National Character Area 85

The Brecks - Landscape Change

The full NCA Profile landscape change page, is temporarily unavailable until publication of the Defra 25 Year Environment Plan Indicator G1 later in May 2024.

Monitoring Landscape Change

Drivers for change
The Brecks is a low, gently undulating plateau of dry heath, grassland, and meandering wooded river valleys known for its richly distinctive wildlife, making it of high conservation and recreation value. The potential loss of specific drought-intolerant species as a result of reduced soil water moisture and rising temperatures threatens the diversity of habitats and species, and may affect the landscape character. The area is likely to remain attractive for recreation, with good access to nature which may increase pressure to develop visitor infrastructure.

Monitoring landscape change
This section is temporarily unavailable until publication of the Defra 25 Year Environment Plan Indicator G1 later in May 2024.

Additional information on landscape change

Landscape change reported in 2014

Recent changes and trends (reported in 2014)


  • The light, free-draining soils are attractive to outdoor pig producers and these are often let out to producers as part of an arable rotation. This practice has seen an increase of 31 specialist pig farm holdings in the period between 2000 and 2009. Intensive indoor and outdoor poultry rearing has also increased. Where inappropriate management of intensive outdoor livestock farming has occurred, this has in some cases lead to problems with soil erosion and the eutrophication of water courses and subsequently water resources.
  • Land used for cereal crop production declined by 13 per cent (2,840 hectares) between 2000 and 2009 and the NCA has also seen decreases in the area of grassland and uncropped land (565 ha, 3 per cent), cash roots (7 per cent), vegetables (11 per cent) and oil seed (16 per cent) although land used for stock feed has increased from 92 to 391 ha due to the increases in livestock farming.
  • Uptake of Environmental Stewardship has increased, although it remains consistently below the national average due to the high profitability of the land.
  • The NCA has seen an increase in in-field farming associated structures such as animal housing pens and infrastructure buildings connected with specialist pig farms, intensive indoor and outdoor poultry rearing sheds, new water storage reservoirs and the wide-scale use of large irrigation equipment. The use of plastic crop mulches has also seen an increase, changing the character of the landscape when in use.

Boundary features

  • Agricultural intensification and improvement has in some places resulted in the loss and damage to landscape features, including traditional patterns of wooded and thorn-hedged field boundaries, which have become increasingly mature. This has occurred where inappropriate or a lack of management is applied. Reduced replanting has resulted in gappy hedgerow boundaries that weaken the traditional landscape character.
  • Removal of hedgerows has largely ceased and hedgerow replanting and management under environmental stewardship is increasing, although uptake for Environmental Stewardship in the area remains consistently below the national average.
  • Between 1999 and 2003 Countryside Stewardship capital agreements for linear features included fencing (7 km), hedge management (1 km), hedge planting and restoration (17 km) and restored boundary protection (7 km). The estimated boundary length for the Brecks is about 5,351 km meaning only about 2 per cent of field boundaries (hedges) were covered by agreements between 1999 and 2003.
  • The length of hedgerows in environmental stewardship boundary management in 2011 was 657 km, with 742 km of woodland, 118 km of ditch, 220 km of ditches and 445 km of stone wall in environmental stewardship boundary management schemes.

Coast and rivers

  • Over-abstraction of water from the NCA’s rivers and chalk aquifer for industry and public water supply has increased, leading to insufficient levels for agriculture and the environment. Demand has reached the point where the rivers Thet and the Little Ouse have an ‘over licensed’ Catchment Abstraction Management (CAM) status and the River Wissey has a ‘no water available’ CAM status. The upper portion of the River Lark is classed as ‘no water available’ whereas the lower portion of the Lark is classed as ‘over abstracted’.
  • High nutrient levels are a problem in many of these rivers and can lead to prolific algal growth and associated dissolved oxygen problems, particularly during periods of low flow.
  • Watercourses suffer from high nitrate and phosphate levels as a result of discharge from sewage treatment works, industrial processes (food processing, sugar refining and poultry plants), surface water drains as well as some inappropriate or poorly managed agricultural practices (such as manure and slurry applications, intensive pig rearing units), nutrient leaching, and inefficient crop nutrient management. There is some localised pollution from pesticides with soil erosion and sedimentation also transporting pollutants to watercourses.
  • The percentage of rivers and lakes that have good ecological and biological status or potential is consequently low, highlighting a need to improve this, through adopting improved land management to prevent these issues.

Historic features

  • There is a wealth of heritage assets; buildings, visible features ranging from the Neolithic to the more recent Second World War military installations.
    They offer insights into the past and should be protected. The Heritage at Risk register for the area has 22 entries (mainly churches, but some Scheduled Ancient Monuments). Development and intensive agriculture put pressure on this resource although management agreements, included in agri-environmental schemes continue to help identify and protect this resource where possible.


  • Recent mineral extraction is focused on glacial sands and gravels. Established quarries, for example Cavenham Quarry produce materials for construction and local infrastructure projects.
  • Gravel extraction has created new wetlands in place of more typical river valley habitats at Lackford, Lynford and south of Thetford.
  • Aggregate extraction has had a significant effect on archaeological sites clustered along the valley floors.

Semi-natural habitats

  • The Brecks heathland is a fragment of its past extent but the principal threat now is lack of appropriate grazing management resulting in scrub invasion. Physical disturbance of the ground for grass-heath species is also important. Subsequent conservation management at some key sites (for example Cranwich Camp) has included practices such as rotovation and turf stripping. However, across most sites, the area of physical disturbance treatment has remained minimal, with sheep grazing (and occasionally cattle or ponies as at Knettishall Heath) considered the key tool for conservation. Conservation efforts have been successful in restoring grazing management regimes to the majority of heathland SSSI.
  • Heathland restoration has been helped by initiatives such as the Tomorrow’s Heathland Heritage programme (2000 to 2005). 300 ha of predominantly grass-heath within Thetford Forest has been restored by the Brecks Heaths Project and The Securing the Future Project has also supported habitat restoration on the Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Brecks heathland and wetland nature reserves over recent years.
  • With the areas of commercial forest, careful planning of felling and woodland management has improved over recent years, to retain the variety of different woodland structures and transitions to heath and woodland edge habitats, for internationally important populations of woodlark and nightjar and for rare and declining plants and invertebrates. This has included the widening of rides to link the areas of open habitat within the forest, which has helped secure and enhance ecological networks.
  • Under the Breckland ESA scheme over 2,000 ha of river valley grassland and associated wetland habitats have been managed under sympathetic management regimes and a further 320 ha re-created from arable land. Some of this has only modest value for nature conservation (with the landscape value of these grasslands the main rationale).
  • The technical challenges of the large-scale restoration and management of the area’s wetlands (especially pingo sites) are great. New techniques have facilitated extensive restoration works at Thompson Common, Cranberry Rough, and Hockham, clearing carr to re-establish fen alongside wet woodland, with the introduction of an extensive grazing regime encompassing this and adjacent pingos. Pingo restoration work has also been undertaken on the Stanford military training area and on Foulden Common, and an increasing number of pingo sites (both SSSI and County Wildlife Sites) are now being managed under Environmental Stewardship.
  • The extinct pool frog Rana lessonae (a Brecks specialist, extinct in the United Kingdom since the 1990s) has been reintroduced to one pingo site.
  • Conservation success includes the reversal of decline in the Breckland SPA population of stone curlew with a doubling of the priority species target, 180 breeding pairs by 2010, being met and surpassed ahead of schedule with 230 pairs in 2009. The successful increase in the stone curlew population is predominantly down to nest protection on arable land, which means that currently the population is not sustainable without this intervention.
  • The condition of most (87 per cent) of the NCA’s SSSI has been classified as favourable with 11 per cent unfavourable but recovering.

Settlement and development

  • There has been some expansion of housing around Thetford and Bury St Edmunds on the southern fringe of the area.
  • Vertical structures, including communications masts and the Swaffham and North Pickenham wind turbines are new elements in the landscape.
  • The initial preparatory works for the duelling of A11 between the Fiveways roundabout and Thetford began in the summer of 2012.

Trees and woodlands

  • Managing the Brecks plantations to achieve profitability has continued to be challenging in the context of world timber markets, and the Forestry Commission has sought to broaden the base of income generation, for example, through formal recreation and tourism enterprises. This has increased recreation and tourism to the area and has enabled more people to access and interpret some of the special habitats and rare species found in the Brecks. Increases in the numbers of visitors, although carefully managed, can increase pressures on a limited resource, which has in some cases increased the pressure on the NCA’s sensitive forest/heath habitats and associated bird species.
  • Variation in felling and planting policies and sensitive provision and management of open areas, rides and woodland edge has increased in support of the Breckland Forest SSSI/SPA designation.
  • There has been some loss of ancient trees associated with the estate parklands, as well as old roadside trees and the characteristic pines in the rows and belts, due to the fact that many of these trees are now in decline or senescent. Without planned and targeted replacement, their loss results in the erosion of landscape character.
  • The planting of poplar in Thetford Forest along the Little Ouse has altered the character of the riverside fenlands and obscured the landform. However, as these plantations are abandoned and decay, a rich mix of open fen, carr and standing dead wood is developing.

Drivers of Change (reported in 2014)

Climate Change

  • The Brecks is amongst the warmest and driest parts of the UK, with a markedly less maritime climate than other parts of England.
  • A number of characteristic specially adapted species, more typical of continental climates survive here, on the northern and western edge of their European range. Native species distributions may change as they migrate northwards with increases in temperature.
  • The area supports extensive lowland heathland on sandy, free-draining soils, in addition to pine and broadleaf forests and a productive agricultural system. It is most likely that these are the three elements that will be most modified as a result of climate change.
  • Water availability will continue to be a concern, with the potential loss of specific drought-intolerant species as a result of reduced soil water moisture and rising temperatures, may lead to changes in cropping patterns and land use.
  • Higher temperatures and prolonged periods of drought will put heathland vegetation under stress and increase the risk of wild fire events, impacting on the diversity of habitat structure and species numbers.
  • Erosion and loss of sandy topsoils, as a result of reduced soil moisture and periods of drought leaving exposed ground, can be managed through appropriate land management although unseasonal high rainfall causing flash flooding and increased soil erosion may also be a product of a warming climate.
  • Opportunities arise for increasing the size and connectivity of priority habitats such as heaths, wetlands, arable margins and forest land to provide for species adaptation and movement between favourable sites.
  • The creation of more resilient habitats and landscapes, as well as providing opportunities for creating cooler spaces, such as forest or woodland cover, will be a challenge as the climate changes over the coming years and decades.
  • New detrimental pest species, as well as some beneficial pollinators, may prove more adaptable and successful in a changing climate.
  • Vulnerability of tree crops to pests and diseases is already being seen. Red band needle blight effects pine species with, Corsican pine, lodgepole pine and more recently Scots pine all being affected. It causes premature needle defoliation, resulting in loss of yield and, in severe cases, tree death. 80 per cent of the trees in Thetford forest are already affected.
  • A warmer climate will lead to more resilience in crops and cropping patterns being required, which may also lead to opportunities for the growing of new crops that are more suitable to the changing environment.

Other key drivers

  • The Brecks NCA contains many rare species and valuable habitats of national and international ecological importance. Conserving these features, along with the overall landscape character and historic legacy, from the pressures of climate change, recreation and changing land management processes, will remain key concerns within the Brecks.
  • The need for food security may result in changing farming practices, which may impact on ecological habitats, networks and species, as well as landscape character. Agri-environment schemes provide opportunities to work with land managers to incorporate farmland habitats, develop networks of linked habitats and enhance the rural character of the landscape although increasing the uptake of Environmental Stewardship remains challenging due to high agricultural returns achievable in the area.
  • Increased agricultural production including intensive outdoor pig units may impact on the quality of the soils, increase the stress on water demand and water quality, so will require targeted management. The increased need for water storage facilities such as winter storage reservoirs for food production may provide opportunities for wildlife while sensitive planning of their location will be required to safeguard the distinctive quality of the local landscape.
  • As a consequence of the light sandy soils, cropping is heavily reliant on chemical fertiliser use coupled to irrigation for drought-sensitive crops (for example salad and vegetable crops) and therefore poses major sustainability challenges for the future.
  • The area is likely to remain attractive for recreation, with good access to nature along with opportunities for environmental education and understanding our heritage.
  • Alongside increasing its role in climate change adaptation and mitigation, Thetford Forest has the capacity to increase its contribution as a regional and national recreational resource, leading to opportunities for increased funding for environmental enhancement schemes. The management of visitor numbers will be required to prevent damage and disturbance of sensitive habitats and species.
  • The Thetford Area Action Plan identifies Thetford as a Growth Point with significant future expansion of around 5,000 new homes by 2021. It is unique as a Growth Point being focussed on one town and surrounded by internationally designated nature conservation sites that are both an opportunity and a constraint.
  • Core Strategies of Local Authorities also include some expansion of Bury St Edmunds, Mildenhall and Brandon. Residential development close to the Breckland SPA has to undergo a Habitats Regulations Assessment to ensure that it will not adversely affect the integrity of the internationally important designated site.
  • New developments including the A11 (Fiveways) improvements provide opportunities to ensure a high standard of design and a contribution to green infrastructure increasing opportunities for people to access greenspace and countryside as well as for habitat, landscape and heritage enhancement and climate change adaptation.
  • Future demand for public water supply is likely to increase with potentially 6,000 new homes planned at Thetford alone. Overall demand for water will increase with climate change while the recharge of all water sources is likely to decrease.
  • Conserving and enhancing the nationally important habitats of the river valleys and tributaries of the Little Ouse, Thet, Wissey and Lark as well as managing and enhancing the area’s internationally important wetlands, pingos, meres, creating strong networks for multiple benefits including recreational water and land-based access routes and adaptation to climate change.