Monday, July 11, 2016

A night on the Brecks

A spiders nest in the lichen at the forest edge
It’s cold, damp, dark. I’m standing at the edge of Thetford forest with a group of people, most of whom I don’t know. We are listening – and after a short while the ‘churr’ of nightjars fills the air.  We are quietly excited. A noctule bat swoops overhead, and the sharp ‘tweep tweep’ of a woodcock alerts us to its passage as it flies across the clearing in front of us.

“Two on the path!”  The whisper goes up, and all binoculars are trained on two long black blobs that we can just about see in the dim light of the moon. They flit upwards, a flash of white indicating that one is male. I’ve seen my first nightjars!

It wasn’t a good view, but it was good enough for me.  Seeing the nightjars was the culmination of an interesting evening on the Brecks – a unique habitat in the East of England.  I was lucky enough to be with a group of conservationists and forestry commission staff who have some interesting challenges. In listening to the discussions about what could be done to conserve some beautiful river habitat, I learned so much about the hands-on side of conservation. One of the discussions was about whether they could re-flood a now dry flood plain; The ideas for how this could be done had to be in context not just of what can happen now, but in consideration of what conditions might be like in 50 years’ time. Sea level changes may affect the water table as our climate changes, but in the shorter term, upcoming housing developments may further reduce the water flow.  There are never any simple fixes such as building a dam or creating a culvert – not if you want long-term, realistic changes whose benefits will last. It will be interesting to see what they decide to do.

A bright moon over the Brecks
Change in human behaviour has a real impact on our wildlife and even in our woodlands. Around the flood plain, for example, were lots of dead poplars. These trees were planted to provide wood for the matchstick industry, but as that disappeared rapidly with the invention of the lighter.  The trees have just been left to die naturally over their long lifetime. So the actions of man many decades previously have left their mark – especially given that Thetford Forest itself is a commercially planted forest.  Even the clearance of land by the nearby holiday park has meant that some endemic plants are actually flourishing in the car park! 
Balancing the needs of the commercial and the natural world are always challenging, but in the Brecks they have a unique habitat that has some amazing birds, insects and plants.  Wildlife is in crisis not just in Africa and Asia, but in our own backyards – our woodlands, heath and moorland, and even our back gardens.  I enjoyed my dark and chilly night on the Brecks because I learned so much, as ever, about our amazing natural world.

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Photographs (C) Carolyn Sheppard 
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