Breckland Nature Safari Tour: Explore the ancient landscape of the Brecks.


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Text and photography © James Williamson |
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IMAGINE IT: AN ENGLISH DESERT. A landscape within a landscape, so dry, so impoverished of nutrients and precipitation, so barren, where plants and animals to be found nowhere else in Britain established themselves both necessary and unique existences. A land where sandstorms were frequent, often fierce, that were they to occur now, main roads would become impassable from the aftermath: modern industry would come to a standstill. A land so unoccupied, so desolate, in which highwaymen frequented its dirt track roads during the days of coach and horse travel, earning themselves a handsome living: the cries of help from their quarry went unanswered in this most empty place. Before the intervention of human hands, flocks of great bustards wandered amongst these wastelands, such was the country's resemblance in character to the Steppes of Eurasia, the bird's present day stronghold.

A GENTLY UNDULATING PLATEAU, Breckland occupies 101,926-hectares of land situated in south-western Norfolk and north-western Suffolk. The region is highest to the north and east, forcing its main watercourses westwards, as the Thet, Black Bourn, Wissey, Little Ouse and Lark dissect passages that cut through the dry chalk crust, heading towards the peat-fields of the Fens, the Great Ouse river, their meandering eventually terminating in the Wash Estuary. So subtle are these watercourse's valleys in this land of openness that the sudden discovery of their fens and encroaching wet woodlands can be both welcoming and surprising. Agriculture would not have been possible 6,000 years ago, during Neolithic times on this inhospitable plain, a sterile island surrounded by rich claylands and black peat: a period before instant soil improvement was possible. Nevertheless, clearance of the impoverished, grassy and flint strewn wasteland was relatively easy, when sheep were the first animals to be grazed here. Their excrement, albeit dry and itself lacking in nutrients, made the soil more acceptable to crops, and over time, plots were rotated between grazing and growth, with regular fallow periods when the soil was left to rest: the term 'breche' is believed to descend from this practice, later to become breck, and conceived as the Brecklands by W.G.Clarke in 1894.

Modern Breckland is still an expansive landscape, dominated by sky and forested horizons. A resinous, pine-clad country, of glinting flint; shimmering, transient water; slithering sands; and heathland scarred in patternations that mirror the mackerel-clouded skies of the finest days. Its mysterious meres still mystify the observer, fluctuating for no apparent reasoning, and fed by the chalk aquifer sequestered deep below the white, flint-littered crust. The traveller will witness settlements and small villages displaying knapped flint, clunch and white brick in their construction, evidence of the geology of the land and the prodigious flint-mining industry that brought the area minor prosperity during eons past. He will also observe the predominantly agricultural scenery, geometric in character and style, with large fields exhibiting cereal crops, vegetables, pigs, sheep and poultry. The infrequent roads are straight and long, undulating, but not lacking in interest, with their attendant 'deal rows' of twisted, knarled Scot's pines overseeing your secure passage from one farmstead or village to the next.

Breckland Heather Heath Covered In Frost
Frost and mist can form during any month of the year in the Brecks. In this scene, a heather heathland is grazed by sheep, just as it would have been decades ago. The ancient Scot's pines are characteristic of the region, being bent and twisted by the ever present winds.

But what made the landscape so open and wild? Why is the soil so infertile? A trip back in time reveals the land's secrets. During the Cretaceous period of 145-million to 66-million years ago, tropical seas placed layers of Middle and Upper Chalk (in the form of pure limestone) over the area we now recognise as East Anglia. Various glacial periods followed until 400,000 years ago, when the Anglian ice sheet was grinding its way across this giant slab of limestone. It then began to retreat, and by the end of the Devensian period -- 110,000 - 12,000 years previous to now -- the periglacial conditions of repetitive freezing and thawing left the land scarred and reworked. These persistent climactic oscillations manoeuvred the mish-mash of flint gravels, sands and chalky boulder clay left by the massive glacier (referred to as glacial drift) into the acid and chalk ground patterns we can see today. Pingos formed like bulging blisters on the tundra, and fluctuating meres appeared, and then vanished.
Numerous lines of Scot's pines frequent the Breckland landscape, imbuing a crooked, weathered characteristic to the area. Often referred to as 'deal rows', they are a remnant from the enclosures of the 1800s when land owners and farmers planted them in an attempt to prevent soil shift. A nine-mile long stretch known as the West Tofts Belt was planted next to Croxton Heath by Stephen Payne Gallway as a windbreak around his estate in 1803: unfortunately, the row no longer exists.

The Normans brought with them rabbits, in multitudes, changing the landscape once more. As a result of their farming practices, rabbit cities know as warrens were created. Vast acreages were devoted to farming these animals which were at home in the hot, dry climate. Fencing was not possible due to the lack of trees, so stockades were established with mounds of earth, surrounding the rabbits' expansive burrows and underground tunnels. However, the rabbits' concentrated grazing was the final breaking point for these badlands: reducing the topsoil to nothing more than dust, it was now free to move and needed only moderate winds to be ushered from one estate to the next, creating inland sand dunes still extant today. We shouldn't forget that the Breckland's current assemblage of unique mosses, Cladonia lichens and specialist invertebrates owes its beginnings to these often overlooked mammals.

There's no other place like it in Britain. The landscape of Grime's Graves borders on the surreal at times, containing remnant prehistoric flint mines, a profusion of ant hills, acid heath, patterned ground and unique Breckland flora. In the right light, it can resemble a scene from an astronomer's telescope. (PANORAMA COMPOSED FROM NINETEEN IMAGES)

It was during the 18th and 19th centuries, when the Georgians and Victorians modernised the lay of the land with the enclosure system, that the landscape was changed aesthetically, spawning the neat hedges and cover belts of hawthorn, beech trees and the ubiquitous Scot's pine rows. These plantings acted as divisions, wind-breaks and ultimately cover for the residing Squire's pheasants and partridges. In 1922, the Forestry Commission instigated the final, lasting change to the Brecklands: they planted trees, and lots of them. Thetford Forest (containing Breckland Forest SSSI) is now the largest lowland forest in England, covering some 20,500 hectares. Predominantly softwoods of Corsican and Scot's pine, larch and fir, 12% of the plantation is, perhaps surprisingly, broadleaved, adding character and severing the monotony of the regimented needles and pines. Rare vascular plants can be found amongst the grassy rides and the post-harvest clearings quickly become home to woodlark and nightjar, in numbers of international importance. Outside the forest, amongst the farmland, the Breckland Farmland SSSI hosts its own population of rarities, the elusive stone curlew, another summer migrant on the special guest list, again, in internationally important numbers.

The Brecks is an indisputable Nirvana for the modern naturalist, yet strangely overlooked. Given its fascinating geology and great variety of flora and fauna, some rare and found nowhere else, it would be easy to think the opposite were true. When looking at the number of scientific designations affiliated to it, one Special Protection Area, two Special Areas of Conservation, four Natural Nature Reserves and no less than fifty-five Sites of Special Scientific Interest, calcareous soil supporting 80 species of plants, flint mines of yore, derelict warrens and ancient track ways, it is difficult to understand why it is not overwhelmed with curious natural historians. The fact that it isn't adds to the area's lure and appeal: hundreds of acres of semi-natural wilderness waiting to be explored, in near isolation. What are you waiting for..?
Heather and lichen heathland is a defining feature of the Breckland landscape. Glacial drift and the periglacial (freeze followed by thaw) conditions of the last ice age have left acid and alkaline soils lying side-by-side, allowing diverse plant communities to flourish. This has not stopped the advance of man who has long sought a way to make the land fertile. Modern know-how and agricultural technology has enabled him to reclaim the heaths in return for bountiful food crops.

Stone Curlew Stretching Wing
Stone curlews are one of the defining birds of the Breckland scene. Their history in the area dates back a long way, depicted in paintings and etchings overseeing vast open heathland vistas. However, the humble rabbit is arguably the most influential animal to have graced the Breckland landscape. Without its persistent grazing of the already impoverished soil, many lichens, mosses, invertebrates, and stone curlews, would not exist.

The relic 'deal rows' of Scot's pine trees are often found in wide open spaces, although for some 'rows' the forestry plantation has encroached on their space. Initially, this might seem like a loss. On the flip-side, the closing-in of space makes the old trees a very attractive nesting site for many birds of the forest, including the extremely elusive crossbill.

Heather and Lichen Heath
Breckland Scot's Pine Deal Row Silhouette
Grime's Graves Ant Hill Landscape
Breckland Rabbits On Heathland
Breckland Relic Scot's Pine Row
Female Crossbill In Pine Forest
Cultivated Field In Breckland Landscape
This is what you will experience during your full-day Breckland Safari:
  • Discover the effects of Ice Age wear-and-tear. You'll visit fluctuating meres, invertebrate-rich pingos and pattered ground shaped by a periglacial climate when the frozen tundra intermittently thawed and refroze again.

  • Discover how the grazing of sheep and rabbits formed the early Breckland landscape. You'll visit the last remaining pristine lichen heaths supporting the Breck's most influential mammal.

  • Discover wet woodland amongst the parched heaths. You'll track watercourses flowing across the chalk plateau, leading to alder and carr woodland established along these alluvial flats, that hosts siskins and redpolls.

  • Explore farmland estates hosting critical numbers of stone curlew. You'll have access to areas of farmland that form part of the Breckland Farmland SSSI with exclusive views of rare breeding birds.

  • Explore forest rides and clearings rich in rare plants. You'll encounter Breckland thyme, spring speedwell and Spanish catchfly growing amongst the Breckland Forest SSSI, part of the larger Thetford Forest plantation.

  • Explore Neolithic flint mines and warren lodges. You'll rub shoulders with industries of the past at Grimes Graves and Thetford Warren Lodge and learn how the landscape shaped early trade and farming.

  • Follow ancient thoroughfares and track-ways. You'll travel along Peddar's Way, Icknield Way and the Harling Drove Track, each with its own unique story to tell, used in ancient times by shepherds, armies and travellers.