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  • The Brecks – one of the UKs most important regions for conservation

    Hi all.  This is my first blog so I would like to introduce myself.  My name is Robert Hawkes and I’m the RSPB grass heath project officer for the East of England.  The Brecks is located in north Suffolk and south Norfolk and is nearly 1000 square kilometres.  This region is home to the largest extent of grass heath habitat in the UK, so as can be imagined; I spend most of my time here.

     The Brecks, as you will be aware from my colleague’s blogs, is home to nearly 13,000 species.   Over 2000 of these species are of national importance for conservation, with some occurring no where else in the UK.  As I’m sure you can appreciate this is a truly remarkable statistic, but one that could only be made available through an innovative new approach to conservation - biodiversity auditing.  Biodiversity auditing involves collecting as many species records as possible across a given region and time span.  Once these records have been collected, it is possible to identify which species are of conservation concern, where these species live, and what management they need to thrive.  The Brecks was the first region in the UK that this approach was applied too, and I’m pleased to report it punches well above its weight in terms of its conservation importance. 

    One key outcome of the biodiversity approach is the recognition of those priority species which we typically overlook.  Birds and mammals are generally well recognised, and in some cases, well monitored.  However, the same cannot be said for insects, which often need specialist knowledge to successfully identify.  By considering all species both big and small, the audit not only recognised these under recorded species, but demonstrated which ones are of conservation importance. 

    By auditing biodiversity in the Brecks, we now have a sound evidence base for taking conservation forward.  One of the key findings of this report was that many priority species in the Brecks require periodic ground disturbance in order to thrive, conditions that were once common place in the Brecks. For example, rabbits, which were introduced in the Brecks in the 13th centaury, were farmed for their meat and fir in large commercial warrens.  At these high densities, rabbits created the conditions which many priority species require (through intense grazing and burrowing).  Rabbits, and their role in Breckland conservation, will be the subject of my next blog.


    Photo: Rabbit by Ian Smith.

    Restoring these conditions to the dry-open habitats of the Brecks (i.e. arable farmland and grass heathland) is essential if we are to cater for the rich biodiversity which this region is so special for.  We are working with a wide range of local partners to achieve this ambition, so watch this blog for updates.

    The Breckland Biodiversity Audit was commissioned by the Norfolk and Suffolk Biodiversity Partnerships, Plantlife, Forestry Commission, Brecks Partnership and Natural England, and was undertaken by the University of East Anglia.  The report can be downloaded from the reports and publication page of the Norfolk Biodiversity Partnership website under ‘Securing Biodiversity in Breckland. Guidance for conservation and research (main report)’: www.norfolkbiodiversity.org.  For any one interested in finding out more I recommend checking this fantastic bit of work out.


    Robert Hawkes

    RSPB Grass Heath Project Officer, the Brecks

  • Volunteering in the Brecks- Why we need your help!

    Continuing our volunteering spotlight this week on the Brecks - our Brecks Community Engagement Officer, Sammy Fraser tells us why the Brecks are so important and why the Brecks needs you!...

    The Brecks encompasses both Suffolk and Norfolk in its boundary, spanning approximately a 1,000 square kilometres and featuring the towns of Thetford, Brandon, Swaffham, Mildenhall and Watton. It is a completely unique landscape in the UK with dry, sandy and flinty soils, low rainfall and greater extremes in temperature and a unique land use history.  Not only is the Brecks unique but it also jam packed with an astounding amount of wildlife, 12,845 different species! Some of which are found nowhere else in the UK! Like the tiny but beautiful breckland thyme and breckland speedwell plants.

    Photo: Breckland thyme by Charlotte Lowry

    The work of the RSPB in the Brecks falls under the umbrella of Futurescapes, which is the RSPBs approach to landscape conservation. The work of our team is very varied ranging from working with farmers to protect stone-curlews, helping farmers give nature a home on farmland, working with our partners to protect and enhance wildlife in the Brecks and running community engagement work.

    I have been working in the Brecks for over a year now as the Brecks Community Engagement Officer, and I will confess that despite its importance for UK wildlife I had never heard of the Brecks or Breckland before I started this role.

    And I am not alone in having never heard of the Brecks or appreciating how rich it’s wildlife and heritage is, and this is where my role and our community engagement work comes in. The aim of our community engagement work and the varied events we run is to raise the profile of the Brecks through increasing local understanding and pride.
    As part of this I run a varied events programme in the Brecks with the aim of engaging with local people and providing them with opportunities to get outdoors and enjoy the Brecks. The events are very varied ranging from our monthly adult and family walks in Thetford, camping events in the forest, stone-curlew roost events and our annual Wild about the Brecks celebration.

    And this is where my fantastic team of volunteers come in! Our volunteer team are helping spread the word about the Brecks by engaging with local people and visitors at our events. There are lots of different things our volunteer team get up to with our community work. 

    My team of Event Assistants get stuck in and help out with our varied events programme, so they could be spotting wildlife on a guided walk, running children’s activities, bug hunting or even camping out in Thetford Forest listening to nightjars and spotting glow-worms. All the while doing a fantastic job at promoting the Brecks and sharing their enthusiasm for this unique area.

    Photo: This years popular stone-curlew roost events, we were treated to a stunning sunset and listening to them ‘wailing’ at dusk as they headed of to feed. Photo by Sammy Fraser

    We are also involved in Breaking New Ground which is a Heritage Lottery Funded project bringing 37 different projects to the Brecks. With our partners the Forestry Commission and Norfolk Wildlife Trust we are running a unique project as part of this- Wings over the Brecks. This project is unlocking the door to the secret lives of some star species in the Brecks; stone-curlew, woodlark, goshawk and nightjar. The project is streaming live nest camera footage of these species, bringing to life the daily dramas and antics of these enigmatic but secretive birds. This footage is being streamed to the Forestry Commissions High Lodge Thetford Forest Centre, Norfolk Wildlife Trusts Weeting Heath and roaming displays in town centres. Helping to provide local people and visitors with a unique opportunity to watch these Brecks stars.
    As part of this project we are looking for a team of volunteers to help bring to life the footage by engaging with local people and visitors at High Lodge and to help our with the projects events programme.

     Photo: Stone-curlew by Chris Knights, one of the star species being filmed as part of Wings over the Brecks next year.

    Photo: Nest camera being set up on a hobby nest as part of Wings over the Brecks this year, the chicks were dubbed ‘posh and brecks’. Photo by James Wheeler, Urban Forestry Ltd.

    And we are also looking for local people to help us get great shots of the Brecks, this could be the stunning landscape features in the Brecks landscape, wildlife in the Brecks or people enjoying our events or getting outdoors. Our volunteer photographer Ian Smith provides brilliant shots which we use to promote our events and the Brecks through social media, talks and even press releases and feature pieces. So if you love taking pictures we’d love to hear from you!

    Our volunteer team are doing a fantastic job at promoting the Brecks to local residents and sharing their passion for the area. By doing this we are increasing local pride and knowledge, and support for the work the RSPB and our partners do for nature in the Brecks Futurescape.

    But we’d like to meet even more people! And this is why we need you! We couldn’t run our events and community engagement work without the help of our brilliant volunteers, so why not join our team and make a different to this unique landscape and the special wildlife that relies on it?

  • 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.