Thetford Forest & The Brecks: New World forestry meets Old World farming.
WITH A SEMI-CONTINENTAL CLIMATE more often experienced in Eastern Europe than Western lands, the gently undulating Breckland landscape receives the lowest rainfall count of any natural area in the British Isles. The underlying bedrock of Cretaceous Middle and Upper Chalk supports the thin drift deposits of sand and flint that we experience today, left behind since the Anglian ice-sheet departed 400,000 years ago, leading to the creation of a land that is free draining and supremely infertile. This sterility prompted the large scale farming of rabbits and sheep over many decades to compensate for the lack of productive arable land use, although spasmodic cultivation has ultimately given the area its modern appellation: the term 'breck' derives from the 17th century, referring to an unenclosed arable area taken in and out of cultivation as and when the need arose.
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Many acid and calcareous loving mosses, lichens and plants thrive on the remaining heavily grazed heaths that also provide ideal breeding conditions for the migratory and extremely fussy stone curlew. The addition of a commercial forestry plantation soon after the First World War has led to a loss of precious open heath but provided a new resource for conifer loving species, such as the remarkably well-adapted crossbill.
It was only as recently as 1922, when the commercial planting of softwoods was begun, that the breckland landscape changed into the way we see it now -- Thetford Forest has become the largest lowland forest in Britain and dominates the skyline of the area. It was not only the planting of a pine forest that made the Brecks a more productive landscape for humans but also the improvements in modern agricultural techniques, with powerful machinery and advanced irrigation systems paving the way for thousands of hectares of heath to disappear under the plough.
The remaining heathlands still provide a glimpse of 'the-land-that-was' and in many areas harvested pine plantations are being restored back to lichen and moss covered mosaics. Despite the dramatic changes that have occurred in such a short ecological timescale, the Brecks still contains plants and animals unique to the area, the divergence of chalky and acid soils hosting Breckland thyme, spiked speedwell and Spanish catchfly to name but a few. It is not all bad news where plantation has superseded dry heath; the freshly harvested clearings containing stump-lines and pine saplings that provide ideal nesting habitat for woodlark and nightjar.
A classic modern-day view of Breckland, containing grass heath, stands of Scot's pine, rabbit warrens, disused flint mines and the ubiquitous forestry plantation. Before the last century, the plantation didn't exist and the scene would have stretched for miles. (PANORAMA COMPOSED FROM TEN IMAGES)
The breckland landscape is a beguiling and intriguing part of Norfolk, and it is difficult to imagine how it once looked. Even as recently as 150 years ago when it constituted vast open areas of grass dominated heath, the farming of rabbits and sheep were the only realistic means of agriculture on a soil lacking sufficient nutrients to grow any meaningful quantities of food crops. Paintings and etchings of the time suggest a landscape scarred with sheep walks and flint mines, giving the area a vista more in keeping with the Asiatic Steppes than agricultural Britain. Stories-of-yore tell of sand storms engulfing entire villages, such as Santon Downham in 1668, and led to farmers of the time suggesting that where their land was situated depended on the direction of the wind, sometimes in Suffolk and sometimes in Norfolk.
Scot's pine belts, characteristic of the Breckland landscape, are not relics from an ancient past. They were planted during the early 1800s as shelter-belts and windbreaks to prevent soil shift on brecks: the fields taken in-and-out of cultivation.