‘Last hurrah’ for Brecks project that has a lot to shout about
PUBLISHED: 08:00 25 November 2017
The £2.2million that was needed to deliver the dazzlingly diverse Breaking New Ground scheme in the unique Brecks area of Suffolk and Norfolk was money well spent.
That was the underlying message from a conference that celebrated the Heritage Lottery Fund-supported initiative in which the Brecks’ distinctive landscapes, rich social heritage and breathtaking biodiversity were highlighted and enhanced in a wealth of imaginative ways.
Now drawing to a close, the Landscape Partnership Scheme which was supported to the tune of £1.46m by National Lottery funding was the focus of the conference at The Carnegie Room, Thetford, on Saturday.
Project manager Nick Dickson described the event as “the last hurrah” of Breaking New Ground and outlined the extraordinary range of the 47 individual projects it had delivered over the past four years in conjunction with more than 20 partner organisations.
The Brecks, he said, was a remarkable, distinctive and special area. A University of East Anglia biodiversity audit had established that the Brecks was home to 12,845 wildlife species. Of those, 1,600 were found nowhere else in the UK or had a significant percentage of their UK population in the area, and 65 were rarely seen elsewhere in Britain.
In addition to its immense wildlife importance, the area had unique geology, weather and land-use history. Within its boundaries there were 251 significant archaeological sites and 15 scheduled ancient monuments.
Breaking New Ground had aimed to restore and conserve Brecks natural heritage, increase community partnership and improve access, learning and training opportunities, said Mr Dickson.
A total of 955 volunteers had been involved, contributing the equivalent of almost £400,000 worth of voluntary work. Formal scheme evaluations carried out by Wingspan Consulting had established that 68% of Breaking New Ground projects achieved or exceeded outputs and outcomes and none had failed.
“In terms of legacy, the consultants found there was an improved sense of place and pride,” said Mr Dickson. A whole new cohort of volunteers had been established, many people had been trained and many young people had been involved and educated.
The project had “put the Brecks on the map”, producing greater knowledge of the area in a wide variety of fields, such as habitat management techniques. “The partnership approach that was so important to us will carry on long into the future, with all the projects that Breaking New Ground delivered also having their own individual legacies,” he said.
Breaking New Ground was hailed as “absolutely amazing” by Lynnette Leeson, the external landscape consultant contracted by HLF to act as mentor for project development, and then as monitor for its delivery phase. “Over 40 projects were pulled together and I take my hat off to Nick (Dickson) and everyone who was involved,” she said. “All projects achieved what they set out to achieve as well as many other things and they all have their own legacies and thre are fantastic spin-offs.”
Following on from Breaking New Ground, a new Heritage Lottery Fund-supported Landscape Partnership Scheme is taking shape.
Mr Dickson told the conference development phase funding had been given for a £3.3m landscape conservation scheme focusing on the wildlife-rich and historically important watery world where the Brecks meet the vast flatlands of the Fens. He said the Heritage Lottery Fund’s initial support was “incredibly exciting news for the future of landscape-scale conservation in the Norfolk and Suffolk Brecks.”
The new Brecks Fen Edge and Rivers scheme would aim to “understand, reveal, celebrate and protect the lost heritage” of an often-overlooked area, he said.
Planned to involve 60 partner organisations, the scheme will aim to include 46 innovative projects, ranging from citizen science delivering ground-breaking eDNA sampling for species of conservation priority in waterbodies, to unlocking stories of Viking invasions and the Iceni revolt led by Boudicca. Rivers and sensitive habitats would be restored, with communities encouraged to value the area’s heritage and given skills to maintain it.
The development phase would be followed by an application for full funding in May 2019 and, if successful, the delivery phase would be from 2020 to 2024.
“This time we will have five years and that is a really significant amount of time to deliver some really excellent projects,” Mr Dickson added.
Preserving the pines that line the landscape
It’s an intriguing thought - a single entrepreneurial nurseryman selling his wares during what is a mere blink of an eye in the Brecks’ long history might well be responsible for the establishment of perhaps the most distinctive feature of all in this most distinctive of landscapes.
Scattered throughout the Brecks are long, straight lines of pine trees that form characterful and characteristic silhouettes in a largely flat, open landscape, punctuating the wide skylines with their sometimes tall and straight, sometimes weirdly contorted, shapes.
These pine lines are probably the most familiar features in the Brecks - and they have been the subject of a hugely successful Breaking New Ground project which was outlined at the conference by its co-ordinator Heidi Smith, who is the business manager for the Norfolk Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group.
“Pine lines are iconic in the Brecks,” said Ms Smith. “Iconic is an over-used word but here it is justified because these lines really are iconic features of the Brecks and they are in the arable areas and in some urban areas.”
There was a air of mystery about their origins but research by the University of East Anglia’s School of Landscape History had produced a map of their locations and brought all the research relating to them together. It now appeared that the answer to their origin was that they were planted as windbreaks.
The light, sandy soils of the Brecks were susceptible to losses through wind blow and each pine was planted “as a kind of stake” with dead hedge and furze to create the wind barrier.
Evidence showed that most of the pines were planted between 1815 and 1825 - a theory that has emerged is that their planting was promoted by an entrepreneurial local nurseryman active in the area at that time.
In Breaking New Ground’s Pine Lines project, trees that were pot-grown for a year by specialist firm Barcham Trees had been planted to restore about 4.5km of existing lines on six different land holdings, including sites owned by the Ministry of defence, Elveden and Euston estates and individual farms.
Much advice about the conservation of the Brecks’ pine lines had been given to landowners, schools had been involved with the trees used as education resources and invertebrate specialists Colin Lucas and Tricia Taylor had surveyed the lines. They were found to be important refuges for several highly specialised beetle species and the message being given to farmers was that buffer strips along the lines could give much-needed protection to the trees and their wildlife from spray drift and other farm operations.
Spotlight on wildlife sites and formerly extinct frog
Breaking New Ground helped to enhance some existing designated County Wildlife Sites in the Brecks - and even helped establish new ones, the conference was told.
Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s senior conservation officer John Hiskett said there were 1,336 such sites, covering 15,000 hectares, in Norfolk, with 900 in Suffolk covering 19,000ha. All had designation for their local wildlife interests and all had some for of protection in local authorities’ Local Plans, with developers having “more hoops to go through” if they wanted to build on them.
As part of Breaking New Ground’s Conserving the Brecks’ County Wildlife Sites project, 26 such sites were visited in Norfolk and 19 in Suffolk, with 45% found to be in favourable condition and 15% in declining condition.
In addition to habitat management advice being offered to landowners and good working relationships being established with them, five new County Wildlife Sites had been established in the project, where initial work would allow ongoing management, he said.
The new sites were Castle Mound, Ford Meadow, Cloverfield and Abbey Meadows, in Thetford, and an area at the Gorse Industrial Estate at Barnham.
Mr Hiskett also outlined pool frog re-introduction which has been carried out as part of Breaking New Ground’s Pingo Project. Pingos, depressions formed in the last Ice Age that now have fluctuating water levels, are among the Brecks’ most important natural habitats - those at Thompson Common were the last refuge of the pool frog before it became extinct in the UK in the 1990s.
Norfolk Wildlife Trust and the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust had worked together, with international partners, in the Brecks re-introduction scheme and releases of tadpoles and froglets were released in 2015 and 2016. They “seem to be faring well”, said Mr Hiskett but re-introduction schemes could best be judged on long-term results.