Back from the Brink initiative sees Breckland-based Shifting Sands project use surprising methods and rabbits to bring about record numbers of rare species.
Efforts to save England’s most threatened species from extinction are turning the tide for wildlife in a unique landscape spanning Norfolk and Suffolk.
The fortunes of species classed as declining, rare, near-threatened or endangered are now improving in the Brecks after 4 years of work to support their habitat.
The National Lottery Heritage-funded Shifting Sands project – a partnership of 10 organisations led by Natural England. It has seen 5 kilometres of ‘wildlife highways’ created, more than 100 specimens of rare plants re-introduced, habitat created and restored across 12 sites, species encouraged, and landscape-management practices improved.
Species increasing in number
As a result, 7 species of plant, bird and insect are increasing in number and many more are benefitting.
Among the species recovering are rare plants such as the prostrate perennial knawel that is unique to the Brecks, basil thyme and field wormwood.
The endangered wormwood moonshiner beetle, lunar yellow underwing moth and 5 banded digger tailed wasp are also increasing.
All these species are identified in the UK’s Biodiversity Action Plan as being priorities for conservation.
Perhaps the most surprising species to benefit is the European rabbit.
Although often considered a pest, for certain habitats – like the Brecks – the rabbit is a ‘keystone species’ that holds together the entire ecosystem. Their numbers are, however, declining regionally, nationally and globally, even being classed as endangered in their native region, the Iberian Peninsula.
Their grazing and digging activity keeps the ground in a condition that is perfect for sustaining other species that would otherwise move on – or die out.
Encouraging rabbit activity
The toolkit includes cost-effective ways of encouraging rabbits, including creating piles of felled branches and banks of soil.
Monitoring over the past 3 years has shown the interventions are working, with evidence of significantly higher amounts of rabbit activity.
The open habitat maintained by rabbits supports 2 rare plants: the prostrate perennial knawel – found nowhere else in the world – and field wormwood.
These flora’s fortunes have been improved by Plantlife. As part of Shifting Sands, the conservation charity has re-introduced 110 specimens at 9 sites, helped restore habitat in which they thrive, and improved the way land is managed.
Rare plants thriving
Prostrate perennial knawel introductions are thriving. The 75 plants introduced have increased to 201, while field wormwood is enjoying a threefold increase – a boon for the insects that depend on it.
Among those insects is the wormwood moonshiner. This endangered beetle has a particular taste for field wormwood seeds. It is now being found in record-high numbers, on industrial estate verges and a patch of land within a housing estate.
Forest fast lanes
Acting as ‘highways’ for heathland wildlife, they have resulted in increased numbers of rare species. This includes the basil thyme, lunar yellow underwing and the 5-banded tailed digger wasp, as well as benefited rare bird species like nightjar and woodlark. The digger wasp has gone from being recorded in just 2 forest rides to 9.
Pip Mountjoy, Shifting Sands project manager at Natural England, said:
Much of work has been carried out by an army of volunteers. More than 400 have dedicated 640 days to the project and received training in surveying techniques and species identification. Local volunteer groups such as Breckland Flora Group monitor these rare species across the Brecks and contributed hugely to the project.
Fighting species extinction
Shifting Sands is 1 of 19 projects across England that make up the national Back from the Brink initiative. Together, these projects aim to save 20 species from extinction and benefit over 200 more.
Established in 2017 with £4.7 million from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and £2.1 million from other bodies. Back from the Brink was the first nationwide co-ordinated effort to bring together charities, conservation organisations and government bodies to save threatened species.
The project is funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and other bodies. Involved in Shifting Sands are Buglife, Butterfly Conservation, the Elveden estate, Forestry England, Natural England, Norfolk Wildlife Trust, Plantlife, RSPB, Suffolk Wildlife Trust and [University of East Anglia](https://www.uea.ac.uk/].