Project will examine how sheep shaped the Brecks landscape
- Credit: Archant
A new volunteer research project has been launched to understand more about the influence of sheep in shaping the landscapes of Brecks.
The open landscape of twisted pines, tussocky grass and heathland spanning the Norfolk-Suffolk border has been created by so many factors – climate, geology, ecology and the influence of agriculture.
But the defining qualities of Breckland would certainly be very different without the work of shepherds and sheep.
And yet their crucial role is scarcely appreciated by the public and has not been effectively documented, according to those who now work to preserve this rare habitat and its unique wildlife.
As traditional forms of land management have disappeared in the past half century, so has the knowledge of skills and customs which could be beneficial to the modern-day management of the heaths.
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So a volunteer effort has been launched to research and record the historic role of sheep in shaping this treasured environment.
The Sheep in the Brecks project will be led by the Breckland Society as part of the Heritage Lottery-funded Breaking New Ground landscape partnership.
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It will research breeds like the hardy Brecks specialist the Norfolk Horn, the markets for its meat and the importance of its wool to the wealth of the medieval church.
The project will also include workshops on shepherding crafts and training opportunities for volunteers in areas including oral history, archaeological and surveying fieldwork, archival research skills, and associated crafts.
Project manager Peter Goulding said: 'There are quite a few things we are interested in. We are interested in the Bronze Age and the Anglo-Saxon period.
'There is the deep history and medieval economics, but we might also look for drove roads and other remains in the countryside. So there is some archaeological research involved as well, which will essentially mean looking at maps and going for walks. If we can find a place name called 'The Drove' or a pub called 'The Ram', that will be interesting.
'We will also look at the tithes in the Norfolk and Suffolk records offices. The wool made the church in Norfolk rich in the past, but Breckland has famously poor grazing, so how much of that value was contributed by the Brecks?'
Mr Goulding said the past management of the Brecks was most evident in its modern ecology.
'Breckland is a unique assembly of plants and animals and invertebrates,' he said. 'There are some species here that are only found in Breckland.
'Part of that is because it is such poor, low-fertility ground. Grazing stops better grasses taking over and it becoming scrubland and eventually woodland. It keeps the grazing land poor, but it allows the real rarities to survive. There are some tiny plants and flowers here, like maiden pink, Breckland thyme and Breckland speedwell.'
Another key question for the researchers will be how the sheep shared Breckland's warren lands with the rabbits.
'Rabbits are important, in that the use of warrening seems to have allowed this assembly (of plants and animals) to happen,' said Mr Goulding. 'But the sheep go hand in hand with it.'
James Parry, chairman of the Breckland Society, said: 'One of the reasons we felt it was worth investigating the history of sheep in the Brecks is because it was once commercially important, but it was also hugely significant in creating the landscape in which people lived.
'If it was not for grazed heathland these wide open vistas would not be there, and that has only happened because of this combination of grazing and rabbits created that. Yet when you go around today, you see hardly any sheep at all.'
Mr Parry said the temporary homes of Breckland shepherds were a particular area of interest.
'Shepherd huts are something else that was really commonplace once,' he said. 'They were on wheels, so they could be towed onto the heath by horses, and the shepherds would live with their flock around lambing time. We found one which still had a wooden bed and a place where orphaned lambs would be put to keep them warm.
'There are hardly any of these huts left at all now. Some of them have been taken off the heaths and converted for 'glamping', which is a new role for them. But as part of this project we are asking if anyone knows of a shepherd's hut that is mouldering away in a woodland somewhere, then we would love to hear from them.
'It is another aspect of this sheep and shepherding heritage, and it is a last chance to capture it. There are very few shepherds left that can remember sheep on the Brecks, or these shepherd huts which would have been common 100 or 150 years ago. The heritage of sheep in the Brecks is slipping out of our grasp, and that's why we need to move fast to capture it.'
The Sheep in the Brecks project will include three practical workshops, with the first being a sheep husbandry workshop to be held at West Stow Country Park on September 10.
It will be run by Nick Sibbett, an ecologist for the Landscape Partnership who is a conservation grazier as a hobby. He keeps six Norfolk Horn sheep on Letch Moor, near West Stow Country Park – managing this part of the Brecks in a similar way to his medieval predecessors.
He said: 'Before I started grazing, the heath had not been grazed for 20-30 years, and it was in a poor condition. Since we have started grazing, it has produced this lovely Brecks landscape and flowers like the maiden pink have spread enormously since we started the conservation grazing. The quality of the whole habitat has vastly improved.
'It is a short-grass habitat with lichens growing in it, and a variety of typical Breckland flowers which are much less common than they were 50 or 100 years ago, like sheep's sorrel, harebells and Breckland thyme.
'Norfolk Horns are a traditional breed, which were developed over the years to suit Breckland – being able to cope with the poor quality grass and heather, and not requiring too much to drink. But they did go practically extinct in the early 20th century, so the modern breed was recreated by crossing other sheep breeds.
'So although these are very similar to the medieval Norfolk Horn, they are a bit different. But they are still very good at surviving this environment that modern sheep would not be able to live in because the grass quality is not good enough for modern commercial sheep.'
The project team aims to publish the results of the research in a report in early 2017. Training days on fieldwork and oral history recording will be given for volunteers. Anyone can participate, and no experience is necessary.
Anyone who wants to volunteer for the project, or has old records, photos, memories or family stories relating to sheep and shepherding in the Brecks, or who knows the location of any old shepherd's huts, can contact firstname.lastname@example.org.