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Forest Beginnings

Learn about the birth of Thetford Forest and the Brecks as we know it today from writer, Sandra Walmsley.

I was thrilled to be so near the forest when I moved to Weeting. The forest is man-made and owes its existence largely to the first world war. Wars seem to make governments realise the limits of international trade. When imports were limited by the first world war, pit props were still needed for coal mines and timber for ships. Almost half of the forests in Britain were felled. Home-grown timber became important just as home-grown food became important in the second world war and the current war in Ukraine is highlighting the need for home-grown energy. But why was this massive forest planted here?

The term “Brecks” dates to at least medieval times, describing sandy heathland and gorse scrub which was broken up for farmland. When the poor soil was cultivated, it soon became exhausted and had to lie fallow for three to five years to allow it to go back to its natural state. These were the original ‘breaks’, the Brecks. The thin layer of dry, sandy soil overlying chalk or clay meant sandstorms were a regular part of life- “fen blows” as they are called by locals. They still occur, creating a haze, a local version of Sahara dust. The only inland sand dunes in the country lie here.

The Brecks has its own microclimate too. It is the driest part of England and frosts have even been recorded in August. You often hear the village of Santon Downham, near Brandon, mentioned in national weather reports due to the unusual extremes occurring there.

This combination of inhospitable weather and soil too poor for most food crops meant land was cheap. In the 18th and 19th centuries optimistic, wealthy, gentlemen   through a process of informal and parliamentary enclosure, took advantage to purchase and attempt to “improve” the land. They created estates surrounding their stately dwellings. As you journey through the Brecks you cannot miss the strangely contorted rows of trees.  Deal Rows: single rows of Scots Pines that were planted as shelter belts. Without management, the pines have grown into the fantastic shapes we now see.

Despite the efforts of the gentleman farmers, the poor soil was barely productive and, in the 20th century, the Government was able to purchase 40,000 acres at low prices to establish Thetford Forest.

The pines of the Deal Rows helped provide the original seeds for the forest which had to be gathered and planted by hand. Seven million trees a year were grown in nurseries created just for that purpose. Collecting the cones from hedges and old plantations and transplanting the seedlings was labour intensive.

In Breckland, as I discovered from my gardening, Spring is not a good time to plant trees. There is not enough rainfall, so planting is best done in autumn and the beginning of winter. As I walked in the forest, I often saw and chatted to the contractors planting young saplings using specialist machinery. It has been said that, when the forest was first planted, a skilled worker could plant 1500 trees a day, paid  sixpence for every hundred they planted. The contractors I watched never managed such productivity and undoubtedly earned more than sixpence per hundred.

Many naturalists are understandably dismissive of forestry plantations. They are derided as monocultures and they do enable pests and diseases to thrive. However, narrow roadside belts of hardwood oak, red oak, beech, lime, walnut and maple were also planted and rides left bare as fire breaks, especially alongside the railway lines where the passing steam trains created the greatest risk from flying sparks.

As I explored, I found these hardwood trees increase the types of fungi growing and the rides produce a bounteous display of common and uncommon flora. Much of Thetford Forest is now designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest. There is a lot to discover in this plantation as I found over my years of daily exploration with my dogs.