Thursday, 3 February 2011

Breckland's biodiversity revealed

The recent publication of the first Breckland Biodiversity Audit has highlighted the outstanding contribution that the region makes to UK biodiversity. With its low rainfall, free-draining and nutrient poor soils, and continental climate, Breckland is a dynamic landscape, with a long-history of anthropogenic change and a unique community of plants and animals. There are species here that would normally be found on the coast, or whose nearest neighbours are to be found many hundreds of miles away in the Mediterranean Basin. Although the extent of the region as a geographical entity is lost somewhat in the similarly named political boundaries of today, it can be defined as an area of just under 400 square miles, linked by geology, climate and history. It is the land of W G Clarke and his magnificent written portrait ‘In Breckland Wilds’, shaped by the rabbits that ultimately escaped its many warrens and now dominated by plantation forestry, arable enterprise and by the military’s need to train its troops.

Clarke’s great work captured Breckland at a single moment in time. Reading it now conjures up a heathland landscape long since lost and it is easy to mourn its passing and to seek its return. But the Breckland of Clarke’s time (the name Breckland was coined by Clarke) was, in many ways, the direct result of our activities rather than a truly natural landscape. As such, it should be viewed as part of the story and not simply its beginnings. The Breckland of today is, as the audit reveals, still a tremendously important landscape, supporting at least 12,800 species, of which nearly one fifth are priority species for conservation. Perhaps most importantly, nearly a third of all the species for which UK Biodiversity Action Plans have been developed, occur within Breckland.

The audit not only underlines the importance of the region but also highlights the need to direct conservation efforts towards it if we are to maintain its value and retain some of its species, whose populations are in decline as habitats change through our activities. Some of the species under threat actually need the periodic disturbance of the landscape, since they are the species of ephemeral and disturbed habitats. Without a continual renewal to deliver the microhabitat conditions that they require they will be lost if we do nothing, leaving the landscape to stagnate. Of course there is a balance in all this, a real need to maintain lots of different types of habitat within the wider landscape in order to support these diverse communities and the full extent of biodiversity that we can attain. The audit is to be welcomed because it tells us what we have, what has been lost and what we need to retain the rest.

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