40 farms unite to forge vast network for Breckland wildlife

The Brecks covers 1,000 sq km and is home to more than 12,800 species. Picture: Mike Page

The new Breckland Farmers Wildlife Network covers 100,000 acres of a landscape which is home to more than 12,800 species - Credit: Mike Page

More than 40 farmers, covering more than 100,000 acres of Breckland, have forged a new network aiming to bring landscape-scale benefits to the region's unique wildlife.

The Breckland Farmers Wildlife Network, believed to be the largest farmland cluster in lowland UK, brings together collaborators ranging from vast agricultural estates to small family farms.

Breckland Farmers Wildlife Network

More than 40 farms are working together in the Breckland Farmers Wildlife Network - Credit: Breckland Farmers Wildlife Network

The Brecks is an important area for food production, from fields of high-yielding vegetables and cereals to extensive livestock grazing.

But this landscape of sandy heathland and pine forests is also a special place for wildlife. Its 12,843 species - many of which are found nowhere else in the UK - were catalogued in 2010 as part of the Breckland Biodiversity Audit, led by Prof Paul Dolman at the University of East Anglia.

Now UEA researcher Dr Rob Hawkes, having completed a six-year PhD on the audit, is working with the Defra-funded network to explore how this farming landscape should best be managed for target species such as the stone curlew, woodlark, sand catchfly and grey carpet moth.

Cultivated arable margins are a key conservation tool within the Breckland Farmers Wildlife Network

Cultivated arable margins are a key conservation tool within the Breckland Farmers Wildlife Network - Credit: Rob Hawkes

One of the participants is Richard Evans, based at West Harling, who has grazed sheep and cattle in the Brecks since 1981.

As well as protecting the area's biodiversity, he said another key goal was to help shape Defra's future ELMS (Environmental Land Management Scheme) policy, which is currently under development to replace EU subsidies with green payments for farmers.

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"This is a large group of farmers, every one of which is part of a jigsaw, and the only way it works is if that jigsaw is complete," he said.

"We are all watching David Attenborough and we know what a delicate situation the planet is in. We know we owe it to our grandchildren to do more. We are talking about extinctions, tipping points and a climate crisis, but this is just one tiny way of reversing some of these processes while maintaining high-yielding food production at the same time. 

The Sheep in the Brecks project. Pictured: Norfolk Horn sheep grazing on Breckland heathland at Letc

Norfolk Horn sheep grazing on Breckland heathland - Credit: Archant

"The Brecks is an extraordinary area - you can cross a fence here from a field of intensive carrots and in two steps you can be in a SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) or the forest or a heath. It is that patchwork that we want to turn into a network."

The farmer-led network is underpinned by science - based on the biodiversity audit and an analytical tool which predicts where Brecks wildlife is likely to thrive. Each farm has been given a "heat map" showing where uncropped cultivated arable margins or corridors of disturbed grazing land should be placed to be most beneficial for priority plants and invertebrates.

Dr Hawkes said the model was developed using data from 3.5m biological records collected by Norfolk and Suffolk's army of amateur and professional wildlife recorders during a 40-year period from 1980-2020.

After factoring in "environmental predictors" such as soil type, land cover, climate and slope topography - and countering the bias towards the heaths and forests where most of the records were collected - an average heat map was produced for 78 indicator species. This was overlaid onto all the potential field margins in the landscape to show each farm where to target their efforts, and look for opportunities to link up corridors with their neighbours.

"It is quite rare to have connectivity on this scale," said Dr Hawkes. "So it is an important opportunity to understand what can be done at this scale and what that could mean for other initiatives across the country. There is no reason this tool couldn't be repeated elsewhere with another set of species."

The Euston Estate near Thetford has completed its 2020 cereals harvest ahead of schedule in the dry

Harvest operations on the Euston Estate near Thetford - Credit: Euston Estate

That sentiment was echoed by Andrew Blenkiron, estate director at the 4,400ha Euston Estate near Thetford, one of the larger farms in the network. 

"Being part of engaging with Defra on its ELMS Test and Trials, it does look like ours has the potential to be able to be used elsewhere around the country," he said. 

"The exciting part for me is the wider network and that we can potentially have a landscape-scale impact, and not just on arable margins. It is 40 farmers all working together and I'm not sure that's ever been done before."

An example of a predictive 'heat map' for arable margins in the Breckland Farmers Wildlife Network

An example of a predictive 'heat map' for arable margins in the Breckland Farmers Wildlife Network - Credit: Breckland Farmers Wildlife Network

UEA researcher Dr Rob Hawkes

UEA researcher Dr Rob Hawkes - Credit: Rob Hawkes

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