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Breckland
Key nature conservation features of National Significance
Key nature conservation features of Local Significance
Natural Areas
 
Breckland
 
Habitat: Lowland heathland (of national significance)
 
Characterised by heather, dwarf gorses and cross leaved heath and generally found below 300 m altitude. Includes areas of scattered trees, scrub, bare ground, gorse, wet heath, bog and open water.

 
Breckland is undoubtedly best known for its heather and grass heaths, which together withassociated disturbed habitats provide wildlife communities unique within the British Isles. Four primary forces have moulded this landscape; soil type, soil disturbance, a dry frost-prone climate, and grazing by sheep together with that Breckland denizen, the rabbit.

The greatest extent of Breckland heaths today are centred on the Elveden Estate in Suffolkand the Stanford Training Area to Brettenham Heath area in Norfolk. Several other importantsites are found near Thetford, such as Barnham Cross Common. The remainder are relativelysmall scattered survivors of formerly extensive areas.

Heather and grass heaths are best treated as a single complex as differences in soil type, oversometimes quite small distances, result in a mosaic of vegetation types from calcareous toacid grasslands. This may mirror underlying patterned ground and soil striping or simply thedepth of the overlying sands and the degree to which these have been leached of their chalkyelements. Alex S Watt's pioneering studies in the 1930s and 1940s on the dynamics of thesecommunities is a milestone in the history of plant ecology. He showed that soil type was themost significant differentiating factor between the five main grassland types (A-E) which hedistinguished. They range from very shallow, highly calcareous, moderately nutrient richsoils (A) to deep acidic heavily leached sands, poor in nutrients (E).

Heather may dominate on deep acid soils, as it does at Berner's Heath where is achievesalmost a 100% cover. Heather is also abundant at Cavenham Heath, Knettishall Heath and atLing Heath and Hopton Point in the Stanford Training Area. Such heather-rich heathlandswith wood sage, lichens and mosses are not typical in Breckland.

Such a neat classification belies the mosaic nature of grass-heath vegetation on mostheathlands. This is due to both soil conditions and land management history. Stands ofbracken, well suited to acid soils, cover large areas of heaths. Gorse and broom are alsoabundant on acid sites, with developing birch or pine woodland in ungrazed situations on arange of soils. Close-grazed grass heaths are periodically ablaze with yellow ragwort whilstabandonment of grazing on richer sites favours the purple flowered rose bay willow herb.

The Breckland Heaths are famously home to many rare plant and animal species. Heathlandalso supports more common yet characteristic species. Skylarks are a distinctive sound ofspringtime Britain. The wheatear, which nests in rabbit holes is another characteristic openheath species, although presently in decline. Stone curlews are the emblem of Breck heathsto which the equally rare woodlark is slowly returning as a nesting species through expansionfrom its strongholds on clearfells in Thetford Forest. Other examples include commoncurlew which breeds on grass heaths where the sward is not heavily grazed and the occasionalwhinchat pair breed on heaths with scattered bracken and heather. One or two heaths areimportant winter roost sites for hen harriers. Breckland heaths are dry and warm in summer,ideal for many species of insects. The turf teems with ants, spiders, beetles and solitarybees/wasps on hot summer days. Characteristic butterflies include brown argus and dingyskipper on the chalk; small copper, grayling and green hairstreak from acid heaths. Over 40species of moths are recorded on calcareous heath, whilst ling pug, lunar yellow underwing,and fox moth are examples of over 20 species which require the acid heaths. The mottledgrasshopper is another characteristic grass heath species.

The quality of remaining heaths deteriorated for several reasons, especially the decline ofrabbit numbers following myxomatosis in 1954. Intensively grazed heaths became denselyvegetated within two years, and although numbers recovered they remain generally belowpre-myxomatosis levels. This period also allowed pine, birch and other scrub invasion tocommence. Harvesting of heathland products; gorse, bracken and heather ceased probablyearly this century, allowing further invasive change to occur. Stock grazing declined too, asspecialised arable farming developed dependent on spray irrigation. The planting of ThetfordForest will have ameliorated the climate by increasing humidity.
 
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