Location: The IPA spans the western borders of Norfolk and Suffolk in the heart of the east of England.
Grid Reference: TL 872 942
With vast sandy dunes covered in grassy heath and pines, Breckland is a unique landscape. One of the driest places in England and with a cold, continental-style climate, the special plants growing here make it one of the most important botanical hotspots in Britain.
Straddling the Suffolk and Norfolk border, the Brecks are unique thanks to a combination of geology and climate. Underpinned by a thick bedrock of chalk which is never too far from the surface, the overlying layers of sand vary in depth from thin wind-blown deposits to deep dunes; acidic and lime-rich soils often lie next to each other resulting in a remarkable juxtaposition of flowers. Drought conditions prevail, with only 60 cm of rain in a year, and relatively hot summers and cold winters.
Under these conditions over 120 nationally rare and threatened plant species grow here, many of which are found nowhere else in Britain. There are shallow lakes, lime-rich fens in the valley bottoms, arable fields, babbling chalk streams and ancient woodlands, but it’s the dry, sandy grass-heaths and dunes that steal the botanical limelight.
There are too many species to name check, but some of the more famous grass-heath species include field wormwood, spring speedwell and Spanish catchfly (all found only here), bur medick and sickle medick, as well as white meadow saxifrage and the crimson-flowered maiden pink.
In places where there’s more lime in the soil, such as dunes and chalky grassland, flowers can abound. Blue spires of viper’s-bugloss and the red and yellow flowers of kidney vetch brighten the ground along with pink-flowered Breckland thyme, and in more disturbed spots proliferous pink carries a succession of small but very bright pink flowers. Spiked speedwell also has long spires of small blue flowers in summer. Grape hyacinth grows wild here too, not dissimilar to the ones we grow in gardens but smaller and with darker, more blue-black flowers. Less conspicuous is prostrate perennial knawel, a small plant with tiny white flowers which – as the name implies – trails along the ground. This gem is one of our few endemic plants, growing nowhere else in the world.
Cultivated field margins provide conditions for some of the rarer Breckland plants. Many of these, like small Alison and annual knawel, are diminutive annuals that live fast and die young, growing just a few centimetres tall and flowering before the summer heat arrives. Fingered speedwell and Breckland speedwell are also tiny but their little flowers sparkle like intense blue jewels in the sun.
Image: Breckland IPA © Tim Pankhurst/Plantlife