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The large area known as Breckland or the Brecks lies in the interior of East Anglia, centred around Thetford, and covers about 100,000 ha, roughly from Swaffham in Norfolk south to Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk.
Breckland was for centuries a vast plain of heath, grassland and wind-blown sand but although most has now been lost to development, agriculture and afforestation there still remains small patches of open sandy heath, mainly protected as nature reserves.
The Stone-curlew is usually considered the typical Breckland bird and it still survives as an uncommon summer visitor to parts of the area. Whereas breeding was once confined to heathland, Stone-curlews have now adapted to nesting along broad rides in conifer plantations and on agricultural land. A few Eurasian Curlew breed, as do reasonable numbers of Northern Lapwing and Pied Oystercatcher. Ringed Plover formerly bred on farmland, though there are no recent records.
Wood Lark and European Nightjar are two more heathland specialities that are scarce in Britain but linger on in Breckland. Other breeding species of interest include those such as Eurasian Stonechat and Common Grasshopper Warbler that benefit from newly-established conifer plantations. A large proportion of mature coniferous woodland means that species like as Long-eared Owl, Siskin, Lesser Redpoll (winter) and Common Crossbill can be found throughout the area.
This area is also home to most of Britain's small and unstable population of Golden Oriole. However, birders should refrain from searching for this species as it is highly susceptible to disturbance and needs as much protection as possible.
Eurasian Sparrowhawk and Common Kestrel are common and widespread residents, Northern Goshawk is also present all year but rare and local. Hen Harrier and Great Grey Shrike are winter visitors to the area. Osprey is a scarce but regular passage visitor to Breckland meres. Both partridges occur and Quail appears most years. There is a small established population of Golden Pheasant in the area, though several former sites no longer hold this species. These birds are sometimes seen on quiet country roads or forest rides.
Map The Norfolk Naturalist's Trust reserve at East Wretham is the oldest reserve and best-known in the area established in the 1920s. It is one of the most interesting for birders with a range of habitats including acid grassland and heath, gorse and hawthorn scrub and mature stands of Hornbeam and pines.
All the characteristic Breckland birds are found here although European Nightjar is rare. The conifers have Long-eared Owl and Common Crossbill. Hen Harrier and Great Grey Shrike occasionally hunt over the heath in winter.
The two ponds, Langmere and Ringmere, add a further range of habitats and attract various waterfowl. The water levels are variable which draws in a range waders on passage.
The reserve is on the A1075 Thetford to Great Hockham road, leave Thetford on the A11 and fork left after about 2km. Permits are required from the warden's office or in advance from The Warden, East Wretham Heath Nature Reserve, Thetford, Norfolk, IP24 1RU. The reserve is closed on Tuesdays. There is a car park and nature trails, one of which is suitable for visually handicapped visitors.
MapWeeting Heath is another Norfolk Naturalist's Trust reserve and also a National Nature Reserve, entry is by permit only (obtainable on site).
This is undoubtedly the best site in Britain for Stone-curlew which breeds on the stony heath and can be seen from well-placed hides without causing disturbance to the birds. The birds are most easily seen early in the season before mid May. Eurasian Curlew is another breeder here as well as Red-legged Partridge and Little Owl, Wood Lark, Northern Wheatear and sometimes Common Crossbill.
This site is also famous for its population of a rare flower, the Spiked Speedwell, and an equally rare spider, Wideria stylifrons.
The reserve is situated to the north of Brandon and can be reached from the B1106 taking the minor road to at Weeting village, the car park is on the left about 1.5km along this road. Permits are available (free to Norfolk Wildlife Trust members) and there are four hides, open from April until August.
MapThe Norfolk Naturalist's Trust reserve at Thompson Common is famous for its varied flora and particularly the wetland plants found there. There is also a good selection of birds to be found in its different habitats including Goosander and Common Goldeneye on the polls in hard weather. This is a good area for Golden Pheasant.
From the A1075 Thetford to Watton road take the minor road on the left towards the village of Thompson and turn left again onto Butler's Hall Lane where the reserve car park is on left.
Map Another reserve with a good range of habitats including heath, bog and woodland can be found at Cavenham Heath. This National Nature Reserve holds European Nightjar, Wood Lark, Whinchat and Common Grasshopper Warbler with Hawfinch in the wooded areas.
From Bury St Edmunds take the A1101 northwards turning left at Icklingham on the minor road towards Cavenham. There is a car-park at Temple Bridge.
MapOne of the best sites for some of Breckland's special birds is the raptor viewpoint at Mayday Farm, south of Brandon on the B1106.
A track is signposted to the Goshawk viewpoint and both Eurasian Sparrowhawk and Northern Goshawk can be seen from a clearing in the woods. This is also one of the best sites in the country for Golden Pheasant and also has European Nightjar, Wood Lark and Tree Pipit, Siskin and Common Crossbill.
A Great Grey Shrike is sometimes present in early spring which is also the best time for both Northern Goshawk and Golden Pheasant.
Birds you can see here include:
Little Grebe, Mute Swan, Canada Goose, Egyptian Goose, Eurasian Wigeon, Gadwall, Common Teal, Mallard, Common Pochard, Tufted Duck, Common Goldeneye, European Honey Buzzard, Hen Harrier, Northern Goshawk, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Common Buzzard, Osprey, Common Kestrel, Merlin, Northern Hobby, Red-legged Partridge, Grey Partridge, Common Pheasant, Golden Pheasant, Stone-curlew, Northern Lapwing, Common Ringed Plover, Eurasian Woodcock, Common Snipe, Eurasian Curlew, Spotted Redshank, Common Greenshank, Green Sandpiper, Wood Sandpiper, Common Sandpiper, Stock Dove, Feral Pigeon, Common Wood Pigeon, Eurasian Collared Dove, European Turtle Dove, Common Cuckoo, Barn Owl, Little Owl, Tawny Owl, Long-eared Owl, Eurasian Nightjar, Common Swift, Common Kingfisher, Eurasian Green Woodpecker, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Eurasian Skylark, Wood Lark, Sand Martin, Barn Swallow, Northern House Martin, Tree Pipit, Grey Wagtail, Pied Wagtail, Common Wren, Dunnock, Common Nightingale, European Robin, Common Redstart, Whinchat, European Stonechat, Northern Wheatear, Eurasian Blackbird, Fieldfare, Song Thrush, Redwing, Mistle Thrush, Common Grasshopper Warbler, Lesser Whitethroat, Common Whitethroat, Garden Warbler, Blackcap, Common Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler, Goldcrest, Common Firecrest, Spotted Flycatcher, Long-tailed Tit, Marsh Tit, Coal Tit, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Eurasian Treecreeper, Eurasian Nuthatch, Eurasian Golden Oriole, Great Grey Shrike, Common Jay, Common Magpie, Eurasian Jackdaw, Rook, Carrion Crow, Common Starling, House Sparrow, Chaffinch, Brambling, European Greenfinch, European Goldfinch, Eurasian Siskin, Eurasian Linnet, Lesser Redpoll, Common Crossbill, Eurasian Bullfinch, Hawfinch, Yellowhammer
Mammals of Breckland include several deer, Red Deer Cervus elaphus, Fallow Deer Cervus dama and Roe Deer Capreolus capreolus are present as is the introduced Muntjac Muntiacus reevesi. Another introduction, the Grey Squirrel Sciurus carolinensis, is increasing, probably at the expense of the native Red Squirrel Sciurus vulgaris which can still be found in some areas.
Carnivores include Red Fox Vulpes vulpes, Stoat Mustela erminea and Weasel Mustela nivalis.
Reptiles found here include Adder Vipera berus, Grass Snake Natrix natrix and Common Lizard Lacerta vivipara. Common Toad Bufo bufo is abundant and Common Newt Triturus vulgaris, and the rare Crested Newt Triturus cristatus are found in some of the Breckland meres.
Butterflies are well-represented and include Ringlet Aphantopus hyperanthus and Speckled Wood Pararge aegeria, Small Heath Coenonympha pamphilus, Brown Argus Aricia agestis, Common Polyommatus icarus and Holly Celastrina argiolus Blues and Essex Thymelicus lineola and Small Skippers Thymelicus sylvestris.
Despite being one of Britain's driest areas and having much land under very intensive cultivation, the plantlife of the area is rich and varied. This is partly due to the mixture of soils derived from glacial activity resulting in both chalk-loving and acid grassland species occurring in close proximity. Rare, scarce and interesting species to be seen include Spanish Catchfly Silene otites, Maiden Pink Dianthus deltoides, Spiked Speedwell Veronica spicata and Musk Mallow Malva moschata.
In sandy areas over chalk there are plants such as Viper's Bugloss Echium vulgare, Bladder Campion Silene vulgaris and Houndstongue Cynoglossum officinale, Wild Thyme Thymus serpyllum, Wild Mignonette Reseda lutea and Dyer's Greenweed Genista tinctoria. Around the ponds are Golden Dock Rumex maritimus, Knotted Pearlwort Sagina nodosa and extensive stands of Reed Canary Grass Phalaris arundinacea and aquatic plants include Fennel Pondweed Potamogeton pectinatus and Shining Pondweed Potamogeton lucens and Amphibious Bistort Polygonum amphibium is very common.
The conifer planting has reduced the available area for most species of plant but has enabled a northern forest and mountain orchid, Creeping Lady's Tresses Goodyera repens, to thrive.
Areas of Interest
MapThe 6km Thetford Forest Bird Trail gives access to a range of wooded and more open habitats and also has Golden Pheasant, European Nightjar, Wood Lark and Tree Pipit. The trail begins near the village of Santon Downham at the Helen Wells picnic site across the river to the south of the village.
Access and Facilities
Many of the laybys and picnic areas on the roads through Breckland give access to good birding habitats and those on the A134 are particularly good.
Content and images originally posted by Steve