Gallery: Why it’s a case of ‘Breck to the future’ for nature

Andy Palles-Clark is spearheading a project to turn areas of Thetford forest back to heathland.

Andy Palles-Clark is spearheading a project to turn areas of Thetford forest back to heathland. - Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2013

MARK NICHOLLS discovers how parts of Thetford Forest are being returned to natural Brecks heathland to encourage the amazing stone curlew and other wildlife

Andy Palles-Clark is spearheading a project to turn areas of Thetford forest back to heathland.

Andy Palles-Clark is spearheading a project to turn areas of Thetford forest back to heathland. - Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2013

From a distance, they are bare stone-strewn patches of land that look as though they would struggle to support any plants or wildlife.

Yet these small parts of exposed ground in the heart of Thetford Forest are part of a regeneration project that is helping save many plants and creatures that thrive on the open, stony ground.

Perfect for the stone curlew and other ground nesting birds, they also host moths and butterflies, and plants that have all but disappeared elsewhere.

Beauty spots, they are not.

And they're unlikely to ever be described as 'pleasing to the eye', except to the most ardent of enthusiasts.

However, an immense amount of work has been undertaken to strip this land back to the bare essentials and restore it to what many will be surprised to discover is its natural state; bare, exposed and uneven ground of low quality soil that has limited growth and is open to all elements and predators.

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But this is a landscape that is pure nirvana to the cherished stone curlew and is being recreated under the Brecks Heathland Project.

It is a Norfolk Wildlife Trust initiative, working with the Forestry Commission and Natural England alongside other environmental groups such as Butterfly Conservation, Plant Life with an RSPB involvement in monitoring bird life.

As with The Broads and The Fens, the 18,500 hectares of Thetford Forest was also man-made with vast tracts of the Brecks planted with millions of trees in the 1920s on land that was of limited agricultural value to grow timber for shipping and the mining industry.

Over the years, the trees covered the traditional Brecks heathland until, in 1999, the first stage of a small reversal of the process began.

That saw trees systematically cleared from eight areas of land in Thetford Forest, together covering some 300 hectares, under the Brecks Heathland Project which has the aim of luring ground-nesting birds, butterflies, moths and rare plants such as Breckland thyme and basil thyme back into the landscape.

It is an unusual project in that rather than stimulating growth as in NWT's wetland restoration projects elsewhere in the county, this has seen the land stripped of the plant and tree life that has covered the ground for almost a century to return it to land that seemingly has little value in agricultural terms, but is priceless in the way it can rejuvenate some rare and fast-disappearing Breckland flora and fauna.

Brecks Heathland Project lead officer Andy Palles-Clark explained: 'We have eight heathland sites ranging in size from seven hectares up to 92 hectares, and the remit is for creating heathland and opening up the forest for Breckland flowers, species and birds like stone curlew, nightjar and woodlark.'

Once the hardwoods and the pines had been removed, the land had to be cleansed of other predatory species and invasive grasses, in particular wood small-reed.

'It is a real problem for us as it spreads like wild fire,' added Andy. 'Wood small-reed dominates the sward and stops everything else from colonising and has been the single costliest management issue to deal with in this project.'

Other weeds and grasses have been eradicated using chemical applications to target certain plants that are not part of the natural Brecks heathland landscape.

A key part of the process was deep-level ploughing on parts of Hockwold Heath, using equipment drawn by a heavy tractor that would deep plough to 60cm, effectively bringing the chalk and sandy layer to the top, creating a pale arid layer which is perfect for ground nesting birds, and burying the plants regarded as pests – such as wood small-reed - to a level where they would not be able to return and cover the surface.

Other parts of the ground have been rotavated, gradually maturing with tufts of grass and lichens.

Andy said: 'The idea is to strip all the natural nutrients out of the soil and create a nutrient depleted environment. The Brecks have always had a history of poor soil, but the natural plant community do not need a lot of nutrients.

'It is a perfect habitat for the stone curlew, all they need is a shallow depression in the ground adorned with a few rabbit dropping for camouflage and a few stones.

'People gave up trying to farm crops in this area of the Brecks long ago, the only way was to keep the land long-term fallow and farm it one year in every 20 years.'

Dartmoor ponies and sheep were brought in to graze the land and further encourage the original plant life and wildlife, while rabbits are also a key element as they help with the bare ground by digging holes and turning over the soil.

But with the regeneration of small parts of forest in the Brecks Heathland Project, species began re-appearing; plants with names such as Spanish catchfly (which is only found in Breckland), spiked speedwell, basil thyme, Breckland thyme, purple-stem cat's-tail and maiden pink.

In turn, the unusual moths and butterflies that went with them, the basil thyme case-bearer or the lunar yellow underwing moths, for example came back.

And then the birds followed: the stone curlew, nightjar and woodlark that nest on the ground.

The Brecks Diversity Audit has already shown that in this part of the world there are 2,500 species from the smallest beetles, and snails to birds and mammals.

'Ecologically, there are more rare species in the Brecks than there are on the Broads, and the aim of the project is to see these survive and be retained,' said Andy.

Sharon Hearle, who is the regional officer for Butterfly Conservation, said: 'My concern has been over the moths and butterflies that have declined but now we have got a grant to implement the management of bare ground in a number of different locations we can tell whether we have an increase in species in some areas better than others.

'We have got good results already but it is an ongoing project and some will take many years before we really know how well they have done.'

As the plant life returns, so do the creatures that rely on them such as the basil thyme case bearer, which is a type of moth only found in the Brecks and feeds on the basil thyme.

'It is not that these species are almost extinct,' explained Sharon, 'they have found places within the forest to continue but their numbers are really low and this is about reviving and regenerating them.'

'This project is about preserving endemic species but people come from far and wide searching for the moths and plants the Brecks, it is a special part of the world here.'

Some of the areas involved in the project have public access, while others do not such as Hockwold Heath but it is near Weeting Heath, where there is a NWT visitor centre and viewing hide where people can see the stone curlews without disturbing them.

The stone curlews are the star attraction, arriving in Breckland from Africa in March and staying until September. Breeding numbers have been low in the last two years because of the adverse weather conditions but the project leaders are hopeful that conditions will be better for nesting Stone curlews in the summer of 2014.

'We will know how successful we have been by monitoring the bird and plant life. Year on year there has been an increase in nesting pairs of stone curlew and we have got a presence of plants and moths so there has been a return on the investment,' said Andy.

'Despite the weather over the past two years affecting the stone curlews, we are hoping for a better year this year – perhaps four or five nesting pairs on Hockwold Heath and the same at Weeting, but I definitely won't be counting my stone curlew chicks before they've hatched.