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C H A N G E S IN T H E B R E C K L A N D MARG RUTTERFORD

I have seen many changes in the Breckland Over the past 70 odd years. The heaths and warrens were all nibbled close by thousands of rabbits until myxomatosis cleared most of them off in 1954. The character of the Breck then changed completely. Coarse grasses have now taken over, apart from some arid patches of Cladonia species (lichens which are related to Reindeer 'moss') and other lichens, where grass, other than Sheep's Fescue (Festuca ovina L.), cannot grow. Crab Apple seedlings, together with Hawthorn and Purging Buckthorn, are all showing now the rabbits have gone. On a large area there are thousands of Scots Pine, and Corsican Pine seedlings are gradually taking over. Some 5 acres are now thickly covered with nearly-mature pines. All this since rabbits were no longer nibbling them down. Stone Curlews have gradually got fewer, although a few pairs still nest in quieter places. As small boys we used to play cricket on warm summer evenings, and it was a common sight to see a Stone Curlew fly over from the Breck, less than half a mile away, to the damp meadows below, and return a few minutes later with a frog which was taken back to feed its two young. This was before the aerodrome and the flood relief Channel were even thought of. I once found five Stone Curlew nests on a small bare area of Breck - much of it is now covered with small pines. Those beautiful songsters, the Woodlarks, were once common, especially on grassy banks on which a few Scots Pine were growing. All have been built on now. It is very sad, but a few scattered pairs are still around Thetford Forest. I remember an old parishioner, now dead and gone, who, on returning home after spending his earlier years in the army in India, every moming walked up to the heath to hear the Woodlarks. Sometimes when I met him he would say 'Oh, the Woodlarks are whistling beautifully up there.' Wheatears are also much less common than hitherto, there being very few disused rabbit burrows now, which were favourite nesting places. I once found a Wheatear's nest under a piece of bomb casing on Lakenheath Warren. Nightjars have almost all gone now, except for a few pairs on private land, but they always used to come to the Breck and nest on the edge of a wood, especially where Bracken gave them cover. I have never seen better Camouflage than a Nightjar among dry pine needles. Small plants of Spring Speedwell (Veronica verna L.) could be found on Breckland rabbit warrens, especially on grown-over sandy patches of the burrows. These rare plants can still be found, but it is easy to confuse them with the Wall Speedwell (Veronica arvensis L.). The lower leaves of V. verna are deeply cleft, those of V. arvensis are not. However, another true Breckland plant, the Spanish Catchfly (Silene otites (L.)), is flourishing and safe from extinction. It is perhaps more plentiful between Icklingham and Lakenheath than anywhere. Some heaths are almost covered by it, almost like a lay crop, even alongside the runways of the aerodrome.

Trans. Suffolk Nat. Soc. 23


C H A N G E S IN T H E B R E C K L A N D

39

Until some 40 years ago there was a disused chalk pit in the Breck, the bottom of which was quite flat and grassed Over. Exploring this one day I was astonished to find dozens of small, silvery-leaved plants which proved to be Jersey Cudweed (Gnaphalium luteo-album L.). Whence they came I have no idea. Soon after this the 'War Agricultural' people wanted some chalk for road making and their Caterpillar tractors churned most of the plants to pulp. I moved a few plants to the higher slopes where they appeared to be happy. However, the Rural District Council acquired the pit to infill with rubbish. Not a happy ending to my story. In my early days most of the villagers had an allotment. Some had half an acre, some a rood (lA acre), others up to an acre, on which they grew potatoes and other vegetables for winter use. Sometimes half of the allotment would be put down to rye, for many kept a pig, and the rye would be ground-up for pig food. In these small plots of rye, and in farmers' larger fields, one could find the beautiful C o m Cockle (Agrostemma githalgo L ). This plant is now extinct here, mainly due to the efforts of seedsmen, for unfortunately this attractive plant has large poisonous seeds which are difficult to separate from the c o m during threshing. The farmers' gain has been the botanists' loss. The allotment area has now been built on, either by the Council or by private enterprise. Lakenheath High Street through the village parts the Breck from the Fen. I have, in my time, seen wild Grape Hyacinth (Muscaria atlanticum Boiss & Reut.), which is a native of Breckland, growing within 100 paces of the Street, and Water Violet (Hottonia palustris L.) some 200 paces from the opposite side. These have gone due to building or drainage, but the Breckland retains much of its beauty. I have been on the Breck in all weathers. It is particularly beautiful when warm showers leave carpets of tiny flowers like jewels, but bitter N E winds can blow unhindered straight from the Siberian steppe. M. G. Rutterford, Drybrook, Undley Road, Lakenheath

Trans. Suffolk Nat. Soc. 23

Changes in the Breckland  

Rutterford, M. G.

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