Rabbits help rare species and the unique habitat found in Norfolk and Suffolk

Efforts to save England’s most endangered species from extinction are turning the tide for wildlife in a unique landscape that spans Norfolk and Suffolk.

The fate of species classified as declining, rare, almost endangered or endangered is now improving in the Brecks after 4 years of work to preserve their habitat.

The National Lottery Heritage-funded Shifting Sands project – a partnership of 10 organizations led by Natural England. Five kilometers of wildlife highways have been laid out, more than 100 specimens of rare plants have been reintroduced, habitats have been created and restored in 12 locations, species promoted and landscape management practices improved.

The number of species is increasing

As a result, 7 species of plants, birds and insects are increasing and many more are benefiting.

Among the recovering species are rare plants such as the perennial tuber, basil thyme and field wormwood, which only occurs in the Brecks.

Unique: nowhere else in the world does the prostrate ball of perennials occur.

The critically endangered moonlight wormwood beetle, the moon-yellow underwing moth and the 5-banded excavator tail wasp are also increasing.

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

Rabbit revolution

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

Although it is often viewed as a pest, for certain habitats – such as the Brecks – the rabbit is a “key species” that holds the entire ecosystem together. However, their number is declining regionally, nationally and globally and is even classified as endangered in their home region, the Iberian Peninsula.

Their grazing and digging activity keeps the soil in a state perfect for conserving other species that would otherwise move on or become extinct.

Working with the University of East Anglia, Natural England promoted a rabbit revolution in the Brecks. They created a toolkit to help landowners of similar habitats do the same.

Promotion of rabbit activity

The toolkit includes inexpensive ways to encourage rabbits, including creating piles of felled branches and earth banks.

Monitoring over the past 3 years has shown that the interventions are successful, with significantly higher levels of rabbit activity being detected.

The open habitat, cared for by rabbits, supports 2 rare plants: the prostrate, perennial tubers that cannot be found anywhere else in the world and the field wormwood.

The assets of this flora have been enhanced by Plantlife. As part of Shifting Sands, the conservation organization has reintroduced 110 specimens in 9 locations, helping restore the habitat in which they thrive and improving the way they cultivate the land.

Rare plants thrive

The introduction of perennial tubers into the soil thrives. The 75 plants imported rose to 201, while the field wormwood tripled – a boon for the insects that depend on it.

Among these insects is the wormwood moonlight. This endangered beetle has a special taste for field wormwood seeds. It can now be found in record numbers on the edges of industrial parks and on a piece of land within a housing estate.

A black-brown, shiny beetle in sharp sharpness.  It sits on a plant.  Dew can be seen on his body.  Light is reflected from its shell.

Endangered: The wormwood moonlight beetle is now found in record numbers.

Photo credit: Brian Eversham

Elsewhere in the Brecks, Shifting Sands has seen Forestry England remove trees and destroy the ground to expand and connect corridor-like spaces through King’s Forest.

Overtaking lanes in the forest

As “highways” for wild animals in heathland areas, they have led to an increase in rare species. These include the basil-thyme, the moon-yellow underwing wasp and the 5-band-tailed excavator wasp, as well as rare species of birds such as the goat milker and woodlark. The excavator wasp was recorded from only 2 forest rides out of 9.

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

The Brecks were described by Charles Dickens as “sterile”. They are anything but. Its 370 square miles of sandy heather, open grasslands and forest are home to nearly 13,000 species, making it one of the UK’s premier areas for wildlife.

These wildlife are threatened. Chopping down trees and promoting a species that is often viewed as a pest may be an odd solution. But in this case, a carefully managed “disruption” is exactly what this landscape and its biodiversity need.

The project’s interventions gave this unique landscape a lifeline and showed how biodiversity can be promoted through “disruptive” places – not just by leaving them alone.

These rare habitats are becoming overgrown and species are declining as a result of changes in land management practices and human influences. It is our responsibility to restore and preserve these spaces for nature. Some of these species only exist here and, if lost, will be lost forever.

Much of the work was done by an army of volunteers. More than 400 have dedicated 640 days to the project and trained in surveying techniques and species identification. Local volunteer groups like the Breckland Flora Group monitor these rare species on the Brecks and have made a huge contribution to the project.

A woman plants little white flags on her knees where she has found plants in an open landscape of short green-yellow grass.

Helping hands: More than 400 volunteers spent 640 days making the project a success.

Combat species extinction

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

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

The project is an important contribution to the achievement of the government’s biodiversity goals and the UK’s international commitments under the UN Sustainable Development Agenda.

The project is funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and other institutions. Shifting Sands includes 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 span the border between Norfolk and Suffolk. It is one of the most unusual landscapes in the England lowlands, with extensive conifer plantations and large arable fields lined with pine trees. It developed from an ancient landscape with sandy, calcareous soils, wide heather areas, sheep trails, medieval rabbit burrows and shallow river valleys. It is one of the most important areas for wildlife in the UK and is home to 12,845 species including birds such as the bilker, woodlark and 65% of the UK curlew. During the 20th century, an estimated 76% of the heaths and meadows were converted into arable land and commercial forests. The remaining heaths are fragmented and require continued management to maintain the open, nutrient-poor conditions demanded by so many Breckland species.

Blessing of biodiversity

  • Field wormwood: habitat restoration in 3 locations. 35 plants reintroduced in 5 locations. Triple the facility on the London Road Site of Special Scientific Interest.
  • Thrown perennial tubers: habitat restoration in 6 locations. 75 plants reintroduced in 4 locations – all survive well.
  • Moonlight wormwood beetles: The number of numbers found on College Heath Road rose from 72 to 218 – the highest ever recorded in the UK. Number of known locations from 1 to 3.
  • Five-Banded Tailed Digger Wasp: Now recorded on 9 woodland highways. It was found in just 2 earlier.
  • European rabbit: evidence of rabbit activity in significantly higher numbers. 91% of the brush heaps showed paw scratches. 41% contained caves. Even when cavities did not form, piles of brushes helped widen the spectrum of rabbit activity.
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