What plants do you see on a heath? Heather obviously, gorse certainly, and bracken; but trees are almost forbidden. Since the Scots pine thrives on sandy soils, for instance on Thetford Heath where it used to provide wind breaks, I would allow them, but not the invasive birch tree, nor other broad leafed trees. You can see them growing in the heathland pictured above, and if not ruthlessly removed the heath will return to woodland. Once quick-growing trees (such as birch) become established the longer lived oaks will soon take over.
Mousehold Heath is now a tiny scrap of gorse and heather between the Ring Road and St James’s Hill, the remains of a huge heath that once stretched from South Walsham to the edge of the city of Norwich. Brush and scrub have been allowed to colonise most of the remaining area of public land, giving a very different view from the wide open spaces that you can see on Mousehold Heath in the paintings of Old Crome and the other members of the Norwich School.
Even in my lifetime I have noticed the encroachment of young birch trees. These begin in a small way so that you hardly notice them, but within a few years they are fully grown trees that people would regard it as sacrilege to root up. Yet Mousehold Heath would have disappeared many centuries ago had not regular burning kept the advancing woodland at bay. As it happens, those other demands for agricultural land and housing have been even more effective (during the last 200 years) in banishing woodland from Mousehold Heath, but they have also banished the very heathland itself.
A few of Norfolk’s heaths remain; I am thinking particularly of Kelling Heath. Salhouse Heath must once have been a continuation of Kelling Heath. Some areas of heathland remain in Thetford Forest but most that is now taken up with forestry trees. Most of Norfolk’s heaths exist only as names on old maps. Bawdeswell Heath is now just farmland and Poringland Heath is a built-up area of the village. The map will reveal the positions of many of these heaths that will no longer be evident on the ground. It is the sandier and more acidic areas of the county which were likely to have heathland; the clay soils, chalk lands and peaty fenland areas are not suitable for producing heaths.
The wildlife of the heaths of Norfolk comes into its own in the summer. Although gorse will flower in all months of the year, August and September is when the purple heather is in bloom. Blackberries will fruit from late August and butterflies flutter around the heather throughout the summer. Adders are about, but they are so shy that I will never seen one, although I have surely been quite close. Lizards may well scuttle out of the sun as you approach, but the land is too dry to support frogs and toads. Rabbits will sometimes be present but they prefer more grass than is usually available on the heath. Although in the past heathland was used for grazing sheep the food value of the flora was not high. The reason heathland was managed was to provide something at least for animals to eat; the woodland which would have grown naturally provided no fodder, except until the mature oaks gave an annual crop acorns for the pigs to forage. Before artificial fertilizers were available there was no way of increasing the fertility of the land to put it down to pasture. There was just not enough natural fertilizer (i.e. animal dung) to go round.
The Brecks which lie on the borders of Norfolk and Suffolk provide a particular kind of heathland environment. It has extremes of temperature, and Stanton Downham weather station (which is in the centre of the Brecks) often records the hottest daytime temperatures and the coldest nights in East Anglia. Whereas heaths have to be managed to survive, the Brecklands seem a more natural landscape. This is the driest part of the country, and perhaps long periods of drought help to suppress the growth of young trees. Heather is the plant most associated with heaths and similarly bracken must be the flora with a linguistic connection with Breckland. The medieval form of Breckland was Brakelonde, and ‘brake’ is still a term meaning a thicket of ferns (i.e. bracken).
Rabbits were the prime fauna of Breckland and were farmed on a large-scale for hundreds of years. A branch of my family were warners in Lakenheath in Breckland, going back at least to the 17th century. There is more grassland in the Brecks than typically one finds on heaths, and this must have encouraged these rodents.
I must live on the very edge of Breckland, for the road nearly opposite mine is called Breck Farm Lane, and Breckland District Council extends to within a mile or two of my home. The Stanford Battle Area has done much to preserve a wild area of Breckland into the 21st century, and for this we must be grateful.