Breckland, East Anglia

Like vast, inland sand dunes covered with grassy heath and pines, the Breckland is a unique landscape straddling the Suffolk and Norfolk border. 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 the UK.

Breckland has an astonishing flora. It is home to over 120 nationally rare and threatened plant species, many of which grow nowhere else in Britain. Grass-heath species include Field Wormwood (Artemisia campestris) and Spanish Catchfly (Silene otites), cornfield margins support Fingered Speedwell (Veronica triphyllos) and Small Alison (Alyssum alyssoides), while areas of lime-rich grassland are home to Proliferous Pink (Petrorhagia prolifera) and Grape Hyacinth (Muscari neglectum). With all this diversity (we’ve produced a useful little guide to the rarer plants), Breckland certainly deserves its international recognition as an Important Plant Area.

However, 86% of Breckland heathland was lost between 1934 and 1980. Huge areas have been planted with conifer plantations such as Thetford Forest, now the largest lowland forest in Britain covering 20,000 hectares (77 square miles). Many heaths have been ploughed for arable crops, grazing by sheep and cattle has declined and rabbit populations crashed when myxomatosis arrived in 1954. Combined with the loss of bracken and heather collection for animal bedding, large areas of heath have now become densely vegetated, crowding out the plants that preferred the open, disturbed and well-grazed land. In addition, much of the open sand dune habitat has also become overgrown, with sand no longer moving around in the wind.

Many local birds, such as woodlark, and invertebrates including grey carpet moth, lunar yellow under-wing moth and the brush-thighed seed-eater beetle are also dependent on these habitats.

Over the last 6 years we have trialled a series of management techniques to restore these habitats and secure the future of some of Brecklands’ rarest plants.

Our goals:

  • The recovery of nine priority species: Spanish Catchfly, Spring Speedwell, Tower Mustard, Rare Spring-sedge, Red-tipped Cudweed, Field Wormwood, Prostrate Perennial Knawel, Fingered Speedwell and Grape Hyacinth.
  • Carry out experimental management – such as turf stripping and reintroduction of grazing - to benefit these species and their habitats at special sites across Breckland, such as Cranwich Camp and Barnham Cross.
  • Establish a network of trained volunteers to survey and monitor how plants respond to the conservation work.
  • Use the knowledge gained to develop landscape-scale conservation projects in Breckland with our partners.

Under threat:

Spanish Catchfly (Silene otites)

This long-lived perennial is a good coloniser of open, bare ground, germinating rapidly and producing a deep taproot. It flowers profusely in the summer, its flowers emitting one scent during the night to attract moths and mosquitoes, but a different scent during the day to entice flies and bees. As a native wildlower, it is found only in the Breckland. Photo © Jan Eckstein under Creative Commons Licence

Fingered Speedwell (Veronica triphyllos)

The leaves of this tiny speedwell are drawn out into narrow lobes, like little fingers. It’s what’s known as a ‘winter annual’, germinating in autumn, growing through winter and flowering between March and May. It likes disturbed, open sites, especially the margins of fields cultivated in autumn, but also tracksides and gravel pits. For more advice on this species, download our briefing sheet. Photo (c) Hermann Schachner on Creative Commons Licence.

Proliferous Pink (Petrorhagia prolifera)

This delightful annual is exceptionally rare, known from one native site in the Brecks where grows in very thin, open grassland, which is subjected to summer drought. Thanks to Plantlife work with Forestry Commission and Butterfly Conservation the total number of plants has risen from as few as forty to tens of thousands. Although it was once regarded as a recent introduction, the Brecks site is now considered to be native. Photo © A Mrkvicka on Creative Commons Licence.

How's it going?

2009-2010

Plantlife, the University of East Anglia (UEA) and partners undertake the Breckland Biodiversity Audit, generating a well-founded basis for conservation work in the IPA.

Plantlife, UEA and Forestry Commission test differing bare ground management techniques on the edges of forest rides.

2010-2013

Funding is secured from GrantScape to undertake work at 30 sites across Breckland, targeting 9 priority species.

A new network of keen volunteers is established to monitor populations of rare plants. Training is provided through a series of workshops.

At sites where plants are declining through loss of the open, sandy conditions they require, experimental management work includes:

  • Excavation of scrapes to remove closed turf
  • Creation of new banks with bare chalk and sand
  • Soil inversion to bury enriched soils and expose infertile subsoils
  • Creation of new pits with bare chalk and sand and a varied topography
  • Rotovating grass heath to expose bare ground

The recovery of Spanish Catchfly at Cranwich Camp is particularly impressive. After diggers excavate vegetation from a 50x50m plot to a depth of 15cm (above), plants begin to appear the following year. A few years later, thousands of plants are flowering, as Tim Pankhurst demonstrates.

2015

Following funding from WREN, Plantlife begins work with Thetford Town Council to restore 165 acres (67ha) of Breckland habitat at Barnham Cross Common, formerly home to 13 rare species including Sickle Medick (Medicago sativa) and Tower Mustard (Turritis glabra). Plots are rotorvated to open up bare sand on 2ha of land.

The network of volunteers formed in 2014 become the Breckland Flora Group and, with funding from Natural England, they embark on monitoring programme for all target species across the Breckland landscape.

2016

Work gets underway at Barnham Cross Common, with removal of 7 ha of hawthorn, gorse, blackthorn and oak scrub, plus the stripping of 3 ha of turf. It’s always a bit of a shock once the excavators have done their work (below), but we know the plants will respond fantastically, as they did at Cranwich Camp.

Fencing is also put in place at Barnham Common so grazing can be reintroduced – the key to ensuring the site remains in good condition for plants for years to come.

The Breckland Flora Group has a great year with 33 volunteers monitoring at least 36 sites for rare plants across the Breckland IPA.

Who are we working with?

Anglian Water

Breaking New Ground

Breckland District Council

Butterfly Conservation

Elveden Estate

Forest Heath District Council

Forestry Commission

GrantScape (funder)

Heritage Lottery Fund (funder)

Natural England (funder)

Norfolk Archaeological Service

Norfolk Biological Information Service

Norfolk County Council

Norfolk Wildlife Trust

Suffolk Biological Records Centre

Suffolk County Council

Suffolk Wildlife Trust

Future Environomics LLP

Thetford Town Council

WREN (funder)