Where the wild things are: Brecklands

It contains more than 2,000 rare species but few people know Brecklands in Norfolk exists. Jack Watkins finds out why

A A A

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

Sport
Thiago Silva pulls Arjen Robben back to concede a penalty
world cup 2014Brazil 0 Netherlands 3: More misery for hosts as Dutch take third place
Sport
Robin van Persie hands his third-place medal to a supporter
Van Persie gives bronze medal to eccentric fan moments after being handed it by Blatter
News
Ian Thorpe had Rio 2016 in his sights
people
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
scienceScientists have developed a material so dark you can't see it...
News
Monkey business: Serkis is the king of the non-human character performance
peopleFirst Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Voices
Mrs Brown's Boy: D'Movie has been a huge commercial success
voicesWhen it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Curtain calls: Madani Younis
theatreMadani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Life and Style
Douglas McMaster says the food industry is ‘traumatised’
food + drinkSilo in Brighton will have just six staple dishes on the menu every day, including one meat option, one fish, one vegan, and one 'wild card'
Life and Style
Once a month, waistline watcher Suran steps into a 3D body scanner that maps his body shape and records measurements with pinpoint accuracy
techFrom heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
News
Soft power: Matthew Barzun
peopleThe US Ambassador to London, Matthew Barzun, holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence. He says it's all part of the job
Sport
Joe Root and James Anderson celebrate their record-beaking partnership
cricketEngland's last-wicket stand against India rewrites the history books
News
Gavin Maxwell in Sandaig with one of his pet otters
peopleWas the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?
News
Rowsell says: 'Wearing wigs is a way of looking normal. I pick a style and colour and stick to it because I don't want to keep wearing different styles'
peopleThe World Champion cyclist Joanna Rowsell on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, Accreditation, ITIL)

£70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, A...

C# Developer (HTML5, JavaScript, ASP.NET, Mathematics, Entity)

£30000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

C# Integration Developer (.NET, Tibco EMS, SQL 2008/2012, XML)

£60000 - £80000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Integration...

Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

£75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

Day In a Page

Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

The Open 2014

Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?