Shifting Sands – Back from the Brink

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By Pip Mountjoy, Lead Adviser at Natural England

Breckland and its Rabbits: pest or landscape engineer?

The way that we view rabbits, and their impact on the environment, tends to be black or white. They’re seen as pets (fluffy and cartoonish) or they’re seen as a pest whose populations need to be controlled. After all, they ‘breed like rabbits’, right?

Well, it’s not quite that simple.

Whilst it’s true that a rabbit on cropland or on the golfing green is a pest, in some semi-natural habitats, like grassland and heathland, rabbits play an essential role as habitat engineers. This is particularly true in Breckland (or ‘The Brecks’), a unique heathland-grassland mosaic that spans the Suffolk-Norfolk border. An area of chalky sandy soils that is much drier than the rest of the UK with cold winters and hot summers, Breckland is a steppe-like bio-geographical region that has incredible biodiversity, often including species more often found in central European steppe habitats.

(Shifting Sands, Natural England)
(Shifting Sands, Natural England)

Much of the heath was converted into cropland and agro-forestry in the twentieth century. However, the region still hosts nearly 13,000 species, many of which are rare or threatened, and some of which are found nowhere else on Earth. A large suite of these threatened species are dependent upon very specific conditions; they require dry, open areas of low-nutrient heath and grassland. Such conditions do not remain by being left alone with no human or animal activity! In the Brecks, it’s the rabbits that have been maintaining these open, short-sward mosaics, with patches of bare ground since they were first farmed here, over 1000 years ago. In fact, today wild rabbits are the only non-mechanical (and free of charge!) means of bare ground creation and habitat management, given that the old land uses which broke and poached the ground are no more (e.g., low-scale mineral extraction, rabbit warrening and sheep droving).

Sheep, ponies and cattle are used by conservationists on the heaths as they to help maintain shorter swards but they can’t do what rabbits do: very fine-scale, selective grazing, burrowing and scraping. This creates a ‘micro-mosaic’ of bare earth which acts as open spaces for annual plants (such as spring speedwell and Breckland speedwell) to germinate, and for lower plants (such as lichens and mosses) to persist without being smothered by the more competitive grasses. Rabbits also create a dynamic habitat that’s great for invertebrates (including beetles, bees, butterflies and moths) that like to hibernate or pupate in longer swards near to nectar-rich flowers and patches of bare ground for basking and boring.

(Shifting Sands, Natural England)
(Shifting Sands, Natural England)

As the main ground disturbers on Brecks heaths, rabbits also excavate seeds that may have lain dormant in the seed bank for 80 years, and they unearth huge amounts of flint. It’s these flint stones that make the habitat suitable for the iconic Brecks bird – the Stone Curlew. As the name suggests, the bare patches of warm, sandy earth with scattered flint stones camouflages the eggs of this ground-nesting species, providing perfect ground-nesting conditions.

But, rabbit populations are in sharp decline, and their numbers have been falling drastically here since the 1990s, mostly as a result of various diseases introduced into the environment by humans wishing to control their numbers. Rabbits are now classified as endangered in their native region of Iberia, and are becoming a rarity in some areas of the UK too. With fewer rabbits, the Brecks heaths are becoming overgrown with coarse grasses and scrub. Smaller plants and invertebrates have less of the varied micro-mosaic they need to survive.

We’re working with the University of East Anglia’s Professor Diana Bell to help rabbits bounce back. In partnership with landowners and conservation organisations including Natural England, Suffolk Wildlife Trust, Norfolk Wildlife Trust, RSPB and Elveden Estate, we have trialled practical habitat enhancements on the heaths to try and encourage rabbit breeding and boost localised rabbit numbers, to build resilience and give those populations a chance at survival. We have broken the ground in areas where the turf has grown too thick, creating areas for rabbits to burrow into, as well as creating predator cover to act as refuges. A fantastic team of volunteers have monitored the response and results have been statistically analysed, to inform a landowner advice toolkit: “Techniques to encourage European rabbit recovery”. We hope this toolkit of low-cost management options will help those who manage open habitats retain rabbits, their vital habitat engineers.

Shifting Sands is part of the National Lottery Heritage Funded Back from the Brink programme. We have also worked with others to restore conditions for rare plants and insects on heathland SSSIs, within agri-forestry units and in urban areas. If you’d like to find out more about the project click here

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Posted On: 27/09/2021

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