Unique wilderness that faces a fight to survive: Farmers in East Anglia are being paid to help recreate a sandy heathland. Nicholas Schoon reports

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The Independent Online
A SANDY wilderness lies amid the fertile farmlands of East Anglia. This is the Brecklands, a strangely out-of-place landscape created by man, nature and rabbits.

It has its own climate, more akin to that of central Europe than England. Winters are colder, summers hotter and drier although frosts can occur in any month of the year.

A few hundred years ago the Brecklands had sandstorms and shifting dunes. It was the nearest thing Britain had to a desert.

But throughout this century the wilderness has been dwindling, smothered by conifer plantations and intensive agriculture. What remains of the huge sweep of close cropped grass and heather is fragmented and degraded.

Last-ditch efforts are underway to save what remains and attempt to recreate lost heathland. Last week John Gummer, Minister of Agriculture, announced increases in the payments available to farmers within the Brecklands Environmentally Sensitive Area, created four years ago.

Within this area farmers who promise to manage the land in a way which should help preserve its unique character qualify for state payments. Grazing animals on the poor pasture is one method.

The European Community has also recently granted the Norfolk and Suffolk wildlife trusts and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) pounds 250,000 towards Breckland conservation projects. Yesterday, English Nature, the Government's wildlife conservation arm, launched its strategy to save the habitat.

Poor, acidic sandy soil on top of chalk is the key to the area's strangeness. Stone Age man cleared the thin overlying woodland about 5,000 years ago to improve deer hunting and graze sheep. The Normans brought rabbits, which were farmed in vast warrens for their fur and meat. They were fed during winter and predators such as foxes were controlled. The rabbits' endless eating and burrowing kept the vegetation short and large areas of sand exposed.

Shifting agriculture was practised for centuries, ploughing land and using it for crops for a few years before abandoning it as fertility dwindled. The word breck means abandoned field.

The Brecklands were an infertile, abused land - yet it was the abuse that gave it a unique assembly of plant and animal species. At the begining of this century there were 29,000 hectares of heathland and dry grassland in Breckland. Today, less than a quarter remains. Since the Twenties, the Forestry Commission's huge Thetford forest has grown up in the centre. From the outside arable farming has thrust in, made viable by fertilisers. The widening of the A11 road is chewing up further tracts.

Pine and birch trees and gorse are encroaching. Air pollution puts nitrate and ammonia in the rainfall which acts as a fertiliser, encouraging rapid grass growth which crowds out the characteristic plant species.

The stone curlew is one of the area's most prized and threatened species. Of the 160 breeding pairs left in Britain about 100 live here. These handsome, yellow-eyed birds, which mate for life, scoop out a shallow sandy nest on the ground and prefer very short grass so that they can watch out for predators, such as stoats.

But rabbits remain a thorny issue. Farmers hate them because they eat crops, yet they are more essential to conserving Breckland than sheep. Paul Dolman, an ecologist at the University of East Anglia, says the Environmentally Sensitive Areas scheme should be amended to pay farmers to put up rabbit-proof fencing.

(Photograph omitted)