Hands up if you know where Breckland is or, indeed, what Breckland is! Of all the ‘wild’ parts of Norfolk, it is the most enigmatic and the hardest to get to grips with.
As with all Norfolk landscapes, it started with the ice. A series of glaciations planed the surface of the county down to a chalky billiard table, smeared in places with ‘boulder clay’. Then, at the end of the last ice age, vast quantities of sand were blown around the windswept tundra that was Norfolk. The result in south-west Norfolk and north-west Suffolk was an area of thin, poor, droughted soils, alternatively sandy and chalky: this is Breckland. It stretches from Narborough southwards, via Swaffham, to Mildenhall, with Thetford just about dead centre. In all it covers about 400 square miles, 250 in Norfolk and 145 in Suffolk. On the ground, the most characteristic landscape features are the ‘hedges’ made up of knarled, wind-blown pine trees that line many of the roads.
Breckland must have been a harsh place to scratch out a living. The poor soils meant that crops were difficult to grow, and there was the ever-present threat of the sand: still there and still mobile, ready to bury everything under shifting dunes. As recently as 1668, the Little Ouse was partially blocked by blown sand at Santon Downham and the village virtually swamped. It is also the coldest spot in lowland Britain, and one of the driest. Eventually, perhaps in disgust, most of it was given over the sheep and rabbits, but just occasionally, when corn prices were high or the land was sufficiently rested, areas would be broken up and ploughed for a year or two. These ‘breaks’ were to give the area its name, but not until 1926, when W.G. Clarke coined the term Breckland in his book, ‘In Breckland Wilds’.
Poor soils and a harsh climate led to the development of a unique flora and fauna in Breckland; not glamorous, you understand, and mostly rather small, but very special: the nearest equivalent to some of the plant communities lies in eastern Austria! Such a desolate area was, of course, considered a ‘wildnerness’, ripe for improvement. That improvement came in the form of forestry in the early 20th century and now Thetford Forest is the largest area of plantation in lowland England.
The special plants, birds and other animals that had made Breckland their own were relegated to the relict areas of heathland, forestry rides or, in the case of two rare speedwells (beautiful but very small wild flowers), a roadside verge in a Thetford housing estate. If you want to see some of the iconic Breckland wildlife, you have to know where to look. Birdwatchers have it easy: to see Stone-curlew just head for the Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Weeting Heath reserve.
But the plants…ah, that’s a bit tricker. Of course, some are obvious, like the blue Viper’s Bugloss that lines the roads in high summer by the Lakenheath airbase. For the rest, tracking down the odd bits of heathland and the best forest rides takes time and detective work, but with wild Grape Hyacinth, Spanish Catchfly, Maiden Pink and a trio of exquisite speedwells on offer, it’s worth it.
Guest contributor Simon Harrap, Norfolk Nature: Simon offers a selection of ‘Wildlife Walks’ in the Brecks and other locations around Norfolk. For details of these, a full bio of a lifetime commitment to nature and more stunning photography of flora and fauna, view his Norfolk Nature website.