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Desperately Seeking Speedwell!

Ground breaking project aims to return rare wildflowers to Norfolk site of international importance.

September 14 2015

Plantlife is working with Thetford Town Council on a conservation project to restore 165 acres (67ha) of unique habitat at Barnham Cross Common, in Breckland.

The Brecks is one of the top four classic places in the UK for wild plants. It is home to more than 120 nationally rare and threatened wildflower species that enjoy the unusual and dry 'continental' climate of this region.

Despite this being an internationally recognised botanical hot spot, characterised by an unusual combination of mobile, sandy, chalk-rich soils which support plants that rarely occur elsewhere in the UK, most of Breckland's wildflower 'specialities' such as Sickle Medick (Medicago sativa) and Tower Mustard (Turritis glabra) are disappearing.

Above: Sickle Medick © Andrew Gagg/Plantlife

This is because of a decline in suitable habitat which has arisen from changes in land management practices and a loss of traditional grazing regimes. Many local birds, and invertebrates dependent on this habitat such as woodlark, grey carpet moth, lunar yellow under-wing moth and the brush-thighed seed-eater beetle are threatened by its decline.

Tower Mustard has declined by 70% since the 1930s and Spring Speedwell (Veronica verna) is known to be located at only 13 sites in Breckland.

Above: Spring Speedwell © Fornax/CC BY-SA 3.0

Wall Bedstraw (Galium parisiense) has declined by 45% since the 1930s as the ancient walls it often calls home have been cleaned, rebuilt or demolished.

Tim Pankhurst, Conservation Manager at Plantlife says "The Brecks is known as a Mecca for its rare wildflowers and Barnham Cross used to be one of the best places to see Breckland species. Despite best efforts this is no longer the case - intervention is needed to halt the decline facing this culturally important habitat, here, and beyond the project site."

Fingered Speedwell (Veronica triphyllos), Spring Speedwell, Spanish Catchfly (Silene otites), Field Wormwood (Artemisia campestris) and Purple stemmed Cat's Tail (Phleum phleoides) are all in a target group of 13 local, rare wildflowers that Plantlife and partners want to restore to the Common.

Above: Spanish Catchfly © Bob Gibbons/Plantlife

With support from WREN’s FCC Biodiversity Action Fund, through the Landfill Communities Fund, it is hoped key management and restoration techniques that have been trialled over the past 3 years across the Brecks - from opening up the grassland with turf stripping and scrub clearance to restoring cattle and sheep grazing and encouraging rabbits will:

  • Bring the grassland back to good health by improving the living conditions on site for rare plant species to return and stay for good.
  • Become a model site for restoration techniques that can be used at other locations within Breckland, through refining management practices and providing a go-to tool-kit:  volunteers will help trial which processes work best by carrying out monitoring and surveying work.

The good news is that volunteers have already identified five of the key species at Barnham Cross in a recent survey. "This is really encouraging" says Tim. "We hope it won't be too long before we see all 13 Breckland species back where they belong at Barnham Cross Common."

So what is Plantlife doing?

Plantlife has 20 years experience in applying restoration techniques to benefit rare plants and has been testing techniques in The Brecks to perfect timings and methodologies in order to obtain the best results. Some of the proposed management includes:

  • The habitat and overall ecological condition at Barnham Cross Common is currently very poor due in particular to the loss of a suitable grazing regime. Plantlife and its partners aim to reintroduce a traditional mixed grazing system to the site to improve the condition of the open grass-heaths and to help support plant populations in the long-term.
  • The site is also one of archaeological interest and Plantlife are working closely with archaeologists to deliver a collaborative approach that is in keeping with the site. 
  • Scrub clearance, to open up and restore the grassland - a number of volunteers have already helped clear scrub. Volunteers will also help deliver survey, monitoring and practical activity on site.
  • Turf stripping - this technique has been shown to be effective on open grass-heaths which have become over-vegetated, particularly for Spanish Catchfly, one of the target species.
  • Volunteers are helping monitor wild plants at the site - so far 5 of the 13 target species have been identified. It is hoped that when further scrub clearance begins, more species will start to appear.