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The Brecks are an often-forgotten part of our region. Overlooked by those heading to the Norfolk and Suffolk coast or crossed en-route to the Wash or the Fens. But the area around Thetford Forest is a haven for wildlife, and a new venture - called the Brecks Fen Edge and Rivers Project - is focussing on enhancing its waterways and teaching people how important they are for the region’s future. And the Heritage Lottery Fund have just awarded it £3.3m.
“It’s a huge boost,” says Nick Dickson, who led the funding bid. “Water is so vital to this region because it’s so dry. There’s incredible demand for agriculture and people living their day-to-day lives. But the landscape and wildlife is very susceptible to the changes in this dry area.”
In fact, 20% of the UK total abstraction licences – giving permission to take water directly from the rivers – are here in the Brecks, showing how precious a resource water is. The idea of the project is to restore the rivers, and by doing so, connect smaller areas to create a larger landscape for wildlife to live and people to enjoy.
At Lakenheath Fen there is an abundance of wildlife, co-existing alongside one of the region’s most important airbases. The Little Ouse that runs through the fen is vital for hundreds of birds and animals.
Dave Rogers is the Site manager. “If we don’t have water in the reedbeds, then we don’t have bitterns and cranes and marsh harriers and water voles and otters and so many other species. So, as a water source, the river is absolutely essential. But it’s also a water corridor allowing wildlife to move through the landscape and colonise new areas.”
There are 12,000 species in the Brecks, 2,000 of which are endangered. All of them rely on the 200km of riverways. But, so to do people. And there is concern that with the potential closure of airbases and development in and around the area, that the relationship between water, people and the landscape will become even more important.
The project aims to address this by opening up access paths for people to explore more of the area and run education programmes and workshops teaching people about how important the waterways are now and have been for hundreds of thousands of years.
At West Stow Anglo-Saxon village, they have concentrated on teaching people about the settlement, but this project will allow them to focus more on the link between the water and the civilisations that have lived here. “It’s a crucial relationship with people living off the landscape. The occupational use of the site wouldn’t have happened without the rivers and waterways to help them survive off the land”, explains Lance Anderson, the Heritage Operations Manager. “This project will really start to help people understand our ancestors and how we can appreciate the landscape today.”
There is evidence of human presence in the region from 600,000 years ago. They settled along the rivers and depended on its vital resource. In teaching people the history of this landscape it’s hoped they will use the knowledge to value it now and protect its future.