The area has the UK’s only inland sand dunes and relic glacial ponds known as ‘pingos’ . There are also meres or lakes that are fed from underground water and five rivers which cross the Brecks.
The unique wildlife has been shaped by the soils, climate and human land-use. The Brecks has both sandy and chalky soils and lies in the driest part of England with ground-frosts occurring in all months of the year. Farming on these marginal soils led to fields only farmed once in 3 to 5 years and then left to rest. These areas formed the original ‘brakes’ more recently know as Breckland and The Brecks.
Rabbit farming or ‘warrening’ in the medieval period led to vast open heathland warrens with few or no trees and shrubs. Recent forest planting of the largest lowland forest in the UK has attracted some of its own special wildlife with over 25% of UK woodlark and over 10% of UK breeding nightjars. Over 65% of UK’s Stone Curlews are found here as well; an enigmatic bird that breeds here after over wintering in Spain and North Africa.
Many plant species grow here which are rare or absent from other parts of Britain including tower mustard, fingered speedwell, Breckland thyme and military orchid. At West Stow Country Park you can see some of these plants specially grown near the visitor centre.
25 species of invertebrates found in the Brecks are currently listed as being in danger of extinction in Britain.
10 bat species breed in the Brecks, making special use of the river valley habitats as feeding grounds.
The effects of the last ‘ice age’ can be seen nowhere else in Britain and Ireland as extensively as in The Brecks. 12,000 years ago, Ice bubbles created Pingos and perma frost created distinctive patterns and features.
The word ‘pingo’ comes from an Eskimo word meaning ‘hill’. Pingos are found today in the arctic tundra. They are ice mounds fed from below by groundwater which grow every winter and then melt in summer, forming a crater-like pond. As the mounds grow the overlying soil is shifted off them to form a surrounding rim or rampart.
Pingo ponds formed when ice mounds in the topsoil finally melted and collapsed to form irregular pools at the end of the last Ice Age. Most pingo ponds in the UK have been ploughed up and lost but three pingo systems remain in the Brecks – the best place to see them today is Thompson Common.
These ancient ponds are home to a unique range of wildlife species, including some very unusual water beetles. More typical of pools much further north, these beetles may well represent “mini-mammoths” – species left over from the last Ice Age!
The Brecks is an outstanding area for wildlife, but has experienced extraordinary change and loss of wildlife species and habitats in the last 50 years. Despite these changes, the varied habitats of the area continue to provide a refuge for many threatened species. 43% of the Brecks is protected at a national or international level for its wildlife or geological interest