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  • Into the Brecks - an undiscovered landscape

    The Brecks is perhaps one of the best kept secrets in East Anglia. Whilst many locals and visitors alike will head to the Suffolk coast or the Norfolk broads for a day out, the Brecks is a landscape with a fantastic amount to offer anyone wanting to explore an undiscovered part of Suffolk and East Anglia.

    The Brecks is in the heart of East Anglia, spanning nearly 1,000 square kilometres and encompassing south Norfolk and north Suffolk in its boundary. There are three things that make the Brecks so unique its climate, geology and unique land use history. Making the Brecks rich in heritage and the variety of wildlife habitats found in it. From the warped pine lines, Thetford Forest, sandy grass heathland, wildlife rich farmland and the ‘pingo’ relics from the last Ice Age. The habitats that can be seen today have been shaped and formed by thousands of years of human influence, from the first Neolithic farmers that began to cultivate the poor Brecks soil and in turn create heathlands, the flint mining industry whose traces can be seen in local towns and the rabbit warrens that covered a large expanse of the Brecks and provided a livelihood for countless local people. 

    sunset pines

    This diversity of human use and the habitats found today means that despite the Brecks covering only 0.4% of the UKs land area it is home to a staggering 12,845 different plants, animals and insects. The Brecks is also home to 28% of the UKs rarest species, some of which are found nowhere else in the UK, such as the tiny but beautiful breckland thyme and breckland speedwell plants. 

    Thetford Forest is the UKs largest lowland pine forest spanning 22,000 hectares and offers many opportunities for an activity filled day, at the Forestry Commissions High Lodge you can explore the forest trails on bike or by foot looking out for secretive roe deer or the lightening flash of a goshawk. With trails covering much of the forest you can spend a day roaming the forest, and who knows you might even meet the Gruffalo!

    If you fancy a look back in time  discover one of the largest Neolithic flint mining sites in Britain, just over the boarder in Norfolk English Heritage’s Grimes Graves is a lunar like landscape with 400 flint mine pits dug over 5,000 years ago. You can travel back in time by entering one of the mines. The Brecks was once the flint capital of Britain, from as early as the Neolithic period until as recently as the 1950s with towns like Brandon being the central for this mining industry. Flint was originally mined for flint weapons, later for flintlock muskets and pistols and a building material. You can still see the influences of this industry today in the flint work old buildings in towns.

    The semi-continental climate of the Brecks and its dry sandy soils wouldn’t make many think of water, but the Brecks is home to some unusual water features. One of these, the pingos, were formed in the last Ice-Age and are a home to a diverse range of plants and insects. The Brecks is one of the few places to see pingos in the UK why not walk the Pingo Trail at Norfolk Wildlife Trusts Thompson Common to experience these relics.

    In October the fluctuating meres which the Brecks is famous for may look dry, as they are fed by the ground water supply but in contrast they will look like large lakes or ponds in the summer.  

    stone curlew and chick

    For the wildlife lovers amongst you the Brecks is one for your bucket list. Its importance for UK wildlife has been recognised internationally, and the area boasts a number of nature reserves and iconic species. On the sandy heathlands you may be lucky enough to see the charismatic but elusive stone-curlew or take a closer look at the unique Brecks plant life. A stroll along the Little Ouse in Thetford may reveal the flash of a kingfisher or, if you are lucky, the famous otters hunting.  At the RSPB’s Lakenheath Fen nature reserve you can have one foot in the Fens and one in the Brecks, hearing the haunting call of the cranes and watching rabbits graze on the Brecks plants.

    So if you feel like donning your walking boots and getting out exploring a hidden gem in Suffolk this autumn why not head into the Brecks? You could visit a nature reserve, explore the forest or come to a free RSPB Brecks event.

    To plan your visit The Brecks.org is a fantastic site to find out even more to see and do, where to eat and drink and projects to get involved in. 

  • From volunteer to staff!

    This week we take a look at how one young man went from bored teenager to RSPB staff member all thanks to volunteering!

    I was 14. A bored, home educated teenager with lots of free time. One spring day, a visit to the Aren't Birds Brilliant! project at Carsington Water changed everything! Set in the Wildlife Centre hide at the beautiful Carsington Water reservoir run by Severn Trent, the friendly and knowledgeable RSPB volunteers welcomed me in and got to work showing me some fantastic birds, most of which I had never even heard of!

     I had never been very bothered about wildlife, I respected it, but that was about it. When I left that hide about half an hour later, I had fallen in love with nature, mesmerised by the hoard of oystercatchers, kingfishers and lapwings. I immediately signed up as a volunteer, and started going in every week to spot some birds and help the visitors see what's around. I loved every minute of it! It really is a fantastic feeling to be able to give a child who's perhaps never even been out of the city a pair of bins and a sparrow to look at and to just see the excitement grow on their face! Mum and dad then get involved too, and before you know it you're filling in a family membership form, just knowing that they will love every minute of it!

    About a year later, I heard about a part time summer Retail Assistant position going at the RSPB Shop on the site, and I went for it- and got it! Three years on, and I am now full time Assistant Manager- all thanks to volunteering. I love my job, and highly recommend volunteering to anyone, it's such a fantastic thing to do, and can lead on to great things! It helped me to come out of my shy little cocoon, gave me confidence, filled up some of my free time and above all, brought me in touch with nature.

      Here at the RSPB Shop at Carsington Water, we are currently looking for volunteer retail assistants (particularly for Saturdays!) to help run the shop and engage the customers, and a couple of enthusiastic, outgoing volunteers to run weekend activities, so please email me if you're interested! Contact Tom at Tom.gillot@rspb.org.uk

  • Writtle College student’s work on BBC Springwatch

    Writtle College student’s work on BBC Springwatch

    Volunteer Jenny Cox tells us about her experience volunteering during Springwatch and why she will continue to volunteer at Minsmere over the summer.

     She readily admits that even two years ago her wildlife identification skills only stretched to the "odd garden bird and butterfly" but now Jenny Cox's surveying ability has developed to such a degree that she landed a conservation student's dream job - working on BBC Springwatch.

    The 23-year-old from Ipswich, who is studying for a Conservation and Environment degree at Writtle College, near Chelmsford, has worked with the RSPB at Minsmere for the duration of the hit television programme and will be continuing to volunteer with them over the Summer.

    She said: "It's been brilliant surveying some of the fantastic wildlife shown on Springwatch and to show visitors the wildlife they have seen in their living rooms in front of their own eyes. Every day was different and there was such a buzz about the place, it was really exciting.

    “My highlight was being part of the audience of Springwatch Unsprung and meeting with the presenter Nick Baker before the show. It was really interesting to see how live television works.

    “I'm a massive fan of Springwatch and the presenters; I look forward to it every year. I'm a big fan of Chris Packham, I grew up watching Michaela Strachan on The Really Wild Show and you can't fault Martin Hughes-Games for his enthusiasm for the show and wildlife!"

    It was while she was on a bird identification course with the British Trust for Ornithology that Jenny heard rumours on, appropriately, Twitter that Springwatch may be going to Minsmere in Suffolk. She applied for a volunteer role with the reserve and was successful, so her induction involved seeing the production village and the now infamous rabbits nesting nearby (they were soon predated, mainly by magpies, providing one of the dramas of this year's series) - all under strict secrecy ahead of the BBC announcing where the programme would be based.

    Hosting the programme obviously boosted interest in Minsmere – the reserve saw a 50% increase on its expected visitor numbers at this time of year - and Jenny's role was to help with this increase in visitor numbers, from working in the cafe to informing them about the conservation success stories on the site such as the bittern, marsh harrier and bearded tit. 

    She said: “Meeting a variety of visitors at the reserve and introducing them to the reserve has been so rewarding and it was wonderful to show people their first bittern or bearded tit. I found I really got a kick out of inspiring people about the wildlife I'm passionate about and I think this is what will give me job satisfaction once I graduate from Writtle College.”

    While volunteering at the reserve, Jenny clocked up her first ever sighting of a nightjar, along with a herd of red deer in the distance.

    She said: “I've had some fantastic wildlife experiences. My personal wildlife highlights have been walking into one of the hides at the reserve and seeing bittern, marsh harrier, hobby, kingfisher and cranes all within the space of 20 minutes, which was utterly fantastic! It was also great to be joined in the hide by the photographers from the BBC.

    “It's a privilege to be able to watch such secretive birds such as Bitterns flying over reedbeds. I took part in Bittern Watch - recording weekly observations of the flights of bitterns - and, after never seeing or hearing a nightjar before, I carried out a survey of them. I also have the opportunity to survey butterflies at North Warren reserve, south of Minsmere.

    "I was thrilled to be offered this volunteering opportunity; it has provided me with an insight into how reserves are managed and the surveying opportunities have been, and continue to be,  really exciting. 

    I've been able to learn from the RSPB staff about managing a reserve for threatened species and the surveying techniques required to monitor species to ensure survival."

    It is a dream position for any Conservation student and shows how her Writtle College degree, which she will complete in September 2015, has given her the skills she needs to succeed in such a competitive environment.

    Jenny, who hopes to work in ecology, conducting field studies, working on habitat creation and management plans once she graduates, said: "When I first started my course I think it's fair to

      say my identification skills regarding wildlife were pretty poor! I could identify the odd garden bird or butterfly​ so the course has improved my identification skills a huge amount to the point where I'm showing people wildlife at RSPB Minsmere and surveying wildlife!

    “The course lectures on habitat management, landscape ecology and biological surveying have provided me with a great knowledge which I was able to exhibit in the interview, especially regarding heathland, wetland and woodland, which are habitats discussed in detail on the course and present at Minsmere. I never thought, when I applied to Writtle College two years ago, that I would be working on BBC Springwatch - and I haven't even finished my course yet!"

    To find out about volunteering at Minsmere visit: www.rspb.org.uk/volunteering and to find out whats on at Minsmere at the moment visit: http://www.rspb.org.uk/reserves/guide/m/minsmere/index.aspx 

    To find out more about the Conservation and Environment degree at Writtle College - including a bursary giving new applicants £1,500 towards their tuition fees - visit www.writtle.ac.uk