Land management priorities to protect north Norfolk's most important nature habitats have been revealed following a year-long biodiversity audit.

The intensive study by academics from the University of East Anglia (UEA), in collaboration with the North Norfolk Coastal Group, collated more than 5.5m species records which were analysed alongside expert taxonomists, farmers, site managers and conservation bodies.

The audit revealed an "astonishing" total of 14,906 species had been recorded across the area since 1980 - including 2,093 conservation priority species.

And researchers have now used insights from the study to show how threatened wildlife could be protected and enhanced by creating habitats and ecological networks across farmland.

The investigation showed that 73pc of the priority species - those listed as scarce, threatened or designated - were found in tiny "semi-natural" enclaves of fens, chalk grassland, heathland, and ancient woodland which comprised just 2pc of the 78,000-hectare area covered by the audit.

A key finding of the report is that buffering and extending these invaluable habitats, would play a massive part in restoring biodiversity resilience across the landscape.

But with agriculture dominating 84pc of the study area, farmers also have an "absolutely vital" role to play, said researchers.

Prof Paul Dolman, professor of conservation ecology in the UEA's School of Environmental Sciences, one of the lead authors of the report, said: “North Norfolk farmland has huge potential to support and expand biodiversity.

"The jewels in the crown are the designated sites. The bulk of north Norfolk's biodiversity really is held in these incredibly valuable, really small isolated fragments - that is where the rare special stuff is.

"But we are not going to reverse the decline in biodiversity if we only focus on these small fragments that are such a tiny part of the landscape.

"So we are really focusing on what farmers can do on farmland, focusing on the 27pc of rare priority species that are already supported on farmland, and looking at the key prescriptions to support them.

"We have found that the greatest benefit will come from creating large blocks of high-quality habitat, especially mosaics of woodland, scrub, semi-natural grassland, or wetland, and linking these in a transformed farmland landscape rich in cultivated field margins, grass margins, high-quality hedges, and ponds.

"Together this has the potential to support very large numbers of species that are currently absent from the farmland.”

Eastern Daily Press: Scarce emerald damselfliesScarce emerald damselflies (Image: Bernard Dawson)

Prof Dolman said north Norfolk is a "real stronghold" for rare arable weeds such as few-flowered fumitory and Venus's looking glass, and he added if farmers were going to do one thing, they should put uncropped cultivated margins around the edge of their fields, encouraging wild plants to grow which would attract important rare insects.

Restoring degraded and "ghost" ponds, or creating new ponds, is also considered a high priority for nature recovery. 

Eastern Daily Press: A Norfolk farm pond in good conditionA Norfolk farm pond in good condition (Image: Carl Sayer)

Prof Dolman said emerging government funding schemes such as the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) and Landscape Recovery scheme were "incredibly powerful tools" which offered a "once-in-a lifetime opportunity" to maximise nature recovery efforts, targeted using data from the audit.

"We are on a learning curve, but I feel more optimistic now about nature conservation than at any time in the last four decades," he said.

"I think we have got the tools, we have got the information,  we have got so much enthusiasm and momentum among farmers and landowners who want to do the right thing.

"We just want to clarify what the right thing is, so we can say: 'There you go, go for it'. That is why we have done the audit."

The report pushes for "bold landscape-scale actions" to restore biodiversity.

"We hope that placing these findings in the hands of farmers, local authorities and conservation organisations, such as Norfolk Wildlife Trust, will encourage landscape-scale cooperation and habit restoration," added Prof Dolman.

Eastern Daily Press: Few-flowered fumitoryFew-flowered fumitory (Image: Marie Portas)

Other biodiversity audits have provided vital evidence for targeted nature recovery, including in Breckland - and Prof Dolman hopes this approach could act as "a showcase and an exemplar" which could be repeated elsewehere in the country.

The study was funded by the Norfolk Coast Partnership (AONB), Natural England and Norfolk County Council, with support from the Farming in Protected Landscapes (FiPL) scheme.

The findings from the biodiversity audit were published on Friday as part of the North Norfolk Coastal Group Conference at the Sandringham Estate.

Eastern Daily Press: Productive farmland alongside hedgerows, pollinator strips and cultivated marginsProductive farmland alongside hedgerows, pollinator strips and cultivated margins (Image: Jake Fiennes)