There is not much of the real Breckland left. Thanks to the commercial afforestation in the interwar period of the last century most of the extensive open grassland heaths have disappeared. Where once great bustards, stone curlews, lapwings and woodlarks held sway in the miles of gently rolling semi-desert landscape stretching from mid Norfolk to the border with the Fens, now thousands of acres of pine forest stretch in regimented lines as far as the eye can see. Ironically the best preserved areas are those forming the MoD training area to the north of Thetford which for obvious reasons is not actively farmed or accessible to the general public. Other remnant heathland can be found on nature reserves such as those managed by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust at Weeting and East Wretham. Although the thick stands of monotonous pine do provide refuge for various species of deer and those ubiquitous grey squirrels, their overall wildlife value is limited. However once the pines are felled for their timber the situation changes with the replacement young plantations being very attractive to a wide range of birds, flowers and insects. At least they are for a few years before the trees once more gain height and shade the ground rendering it bare and lifeless. The plants in particular are incredibly resilient and seeds of heather and other specialists trapped in the thin sandy soil for decades will germinate quite readily once conditions improve. Happily the more enlightened attitudes of the Forestry Commission nowadays means that these cleared areas are going to increase within the next few years thanks to an active plan to revert over 10% of their holdings to open heathland (always subject to available funding of course). This is great news and together with a programme of planting of a mix of native trees in some areas, the whole Breckland area will become far more diverse and wildlife friendly. And people will benefit as well because this region is absolutely beautiful, easily accessible and full of interest.
Sunday we took a walk through Lynford Arboretum where siskins chased each other through the tops of spruce, nuthatches chirped to each other from their prospective nesting sites in the scattered beech trees and many familiar birds of various species proclaimed their possession of a favoured patch. I briefly espied a hawfinch in one of the trees in the paddock, but it somehow disappeared before I could get the scope targeted. The weather was not favourable for photography with a lowering cloud resulting in very low light levels. Trying to capture images of birds under the shade of the trees was akin to needing infra-red capability. Still I liked getting close to this dunnock and near Lynford Hall someone had put out a pile of seed which attracted several brightly coloured tits and finches.
Later at Grime’s Graves we had no trouble spotting the great grey shrike that has wintered there and I was really pleased to see a party of a dozen yellowhammers feeding in the tussock strewn grass. The males were resplendent, but I couldn’t get anywhere near enough for a decent picture – this was the best I could manage…..and the shrike was even less cooperative.
YellowhammerWhat a stunning bird, a male in full breeding dress. Unfortunately I couldn't
get any closer before it sought refuge in the dense cover of nearby pines.
Great Grey ShrikeNo way to get any closer to this bird since it favoured the undisturbed
area of the MoD training zone at Grime's Graves.
We really need this blocking weather system to move on so migrants can start arriving. I’m getting fed up with grey skies and it really is about time we had a spell of decent weather. A nice steady south-easterly airflow for the next couple of weeks would suit a treat.