Friday, 5 December 2014

A Breckland flora

The soils and surface layer geology of the Breckland landscape are particularly interesting, having been shaped by the tundra-like conditions that existed here during the Devensian Glaciation. The underlying chalk is covered by varying depths of sand, and in places sand and chalk may sit alongside each other at the surface. Under the tundra-like conditions surface layers may have slid downhill, riding on a still frozen subsoil, while in other places the lower layers may have 'mushroomed' up following freezing and expansion. Add to these processes a climate that delivers high summer temperatures, low rainfall and frequent night-time frosts and you have conditions that deliver an interesting plant community.

The 'poor' Breckland soils kept agriculture at bay for many generations, the area dominated by heath and rough grazing up until fairly recently. The continuity of open habitat may have seen species like field southernwood survive here for more than 10,000 years but change did come; first with enclosure and the practise of marling  (using chalk dug locally to improve soil quality) and later with sheep, rabbit production, forestry and arable farming. The impacts of these changes have been dramatic, the area of Breckland heath and grassland declining from an estimated 29,000 hectares at the beginning of the last century to just 7,000 hectares today.

Thanks to recent funding, efforts are now underway to see the re-establishment of some of Breckland's rarest plant species. Species like the Breckland, spiked and fingered speedwells, the proliferous and maiden pinks, and Spanish catchfly may all benefit from the work that is planned. Much of this work is based around clearing the surface soil to expose the seed bank beneath, the success of this approach already being seen at sites like Cranwich Camp. While such 'landscaping' may seem heavy handed on first appearance, perhaps making site owners somewhat nervous, it is proving a powerful tool for the restoration of former plant communities. The plans to recover the lost Breckland flora should once again raise the botanical profile of this rather special area. With luck, many of those species now restricted to just a handful of sites will become a familiar sight to a new community of observers, each with a growing interest in Breckland’s botanical heritage.

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