Pioneering project aims to restore rare plants on Forestry Commission land at Breckland heath

A pioneering project which could produce advances in scientific understanding and conservation research has been launched on an area of Norfolk heathland considered to be among the top five in the country for plant life.

A 10-hectare area of land at Hockwold Heath was being ploughed up yesterday at the start of the initiative to encourage the regener-ation of rare Breckland wildflower and bird species which had been in decline, some of which are unique to the area. It aims to try and regenerate the rare plants by using a process called soil inversion to plough up the land to bring the sandy, chalky soil underneath back to the surface and then leaving the site to see if the wild flowers will grow.

The first phase next to Weeting Heath was expected to be completed yesterday before the tractor moved on to a separate five-hectare plot in the same area and then a 10-hectare site at East Harling. All three projects should be completed by tomorrow.

The work is being funded and carried out by a number of conservation organisations, including wild plant charity Plantlife, Butterfly Conservation, which protects butterflies and moths, the Forestry Commission and Natural England. Tim Pankhurst, regional conservation manager with Plantlife, said wildflower species had been in particular decline in the area, including a number of rare breeds such as spiked, spring, fingered and Breckland speedwells, Spanish catchfly and the perennial knawel, which is unique to Breckland.

He believed the main cause was climate change, which has caused large amounts of undergrowth on soil which should be bare, which has knotted together to prevent the wildflowers from growing.

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Mr Pankhurst said if the project was successful this would represent a major scientific breakthrough as the conservationists are not using seed to encourage the wildflower and lichens to grow, but instead hoping species on the nearby nature reserve at Weeting Heath will colonise the site.

The charities have also consulted scientists at the University of East Anglia, who carried out a biodiversity report on the site and are hoping to also help conserve a number of rare bird species, including the stone curlew.

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Mr Pankhurst added results could be known soon if birds start nesting at the site, though the reappearance of the wildflower could take 10-15 years. However, the conservationists will monitor the site regularly for any developments.

'It is a bit of a punt or a gamble, but we know that many of the rare species have grown on the land next door so we would like to join this site with the heath next door.'

Neal Armour-Chelu, from the Forestry Commission, said the project was using almost 'medieval' style cultivation methods to produce scientific advances by moving from one site to the next after the fertility in the soil had been exhausted.

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