipped cudweed, tower mustard and various clovers, testimony to the importance past livestock movement played in the dispersal of plant seeds. And at Foxholes Heath, we find tiny surviving patches of Spanish catchfly along the road bank that follows the old droveway. "Who's to say these plants are not survivors from the days when people drove their carts and animals along this track?" asks Pankhurst.
In my time with Pankhurst, admittedly on a perishing winter day, we do not see another soul. Much of the land, when not owned by the Commission, is in private hands. Some heaths are closed in summer for nesting birds such as stone curlews. He thinks more public access could be encouraged, "so more people can come and see what a fantastic place this is".
No one seems to be pushing for national park status, though. Paul Dolman argues that Breckland is "as distinctive and unique as the New Forest or the Cairngorms," but says national initiatives aren't required. "National parks haven't tended to prevent leakage of biodiversity within their borders. Conservation will be achieved by people working in a more strategic and integrated way."
He concedes, though, that greater national recognition could act as a lever on private landowners, local authorities and the Defence Estates, which own the Stanford Training Area, into doing more. Now the audit has made plain what an asset is here, though, there's no longer any excuse for ignorance.
The best of Brecklands
* Lakenheath Warren: viewed from the adjoining bridleway, this is one of the best surviving examples of the traditional, open Brecks heath landscape.
* Grime's Graves Prehistoric Flint Mine: one of the most fascinating archaeological sites in England. Managed by English Heritage. You can visit one of the mine shafts. Much heathy grassland.
* Foxholes Heath, Eriswell: privately owned and closed in summer due to nesting stone curlews, but public access rest of year.
* Brandon County Park: popular spot, with good facilities/parking. In middle of forest, but plenty of heathy rides to explore.
For more details, visit www.brecks.org