Landmark study reveals Breckland’s amazing natural wealth

Breckland is one of the most important areas for flora and fauna in the UK, containing more than a quarter of the country's rarest species, according to an exhaustive study that is the first of its kind.

But radical new approaches to conservation - including bulldozing areas of heathland - are needed to prevent many of these species becoming extinct, the report's author has warned.

Scientists recorded virtually every single species - some 12,845 in all - across the area, which straddles the Norfolk/Suffolk border and boasts a range of important habitats including grazed heathland, pine forests, wetland and the UK's only inland sand dunes.

They found 2,149 species listed as a priority for conservation in Breckland, more than previously realised, and 317 species listed on the UK's biodiversity action plan.

That represents 28 per cent of the UK's rarest species, remarkable for an area covering just 0.4 per cent on land in the UK.

Sixty-five species found are rarely seen anywhere else in Britain. They included the plants Spanish catchfly, field wormwood, Breckland thyme and rare insects, such as the brush-thighed seed eater and the basil-thyme case-bearer moth.

The �28,000 research project was led by the University of East Anglia (UEA) and conducted over 18 months, pooling nearly a million records collected by scientists and dozens of amateur enthusiasts.

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'This is the first time we have demonstrated how incredibly important this region is. It has long been known amongst some people nationally. It's not as famous as the New Forest, the Pennines or the Cairngorms but it probably should be,' said Dr Paul Dolman of the UEA's School of Environmental Sciety, who led the study, called a biodiversity audit.

'Having more than a quarter of all the rare species in the UK really puts it up there. I can now say it's as important, or more important, than those other places because nobody else has ever done that kind of study and looked at everything that's there.'

The study highlighted the breadth of habitat in Breckland, which covers about 1,000sq km (386 sq miles).

'Although the heaths are really important, a lot of the really rare biodiversity is not on the heath, it's in farmland,' said Dr Dolman.

'To conserve biodiversity in Breckland, as well as grazing and looking after the heaths, we need to work with farmers and make sure really rare species on the edge of fields get looked after.'

Breckland's amazing range of species is down to a number of factors, including its climate and soil. 'It's dry and has quite cold winters. You can get a frost any time of the year; it has quite an extreme climate,' said Dr Dolman.

'The key thing, though, is people. People have been living there, grazing sheep and rabbits and ploughing up the fields.'

Breckland's sandy soils made ploughing easy and meant it was one of the first places in England to be settled. The medieval word 'breck' means a fallow cropped field and researchers found these lightly cultivated fields were crucial to many species unique to the region, some of which are now extremely rare and threatened.

The study was backed by Natural England, the Forestry Commission, Norfolk and Suffolk Biodiversity Partnerships and county councils, the Brecks Partnership and charity Plantlife.

Dr Dolman said he hoped it would shape future conservation efforts.

'We need to put the Brecks back into Breckland. We need to carry on this dynamic land use' he said.

'A lot of heaths would benefit from a bulldozer; they need to be disturbed and churned up. If you leave things alone they get a bit uniform. Bulldoze it, plough it, bomb it - it would be great!

'If we were to get there and plough up some areas now and then, that would do some good. We shouldn't be scared of getting machinery in and making a right mess. Physical disturbance isn't always bad; in fact, it is essential for many plants and insects.'

Bev Nichols, land management and conservation advisor at Natural England, said: 'This audit is truly a landmark piece of work. Around 40pc of Breckland is protected to help conserve the special wildlife that is found here, but throughout the farms, heaths and forests, nature needs a helping hand.

'These findings will help Natural England give the best advice to landowners, and ensure funding such as our environmental stewardship scheme is targeted to ensure a future for Breckland's special wildlife and wild places.'

Neal Armour-Chelu, ecologist with the Forestry Commission, said: 'This work is going to help the Forestry Commission conserve the rare wildlife of Breckland. UEA has brought together the knowledge of hundreds of experts about the ecological needs of literally thousands of species.

'This report is vital as a manual for the conservation of wildlife across Thetford Forest. For the first time, we have a comprehensive insight into what we can do to help the conservation of what is one of the most wildlife-rich areas of the UK.'