Rabbits help the rare species and unique habitat of Norfolk and Suffolk

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Efforts to save England’s most endangered species from extinction turn the tide for wildlife in a unique landscape spanning Norfolk and Suffolk.

The fate of species classified as declining, rare, near threatened or endangered is improving today in the Brecks after 4 years of work to support their habitat.

The Shifting Sands project funded by National Lottery Heritage – a partnership of 10 organizations led by Natural England. It saw 5 kilometers of “wildlife routes” created, over 100 rare plant specimens reintroduced, habitat created and restored at 12 sites, species encouraged and landscape management practices improved.

More and more species

As a result, 7 species of plants, birds and insects are more and more numerous and many more benefit from it.

Among the species that recover are rare plants such as the prostrate perennial knawel which is unique to Brecks, thyme basil and wormwood.

Unique: The prostrate perennial knawel is not found anywhere else in the world.

The endangered wormwood moon beetle, yellow moon moth under the wings and the 5-banded hollow-tailed wasp are also on the increase.

All of these species are identified in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan as priorities for conservation.

The rabbit revolution

Perhaps the most surprising species to benefit from this is the European rabbit.

Although often considered a pest, for some habitats – such as the Brecks – the rabbit is a “key species” that sustains the entire ecosystem. Their numbers are, however, in decline at regional, national and global levels, and are even classified as endangered in their region of origin, the Iberian Peninsula.

Their grazing and digging activity keeps the soil in perfect condition to support other species that would otherwise move – or become extinct.

In partnership with the University of East Anglia, Natural England has encouraged a rabbit revolution in the Brecks. They have produced a toolkit to help landowners of similar habitats do the same.

Encourage rabbit activity

The toolkit includes cost-effective ways to encourage rabbits, including creating piles of felled branches and embankments of earth.

Follow-up over the past 3 years has shown that the interventions work, with evidence of significantly higher amounts of rabbit activity.

The open habitat maintained by the rabbits is home to 2 rare plants: the prostrate perennial knawel – found nowhere else in the world – and field wormwood.

The fortune of this flora has been improved by Plantlife. As part of Shifting Sands, the conservation charity reintroduced 110 specimens at 9 sites, helped restore the habitat they thrive in, and improved the way the land is managed.

Rare plants in full bloom

Introductions of prostrate perennial knawel are flourishing. The 75 introduced plants increased to 201, while the wormwood is multiplied by three, a boon for the insects that depend on it.

Among these insects is moon wormwood. This endangered beetle has a particular taste for the seeds of wormwood. It is now found in record numbers, on the edges of an industrial zone and on a plot of land within a housing estate.

A shiny black brown beetle with sharp focus.  It rests on a plant.  Dew is visible on his body.  The light is reflected on its shell.

Endangered: The lunar absinthe beetle is now found in record numbers.

Image credit: Brian Eversham

Elsewhere in the Brecks, Shifting Sands has seen Forestry England removing trees and disturbing the soil, to widen and connect hallway-like spaces across King’s Forest.

Fast forest tracks

Acting as “highways” for the heathland fauna, they have led to an increase in the number of rare species. This includes basil thyme, moon yellow under the wings, and the 5-banded wasp, as well as rare bird species like the nightjar and wood lark. The excavator wasp went from just 2 walks in the forest to 9.

Pip Mountjoy, Shifting Sands Project Manager at Natural England, said:

The Brecks were described by Charles Dickens as “sterile”. They are anything but. Their 370 square miles of sandy moorland, open meadows and forests are home to nearly 13,000 species, making it one of the UK’s most important areas for wildlife.

This fauna is threatened. Cutting down trees and encouraging a species that is often seen as a pest can seem like a strange solution. But in this case, a carefully managed ‘disturbance’ is exactly what this landscape and its biodiversity need.

Project interventions provided a lifeline for this unique landscape and showed how biodiversity can be fostered by ‘disrupting’ places – and not just leaving them alone.

These rare habitats are becoming overgrown and species are in decline due to changing land management practices and human impacts. It is our responsibility to restore and maintain these spaces for nature. Some of these species only exist here and, if lost, will be forever.

Much of the work was carried out by an army of volunteers. Over 400 of them spent 640 days on the project and received training in surveying techniques and species identification. Local volunteer groups such as the Breckland Flora Group monitor these rare species across the Brecks and have contributed immensely to the project.

A kneeling woman plants small white flags where she found plants in an open landscape of short green-yellow grass.

Helping Hand: More than 400 volunteers dedicated 640 days to the success of the project.

Fight the extinction of species

Shifting Sands is one of 19 projects across England that make up the national Back from the Brink initiative. Together, these projects aim to save 20 species from extinction and benefit over 200 others.

Established in 2017 with £ 4.7million from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and £ 2.1million from other organizations. Back from the Brink was the first nationally coordinated effort to bring together charities, conservation organizations and government agencies to save endangered species.

The project is a major contributor to the achievement of the government’s biodiversity targets, as well as to meeting the UK’s international commitments under the United Nations Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The project is funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and other organizations. Are involved in Shifting Sands Buglife, Butterfly Conservation, the Elveden Estate, Forestry England, Natural England, Norfolk Wildlife Trust, Plantlife, RSPB, Suffolk Wildlife Trust and [University of East Anglia](https://www.uea.ac.uk/].

About the Brecks

The Brecks straddle the Norfolk and Suffolk border. It is one of the most unusual landscapes of the English plain, with vast plantations of conifers and large arable fields bordered by pines. It developed from an ancient landscape of sandy and limestone soils, vast open moors, sheep walks, medieval rabbit burrows and shallow river valleys. It is one of the most important areas for wildlife in the UK, home to 12,845 species, including birds such as nightjar, wood lark and 65% of UK stone curlews. During the 20th century, an estimated 76% of its moors and grasslands were converted to cropland and commercial forests. The remaining heathlands are fragmented and require continued management to ensure the open, nutrient-poor conditions required by so many Breckland species.

A boon for biodiversity

  • Absinthe des champs: Restoration of habitat on 3 sites. 35 plants reintroduced on 5 sites. The factory tripled at the London Road Site of Special Scientific Interest.
  • Perennial prostrate knawel: Habitat restoration at 6 sites. 75 plants reintroduced at 4 sites – all survived well.
  • Absinthe Lunar Beetle: Numbers found at College Heath Road have increased from 72 to 218 – the highest on record in the UK. Number of known locations from 1 to 3.
  • Five Banded Burrowing Wasp: Now registered in 9 forested ‘highways’. It was previously found in only 2.
  • European rabbit: Evidence of rabbit activity observed in significantly higher numbers. 91% of the brush piles had scuff marks on the legs. 41% contained burrows. Even when the burrows were not forming, the brush piles helped expand the range of activities for rabbits.


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