FEATURE: Knettishall Heath takes biggest step towards 'habitat mosaic' vision

Ceremonial cutting of the fence at Knettishall Heath. From left to right: William Kendall, the High Sheriff of Suffolk; Peter Cox, Managing Director of WREN; Ian Brown, Chairman of Trustees at Suffolk Wildlife Trust; Julian Roughton, Chief Executive of Suffolk Widlife Trust; and Phil Rothwell, of the Heritage Lottery Fund.
Ceremonial cutting of the fence at Knettishall Heath. From left to right: William Kendall, the High Sheriff of Suffolk; Peter Cox, Managing Director of WREN; Ian Brown, Chairman of Trustees at Suffolk Wildlife Trust; Julian Roughton, Chief Executive of Suffolk Widlife Trust; and Phil Rothwell, of the Heritage Lottery Fund.
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A ‘mosaic of habitats’. A ‘living landscape’. These are the lofty ambitions of Knettishall Heath — and Suffolk Wildlife Trust believes it has now taken the most important step towards becoming a reality.

Key personnel, volunteers and special guests gathered last Friday to cut away the last major section of fencing — an event described as a huge milestone for a conservation project, four years in the making, and the first of its kind in the county.

Led by William Kendall, the High Sheriff of Suffolk, who referred to the Wildlife Trust as “quiet heroes”, the removal of fences will now enable livestock to freely roam and contribute to a subtle, long-term restoration of the land, following on from the recent installation of cattle grids in nearby roads.

It represents an opportunity that Julian Roughton, Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s chief executive, claimed was “too important a chance to miss.”

“I’d known about Knettishall Heath for a long time. It’s one of those iconic sites that are so important nationally for their plants, their birds and their invertebrates,” he said.

“The chance to take on a large area of value for wildlife is very rare, so we knew this would be a fantastic opportunity — but equally, we are slightly daunted by the challenge of it.”

In thanking key supporters like the Heritage Lottery Fund, WREN and Natural England, who all provided significant funds for the project, Mr Roughton emphasised the amount of work that had been done and was still left to do.

Although it has remained a popular walking spot for people either side of the Norfolk-Suffolk border, those who have lived in the area longest acknowledge a lot of the heath’s species have slowly disappeared over many years.

Samantha Gay, wildlife ranger at Knettishall Heath, explained the heath’s history of housing “some of the rarest species in the Brecks” was what made restoration such a high priority.

“When the council left, there was a period of six months when there was no management at all. Not only had the wildlife declined, it had also had a period of neglect, so people got used to fact that there was no-one here,” she said.

“That’s when we decided to create more of a mosaic of habitats.”

It was a phrase uttered multiple times at the event — a concept that, on the face of it, sounds like a man-made development, but it is in fact about allowing the Trust’s herd of Exmoor ponies to naturally graze wherever they choose, rather than within artificial, fenced-off blocks.

Ms Gay said: “When I say mosaic, I mean all the edge habitats in between. What you naturally get is natural gradation from grassland, heathland to scrub-land through to woodland.

“Long term, the benefit of doing it the natural way is that we can’t replicate the way they would graze. They do it in a really kind of random way.

“It will develop probably in ways we have not foreseen. They might push into areas we didn’t know they were going to.”

Indeed, the unpredictability is what makes the strategy so unusual for Suffolk, and Ms Gay said this approach could serve as a template for other conservation sites throughout the region.

But with two years left on the development timeline at Knettishall, she stated it was important for Suffolk Wildlife Trust to continue engaging schools and the local community with the project.

“The community have been paramount. I’d like to thank all our supporters, Trust members and volunteers. Without the volunteers, we wouldn’t have done this at all,” she said.

Mr Roughton added: “Fifteen to 20 years later, we have people coming to the Trust who have been involved with us through schools, so it makes a real difference. In the wider community, volunteering will always lie at the heart of what we do here.

“We talk about this term ‘living landscape’. It’s about looking at the nature reserve where it sits in its wider environment.

“What you get when you come to Knettishall Heath is the experience of a landscape that is rich in wildlife. You can really enjoy half a day, experiencing some of the best in nature.”