The bare necessities of life for biodiversity in the Brecks

Ground Disturbance project leader Robert Hawkes maps stone curlew movements using GPS data. Picture:

Ground Disturbance project leader Robert Hawkes maps stone curlew movements using GPS data. Picture: M RSPB - Credit: RSPB

The old phrase “do not disturb” certainly does not apply to the flint-strewn sandy soils of the Brecks - they’ve been disturbed for centuries and lovers of the region are thankful for it.

Excavations at Brandon Heath during the Ground Disturbance project. Picture: ARCHANT

Excavations at Brandon Heath during the Ground Disturbance project. Picture: ARCHANT - Credit: Archant

The frequent “breaking” of the ground for cultivation across the distinctive landscape of the area is responsible for much of its wealth of biodiversity, with thousands of highly specialised wildlife species thriving in the unique conditions. The “breaking” of the ground is even responsible for the Brecks’ name - the word “breck” being derived from the word “break”.

Breaking New Ground, the Heritage Lottery Fund-supported Landscape Partnership Scheme that explored and enriched so many aspects of the area’s natural and social history, was also named in a clever acknowledgement of the huge importance of breaking the Brecks ground.

Now coming to a close after a highly successful delivery phase, Breaking New Ground held its celebratory “last hurrah” conference at the Carnegie Room, Thetford, recently, as reported by eaenvironment last week.

• Read more: ‘Last hurrah’ for Brecks project that has a lot to shout aboutThe scheme’s Ground Disturbance partnership programme was a key section of the event and a Project Profiles publication that summarises much of Breaking New Ground’s work tells why disturbance of the soils is so significant.

“The man-made landscape of the Brecks has led to the need for a unique form of land management to be implemented which allows specialist species to flourish,” it says. “The intensive grazing and burrowing by rabbits for centuries has meant that many plant species need bare ground to colonise and thrive.

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“The practice of warrening has disappears and much of the heath has been converted to agricultural land, with remaining heath not sustaining a large enough population of rabbits to create enough bare ground. This project involved many partners to co-ordinate a joined-up experiment to evaluate and test which methods are the most successful in different areas at providing space for these species.”

A stone-curlew is tagged for tracking as part of the Ground Disturbance project. Picture: RSPB

A stone-curlew is tagged for tracking as part of the Ground Disturbance project. Picture: RSPB - Credit: Archant

Project leader Robert Hawkes outlined some of the initial findings of the “experiment”. He said the work was undertaken in a context of safeguarding the Brecks’ “amazing” biodiversity.

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A University of East Anglia “biodiversity audit” of the area had established that there were at least 12,845 species in the Brecks. “It’s one of the most diverse places in the UK and of those near-13,000 species, 2,149 are said to be of conservation concern,” said Mr Hawkes.

The audit highlighted the number of species that were associated with disturbed, open ground. A huge variety of invertebrates and plants depended on the 7,000 hectares of chalk and acidic grass heath in the area, but habitat change had resulted in significant bare ground loss.

“Rabbit numbers have declined over the last 20 years and that is a factor, “ said Mr Hawkes. “Our project aimed to create 10 hectares of disturbed land, through such things as diggers scraping back soils and creating south-facing banks, on grass heaths and even in forest rides. We also created extensive areas of turf-stripping, such as a full one hectare of it at Weeting Heath.

“We worked on the massive scale and on the tiny scale, with some bare ground patches measuring only one metre square, but we were able to exceed our target of 10ha and ended up with 21ha.”

Management work was highly experimental, with a variety of techniques being trialled, such as rotovational “churning” of the soil and agricultural ploughing, creating a mosaic of plots with some areas disturbed and others left as “control” areas by which results could be judged, and various frequencies of work being tested.

The response of species such as woodlark and stone-curlew were being assessed and invertebrate responses were especially complex, Mr Hawkes said.

The large plot on Weeting Heath had already shown “huge” biodiversity gains, however. Within 18 months of the disturbance work being started, a wide range of specialised Breckland species were colonising it, including the nationally rare Breckland leather bug, Spanish catchfly, maiden pink, purple-stem-cat’s-tail and smooth cat’s-ear.

“It is thanks to Breaking New Ground really because through it we have been able to use all these different techniques on all these different sites and do our research too,” said Mr Hawkes.

Wings Over the Brecks

The secrets of four of the Brecks’ most elusive birds are well and truly out - more than 600,000 people are now privy to them.

Breaking New Ground’s Wings Over the Brecks project connected local communities, schools and visitors with the intimacies of the lives of the mighty goshawk, the mysterious nightjar, the dashing hobby and the charismatic stone-curlew.

All four species can be extremely difficult to see - and yet, thanks to the innovative project, hundreds of thousands of people have now had more than cursory glimpses of them, with insights also given into the habits of the more familiar and less secretive lapwing.

Carefully and strategically placed cameras were installed discreetly near nests of the species, with footage fed to the popular visitor venues of the Forestry Commission’s High Lodge centre in Thetford Forest and at the Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Weeting Heath nature reserve.

RSPB community engagement officer Tim Cowan told the Breaking New Ground celebration conference that an estimated 615,000 visitors at the two venues had seen nest-camera footage. Twenty-three volunteers had helped them, 4,781 people had been engaged at High Lodge stands, 1,313 people had been engaged at a total of 10 outreach events and Wings Over the Brecks had been promoted at a further 15 events.

Roaming displays had visited other venues and a self-guided trail associated with the project had been walked at High Lodge by more than 20,000 children.

Footage would continue to be shown at the venues and Wings Over the Brecks partners had committed a further £20,000 for project legacy resources.

Ian Henderson, of project partner the British Trust for Ornithology, and Rachel Riley, of fellow-partner the Forestry Commission, outlined the work carried out in the initiative.

Mr Henderson said Breaking New Ground had been the “vital springboard” for the partnership work, which included tracking devices being fitted on goshawks and nightjars as well as nest-cameras being set up and run.

New knowledge was being obtained about the movements in East Anglia of the Brecks’ goshawks and the more migratory nightjars, which winter in southern Congo. New information on parental care, nest activity and the foraging habits of the Brecks’ nightjars was being learned and two common buzzards had also been satellite-tracked in a “legacy” of the project.

Wings Over the Brecks had been important scientifically but it was also a “great opportunity for public engagement,” said Mr Henderson.

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