Rabbits are the key part of £500,000 project to help Breckland’s rare wildlife species

Young rabbits on the grazed heath at Norfolk Wildlife Trust's East Wretham Heath Reserve. Picture: M

Young rabbits on the grazed heath at Norfolk Wildlife Trust's East Wretham Heath Reserve. Picture: Matthew Blissett - Credit: Archant

A symbol of the British countryside, the rabbit is a firm favourite among many, but to farmers they can be seen as pests.

The rabbit grazed heath at Norfolk Wildlife Trust's East Wretham Heath Reserve. Picture: Matthew Bli

The rabbit grazed heath at Norfolk Wildlife Trust's East Wretham Heath Reserve. Picture: Matthew Blissett - Credit: Archant

For some of the country's landscapes, including the Brecks, they are essential to the survival of its plants and wildlife.

Spanning 393sq miles across Norfolk and Suffolk, Breckland boasts an unusual landscape of ancient grass heath and inland sand dunes. It supports some of the rarest wildlife in the country and is one of the top three areas for rare plants in Britain.

To help rescue and maintain 16 of the Breck's rare species, a £500,000 project called Shifting Sands – Securing a Place in the Brecks is being launched - with rabbits the focus.

It is part of Natural England's £4.6 million Back from the Brink project - financed by the Heritage Lottery Fund - to rescue rare species in areas across Britain in danger of extinction.

East Wretham Heath near Thetford. This will be one of the sites where the Shifting Sands Securing a

East Wretham Heath near Thetford. This will be one of the sites where the Shifting Sands Securing a Place in the Brecks project will take place. Picture: Sonya Duncan - Credit: Eastern Daily Press � 2011

Norfolk Wildlife Trust (NWT) is one of the Breckland project's partners.

Matt Blissett, reserves manager at the NWT owned East Wretham heath, said rabbits were vital because they keep the grasses short allowing rare plants to survive.

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He said: 'It is a key species as it stops the more competitive plant species from establishing and helps some of the really small and ground loving perennials like the red-tipped cudweed.

'It is not just about the grasses but the ground disturbance. Rabbits create bare ground and soil which is good for the rare annual plants. The barer ground and tightly grazed grasses mean the ground warms up quickly and it is good for the insects and invertebrates. These in turn are food sources for wood larks and stone curlews.'

A rabbit grazing in the shrubs at Weeting Heath. The rabbit is essential to creating the right envir

A rabbit grazing in the shrubs at Weeting Heath. The rabbit is essential to creating the right environment for rare plants to grow on the Brecks. Picture: Elizabeth Dack - Credit: Archant

However the population of the rabbits on parts of the Brecks have declined due in some parts to Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease.

Between 2000 and the start of this year, there were 1,200 rabbits on Weeting Heath, there are now believed to be only 30.

Rabbits were introduced into Britain by the Normans and from the late 12th to early 13th century, Breckland was noted for its warrens.

The Norfolk Wildlife Trust site Weeting Heath. Picture: Angela Sharpe

The Norfolk Wildlife Trust site Weeting Heath. Picture: Angela Sharpe - Credit: Archant � 2008

At East Wretham Heath techniques to encourage rabbit populations, such as providing banks for them to burrow and providing cover for them, will be used.

They will also be reintroduced into sites where they have declined, although this will be managed and they will be contained within the heath.

A stone curlew pair at Norfolk Wildlife Trust's Weeting Heath. The bird will be one of the key speci

A stone curlew pair at Norfolk Wildlife Trust's Weeting Heath. The bird will be one of the key species to benefit from the Shifting Sands Securing a Place in the Brecks project. Picture: Lawrie Webb - Credit: Archant

What will benefit from this project?

A variety of key species are expected to benefit from the project.

Birds:

Stone curlew

Woodlark

Invertebrates:

Lunar-yellow underwing moth

5-Banded tail digger wasp

Plants:

Field Wormwood

Tower Mustard

Fine-leaved sandwort

Many more species will benefit.

Some of the Breckland rabbits can weigh 25pc less than the average parkland bunny which can weigh up to 2kg.

A number of partners will be working with Natural England to role out the project later this year.

These include; Plantlife, University of East Anglia, Forestry Commission, Butterfly Conservation Trust, Norfolk Wildlife Trust and Buglife.

There will also be a collaboration with local land managers such as the Elveden Estate.

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