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UEA partner in plan to save at-risk species with Lottery funding

Norfolk and Suffolk’s Brecks will get nearly half a million pounds from a Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) national award of £4.6 million, for a project to rescue 20 endangered species called ‘Back from the Brink’.

The University of East Anglia (UEA) will work with a number of wildlife charities on the local project called Shifting Sands –Securing a Place in the Brecks, which reflects the unique and special character of the Breckland landscape. 

Dr Diana Bell from UEA will lead one of the major project streams, involved in the management of wild rabbits, essential to the maintenance of habitats supporting rare creatures.

The Breck area is so unusual because of its climate and geology.  Unlike most of the UK’s “maritime” climate which tends to be mild and wet, the Brecks is more like a continental climate with the lowest rainfall in the country, hot in the summer and with more frosts in the winter than any other lowland area.  This, together with its mix of chalk and sandy soils and its history of human settlement and management has led to the creation of unique habitats such as “grass heath” and inland sand dunes, which support some of the UK’s rarest wildlife and gives it the accolade of being one of the top three areas for rare plants in the whole of the UK.

Dramatic and sudden changes in land use in the 20th century led to the destruction of most of the heath and dune habitats which had been mostly maintained since Roman times as rabbit warrens with occasional ploughing.  The planting of England’s largest lowland forest for timber production, Thetford Forest, from the 1920s, and new post-war irrigation technology giving the ability to grow high value root and arable crops in what once were poor, dry, sandy soils, meant that most of the area disappeared under the plough and commercial forestry. The small areas which did survive were hit by the myxomatosis epidemic, introduced deliberately in the UK in 1953, which killed 99% of the rabbit population within a year.  Rabbits had, for centuries, maintained the short swards and open habitat unique to the Brecks which support so many rare species.

Dr Diana Bell, a conservation biologist from UEA’s School of Biological Sciences said: “This is a fantastic biodiversity conservation opportunity to restore the Breckland area, at a time when the environment is being ignored on the political agenda.

“We will be working to deliver the restoration of the European wild rabbit which is a keystone ecosystem engineer on which many of these at risk species depend.”

The HLF award to a partnership of organisations in the Brecks will enable the project team to carry out research and management projects to rescue some of these rare species and the habitats they live in, as well as engaging with landowners and the public to engage their interest and support for the work.  Some 16 rare species (five plants, five invertebrates, two reptiles and four bird species) will benefit from the project over three years with a legacy of 10 years and beyond.

Key partners locally include: University of East Anglia, Plantlife, Forestry Commission, Butterfly Conservation Trust, Norfolk Wildlife Trust and Buglife in addition to collaboration with local land managers such as the Elveden Estate.

For more information, see the Natural England announcement.