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Exmoor ponies leave a legacy for wildlife in the Brecks

25 September, 2018 - 12:00
Reserve manager Samantha Norris at Knettishall Heath. Photo by John Ferguson

Reserve manager Samantha Norris at Knettishall Heath. Photo by John Ferguson

Not to be used without permission from John Ferguson Photography

A five-year funded project to restore heathland at Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s Knettishall Heath reserve comes to an end this month but the benefits to wildlife in the area will be seen for years to come. ROSS BENTLEY reports.

Foxgloves in new wood glades at Knettishall Heath Picture: Sam NorrisFoxgloves in new wood glades at Knettishall Heath Picture: Sam Norris

Heading out onto Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s Knettishall Heath Nature Reserve, I am stopped in my tracks by a loud whinnying sound emanating from the woods.

Moments later an Exmoor pony appears and thunders along the tree line, halting momentarily when it reaches the sandy track that I’m on. It eyes me from a distance, shaking its mane to show off its power and lustre before cantering down the dip and into the heathland.

It’s a stark reminder - as my pulse again lulls - that we are in a wild place.

There are 19 wild Exmoor ponies roaming Knettishall and over the past five years they have been fundamental to a project to restore heathland on the reserve and in turn create vital habitat for rare birds, invertebrates and plants that depend on this unique Brecks landscape to survive. The Vision for the Future project, which comes to an end this month, has been made possible through funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and WREN - a not-for-profit organisation that offers grants drawn from the Landfill Communities Fund to heritage and biodiversity schemes.

Green tiger beetle picture: Terry PalmerGreen tiger beetle picture: Terry Palmer

According to Sam Norris, the Trust’s ranger at Knettishall Heath, half of all the UK’s heathland has been lost since the 1940s, and the picture is no different at Knettishall - a wonderfully remote place about 10 miles east of Thetford. This shrinkage has been caused in the main by a decline in the rabbit population - decimated by disease in the form of myxomatosis and more recently rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD).

In centuries gone by, when rabbit numbers were higher, the constant scraping, burrowing and ground disturbance from these rodents maintained the open lowland heath and created a mosaic of broken ground and sandy areas - a defining feature of the Brecks favoured by plants like rare spring sedge, Breckland thyme and purple milkvetch; ground-nesting birds such as skylarks and woodlarks and insects like the green tiger beetle.

But with very few rabbits currently on the reserve - Sam calculates there are now only around 30 across the 434 acres of Knettishall Heath - woodland and scrub has not been kept in check and has slowly but surely encroached onto heathland areas.

A MINIATURE NEW FOREST

Wild Exmoor ponies at Knettishall Heath  Pic: Steve AylwardWild Exmoor ponies at Knettishall Heath Pic: Steve Aylward

The project sought to push back against this encroachment by installing cattle grids and linking a number of enclosures where the ponies had previously been kept, so they could wander freely across an area of 250 acres in a way that Sam says resembles “a miniature New Forest”.

She added: “Long-term, the hope is the ponies will get on top of the young trees and vegetation to create paths, open up glades and maintain vegetation structure.”

A second element of the project saw volunteer groups engaged in thinning parts of the woodland, felling young trees, removing scrub by hand and using a mechanical digger to scrape away leaf litter and create bare ground.

Sam admits that for the 80,000 visitors who come to Knettishall each year this work may have caused an upheaval but believes it will be more than worth it.

Aerial view of Knettishall Heath showing cleared patches of heath amongst the wood pasture Pic: John LordAerial view of Knettishall Heath showing cleared patches of heath amongst the wood pasture Pic: John Lord

“There has been machinery in place and muddy paths but we had to get it all done during the funding period,” she said. “We’ve now come to the end of the heavy restoration work and hopefully visitors will begin to enjoy the fruits of this work and see species and habitat return.”

While it is early days, some of the work carried out in years one and two is already delivering positive results.

Sam reports 2018 has seen the return of woodlarks after a decade-long hiatus - one breeding pair taking advantage of the bare ground to nest and forage for insects and seeds. Skylark numbers are also up with ten breeding pairs reported at Knettishall this year compared with only three in 2012.

“These are nice pointers that the habitat creation is going in the right direction,” said Sam who reports that Breckland specialist invertebrate species such as solitary wasps and bees are benefiting from the new sunlit areas of bare ground while green tiger beetle and wasp spiders have returned thanks largely to the grazing of the ponies.

NATURAL FLOW

Other beneficiaries include the lunar yellow underwing moth, whose caterpillars need short tussocky grass, and the white admiral butterfly whose caterpillar relies on honeysuckle, which grows in sunlit edges of woodland rides and glades.

The seven species of bat found at Knettishall, including the nationally scarce barbastelle bat, have also been boosted by the increase in insect life - their main food source - says Sam, while reptiles are taking advantage of the increase in heathland and grassland corridors, particularly the adder whose numbers are starting to improve.

“Some of the areas are already looking stunning - the foxgloves, in particular, have been spectacular this year,” continued Sam.

“June is their peak and they popped up where their seed bank had laid dormant and now the sunlight can reach them because we have removed leaf litter and pine needles.”

According to Sam, now that the official project has ended, the 80 or so volunteers, who help out at Knettishall, will now be involved in a more relaxed management regime, which will see them continue removing scrub and bracken but also monitor the health of species populations on the reserve.

Sam says the long-term aim is to get to a situation where around half of the reserve is made up of heathland - at present it accounts for just over a third of the area alongside woodland, wildflower meadow, riverside habitats.

She added: “The aim has never been to return the entire reserve to heathland - it’s such a lovely mosaic and the aim is to create a natural flow between habitats, which will benefit as many species as possible and boost biodiversity.”

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