A conservation collaboration working across huge swathes of farmland in the Brecks has become a pilot project for national "landscape recovery" policies.

The Breckland Farmers Wildlife Network (BFWN) has 58 members covering more than 100,000 acres.

The group is working to protect the special wildlife within the Brecks - a mosaic of heathland, forest and highly-productive farmland surrounding the Norfolk-Suffolk border.

Its work is guided by a UEA-led biodiversity audit, carried out between 2008 and 2010, which catalogued almost 13,000 species - including more than 2,000 priority species of plants, insects, birds and mammals.

Since then, the data has been used to inform new land management strategies to create and reconnect habitats, with cultivated margins at the heart of the changes.

And now the project is entering an "exciting new phase", with 26 members joining a Landscape Recovery pilot which could help shape Defra's new Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme, aimed at replacing EU subsidies with a new post-Brexit system of incentives for wildlife-friendly farming.

Eastern Daily Press: The work of the 58-strong Breckland Farmers Wildlife Network has become a pilot for Defra's 'landscape recovery' schemeThe work of the 58-strong Breckland Farmers Wildlife Network has become a pilot for Defra's 'landscape recovery' scheme (Image: Richard Evans)

Defra is funding a two-year development phase which aims to create a long-term implementation agreement for 20-30 years, funded by blended private and public finance.

The ambitions have grown beyond the cultivated margin project, with blocks of habitat restoration planned which could be entire or part fields.

Those blocks could range from heathland, species-rich fallow, grass scrub mosaics or wet grassland meadows, which could "knit the landscape together" through the river valleys.

One of the farmers leading the group is West Harling-based grazier Richard Evans, who said: "When I first considered approaching the landowners and farmers in the Brecks with some plans for increasing nature recovery, I don’t think I ever envisaged us getting to this point, where we can make a really significant difference.

"The way the farmer group has got involved and actively supported the group’s ambitions is tremendous and I am really excited at what will be achieved. The hope is this work will continue way beyond all of our lifetimes."

The group is currently working towards an agreement with Defra for the project development phase, and it is seeking to recruit people to push the project forward.

Working with Norfolk Rivers Trust, restoration is planned over 55km of the Black Bourn, Lark, Little Ouse, Thet and Wissey rivers.

This could include re-meandering of canalised sections, reconnection with flood plains and river meadow restoration. 

The network of cultivated margins will be implemented for the long term. 

The pilot scheme will also continue the use of mapping techniques and will demonstrate where nature recovery can be best achieved. 

Conservation scientist, Dr Robert Hawkes, who had completed a six-year PhD that had corroborated the results of the audit, stepped in to lead the BFWN in putting in place some practical solutions. Hawkes’ role was funded by Defra although the project was very much farmer-led.

At the heart of the solutions advocated by Hawkes in Breckland is the laying down of miles of cultivated margins, creating corridors along which species can live and travel.

To help the farmers make the best choices when it came to laying down cultivated margins, Hawkes created a heat map which modelled the distribution of the rare species, then modelled the conditions they needed to thrive.

The heat maps were then overlaid on the farmland to show where cultivated margins would be most beneficial.

Prof Paul Dolman, of the University of East Anglia's School of Environmental Sciences, has been working with the BFWN since 2008.

He said: "The heaths have been transformed in the past 12 years. In the farmed land, neighbours are working together to place their margins in the best places.

"There are some outstanding cultivated margins. The first few years can be challenging because at first you get the wrong arable weeds or invasive plants but by timing cultivation and persisting with cultivation, then you start to get a really rich and diverse biodiversity in the area."