Monday, 25 March 2013

Breckland speedwells

Breckland, the sandy district that straddles the Norfolk/Suffolk borderlands around Thetford, is the British counterpart to the steppes of Eastern Europe; or rather it was, before much of it was covered with conifers and ‘improved’ for agriculture. Hot, dry summers and cold winters with late frosts typify the area and shape the community of plants that the light Breckland soils support. A number of these plants are nationally rare, squeezed into the margins by our activities. Others are now described as ‘nationally extinct.’

A feature often shared by these plants, other than their rarity, is their small size. These are the sorts of plants that you have to get down on your hands and knees to see, perhaps using a magnifying glass to truly appreciate their delicate beauty. Some have been known to plant enthusiasts for centuries but others are more recent discoveries, previously overlooked. Fingered speedwell, for example, was discovered at Thetford in the 1600s by Thomas Willisell but Breckland speedwell was not discovered until 1933, when J E Lousley and A W Graveson stumbled across an unknown plant near a track at Tuddenham Gallops. The chosen name of Breckland speedwell was, perhaps, a little unfortunate as the species was later found growing in Oxfordshire. Today these two speedwells remain rare plants, still to be found on disturbed ground in the Thetford housing estate that now covers one of their former sites. I suspect that many of the householders may been maintaining these fragile populations in their flowerbeds where they are overlooked as ‘weeds’. If only they knew.

Not all of Breckland’s rare plants are small. The military orchid is large and showy and it is amazing to think that it remained overlooked, growing quietly in a chalk pit near Mildenhall until 1954 when it was discovered by Mrs M Southwell. The military orchid occurs as a native at just two other sites within Britain, making the colony at Mildenhall of great importance.

At the time that many of Breckland’s rare plants were being discovered there were many other species that would have been viewed as being common and widespread. Some of these are species that we would now regard as rare, their populations having undergone massive decline as a result of changes in land management, notably land drainage and the intensification of agriculture. Species like tower mustard, fine-leaved sandwort and corn chamomile have all suffered at our hands. There is a glimmer of hope for some of these plants, however, with the prospect of seeds sitting dormant within the soil, waiting for the ground to be disturbed and their chance to germinate. Others have been introduced to nature reserve sites, where management can be directed towards their needs.

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