Natural England - Brettenham Heath NNR

Brettenham Heath NNR

Scrub, trees and bracken covered most of the site before it became a National Nature Reserve but most has been cleared since 1982 to restore the plant communities and patterned ground. Bracken and, to a lesser extent, scrub still covers several hectares of the NNR. Woodland of silver birch, oak and Scot's pine is found within the NNR and around part of the boundary.

Brettanham Heath NNR

County: Norfolk

Main habitats: Lowland Heath

Area: 233 Ha

Brettenham Heath is almost 200 hectares in extent, and comprises three main habitat types, which are acid grassland, chalk grassland and heather heathland. In Breckland, the word 'heathland' is usually a cultural term for any treeless uncultivated land, regardless of heather presence. The phrase 'heather heathland' is often used to distinguish between ecological heathland (land covered with heather) and the cultural meaning of the word.

Acid grassland covers more than half of Brettenham Heath, with chalk grassland and heather heathland occupying smaller areas.

Soils, topography and climate

Underlying Brettenham Heath is the chalk bedrock which was laid down in shallow seas during the Cretaceous period. This rock is many tens of metres thick, and close to the soil surface in places. The soils are predominantly sands overlying the chalk. The depth of soil above the chalk is variable, ranging from a few centimetres in the east/south to several metres deep in the west/north. Where the soil is shallow it is chalky, but where the soil is deep it is mildly acidic.

In the central and eastern part of the NNR is one of the best examples in the UK of the geological feature of patterned ground with pronounced stripes / polygons of chalk and acid soil. When the Anglian ice sheet covered the area 400,000 years ago, it deposited thin sandy soils on the chalk bedrock. During the most recent glacial period from 100,000 - 12,000 years ago, glaciers did not cover the land but very cold tundra-like conditions persisted. Windblown sediments and the existing sandy soils over the chalk were subjected to repeated freezing and thawing, and different sized particles separated to form stripes of acid sands and alkaline chalk on shallow slopes. On flat land, there was no directional influence of gravity so irregular polygons formed instead of striping found elsewhere.

The highest point on Brettenham Heath is around 45m AOD. The landform is gently sloping to the south-east to an average of 35-40m AOD. A shallow dry valley feature in the far south-east falls to below 30m AOD.

Brettenham Heath is within Breckland joint character area. This area has almost the lowest rainfall of the whole of the UK, with an average of 550mm – 600mm per year. The combination of free-draining soils, lack of shade on heaths and arable land, and high annual sunshine hours, result in Breckland being one of the driest parts of the UK.

Air pollution is thought to be having an effect on the habitats at Brettenham Heath. The estimated deposition of nutrient nitrogen from fossil fuel combustion and ammonia from livestock is greater than the safe threshold.


There are three archaeological features on Brettenham Heath. The most important feature is a banked enclosure in sheep compartment three, thought to be a post-mediaeval stock enclosure. The other recorded features are a Neolithic stone flake found during A11 roadworks in 1985, and a natural feature once thought to be a burial mound. None of these features receive statutory protection. The present location of the Neolithic flint flake is unknown.

There is also an old well in sheep compartment four and a series of parallel earthworks in sheep compartment two/three close to and parallel with the A11. We speculate that these could be old A11 trackways, or maybe WW11 defensive positions.

Part of the heath was arable land in 1890, but these areas can not be readily noticed on the ground after 100 years of heathland growth.

There was a major fire in June 1968, which apparently destroyed heather across much of the site. After the fire there was little management, and bracken and trees spread rapidly across the heath. When Brettenham Heath became an NNR in 1982, there was little heathland vegetation left. Since then, our management has restored the heath to its present glory.

The Peddar's Way (see link) is many people's first experience of Brettenham Heath. This 93 mile trail passes through the eastern side of the nature reserve, with views across the heath. At one point a good viewpoint has been cleared, with a convenient wooden bench.

Significant habitats and species

Over 240 plant species have been recorded at Brettenham Heath, including three nationally scarce plants: fine-leaved sandwort Minuartia hybrida, mossy stonecrop Crassula tillaea and maiden pink Dianthus deltoids.

Rabbits are very common on the heath, and are essential for heathland grazing. They are predated upon by foxes and stoats. Red deer are common on the heath, and muntjac and roe are quite often seen. Brown hares are frequently seen, particularly in February to June.

Typical heathland birds are found on Brettenham Heath, including woodlark, curlew and redstart. Nightjar have been recorded in the past. Buzzards are often seen, and may breed on the NNR or nearby. Skylark breed each year.

Amphibians are absent, as there are no ponds on or near the heath. The nearest ponds are at Brettenham village or Ringmere, both around 3.5km away.

There are a great many invertebrate species on Brettenham Heath, including a number of particularly rare species. Four of the rare species are:

  • The beetle Harpalus froelichi which is a ground beetle of open calcareous grassland or dry sandy heathland. Currently only known from the Breckland. It eats fat hen seeds and is also known as the brush-thighed seed-eating beetle. The only record is from 1961 and its continued existence is unknown.

  • A fly Dolichopus migrans; its larvae are probably semi-aquatic carnivores in damp soil or at water margins. The fly occurs on heathland and grassland possibly requiring damp areas with lush vegetation and some standing water, although these habitats are not present on the heath.

  • The lunar yellow underwing moth Noctua orbona, whose caterpillars feed on fine-leaved grasses in winter.

  • The Forester moth Adscita statices. The adults are day-flying and the caterpillars eat sheep's sorrel.

Location and access

Brettenham Heath is four miles north-east of Thetford, Norfolk, on the south side of the A11 dual carriageway.

There is a car park adjacent to Brettenham Heath on High Bridgham Road. From the A11, take the turning signed 'The Heath' and the car park can be found on the left after about 800 metres.

The nearest railway station is at Thetford. For details of railway times and bus times, go to the traveline website link.The nearest village where buses stop is Bridgham, which is 2.5km to the east.

The nearest toilet and refreshment facilities are at a picnic site on the A11 London-bound, just north of the heath.

Please note: during the period November to February each year, you are very welcome to enter from the car park on foot and responsibly enjoy all parts of the heath. A series of kissing gates has been installed to allow access through fence lines into all compartments. During the bird breeding season, which here is defined as March to October inclusive, much of Brettenham Heath is closed to the public. The western end remains open all year, but you are unable to walk from the car park through the nature reserve to reach this area. The alternative, to walk alongside the A11 dual carriageway, is not recommended by Natural England.

Brettenham Heath is appealing to those who like large ‘unspoilt’ heaths with no crowds. The few vehicle tracks are not surfaced so are not suitable for less mobile people.


On leaving the nature reserve, the nearest facilities are at a BP petrol station or at Tesco, both in Thetford take the A11 London-bound, at first roundabout turn left. Tesco is on the left hand side after 1.3km, or continue another 0.5km towards Thetford town to the BP petrol station on the right.