£240,000 project will use data to help reconnect wildlife habitats

The launch of the Claylands Wilder Connections project.

Norfolk Wildlife Trust staff at the launch of the Claylands Wilder Connections project - Credit: Danielle Booden

State-of-the-art habitat heat-mapping will be used in a £240,000 project to help farmers, communities and conservationists target their efforts for Norfolk wildlife.

Norfolk Wildlife Trust (NWT) has launched its Claylands Wilder Connections project to kick-start nature recovery networks in three "hubs" located alongside the A140 south of Norwich, north-west of Bungay and around Diss. 

It aims to recreate and reconnect important habitats in the South Norfolk Claylands, home to ancient woodlands, grassland, hedgerows, ponds, greens, commons and river valleys.

NWT chief executive Eliot Lyne said the area contains "some of the last refuges for declining meadow wildflowers and butterflies and supports a number of species of bats, as well as a healthy population of barn owls and important populations of great crested newt.”

A barn owl hunting at twilight

A barn owl hunting at twilight - Credit: Peter Dent / iWitness24

But many once-connected habitats have become isolated due to encroaching housing developments and a move towards larger-scale farming.

So the project will be using pioneering habitat "heat mapping" to help landowners and communities work together to support nature in priority locations.

Matt Jones, NWT's living landscapes officer, is leading the project which aims to generate useable information from a raft of available data sets including habitat maps from satellite imagery, species records, and the locations of woodlands, trees and ponds.

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"Most notably, the trust commissioned the University of Southampton to develop from these data sets a series of connectivity heat maps, which give a visual representation of how well habitats are currently connected," he said.

"We can use that information to start to show where we might best intervene to improve the connectivity across the landscape. It might mean we can reinforce where there are reasonably good links now to make them more robust, or we could look at where there are breaks in the linkage, and how we could restore them. 

A heat map for woodland connectivity in South Norfolk

A heat map for woodland connectivity in South Norfolk. The darker the red colour, the less well connected the habitat (shown in green). NWT has also commissioned similar maps focusing on grassland and wetland - Credit: Norfolk Wildlife Trust

"One of the key outputs of this project is how best to present and use all that data to allow landowners, farmers, local communities, schools, parishes and businesses to make informed decisions about where they might best intervene. 

"We are trying to get more of a landscape-scale view of things. It is bringing that science and information to bear to make sure people are making sensible and efficient decisions that will maximise the benefits for wildlife and biodiversity."

One target hub is centred around an existing partnership of landowners working together for wildlife near Bungay.

Dr Emily Winter, facilitator for the Waveney, Water and Woodlands Farm Cluster (WWWFC)

Dr Emily Winter, facilitator for the Waveney, Water and Woodlands Farm Cluster (WWWFC) - Credit: Chris Hill

The Waveney, Water and Woodlands Farm Cluster (WWWFC) is managed by Dr Emily Winter, who also has a role on her family's farm in Denton.

"Lots of species require movement and dispersal over scales that are much bigger than a single farm holding," she said. "So we do need joined-up thinking and we have lost a huge amount of our wild habitats within the landscape, so being able to connect what is left is hugely important for the species remaining. 

"It is not always practical to provide a physical connection. But it could be providing stepping stones or narrowing the gaps between priority habitats.

"If you look at a landscape scale and look at neighbouring farm holdings to see how you can link these habitats together, you will be serving the wildlife much better than if you just look inside our own holdings."

Norfolk wildlife trust staff at the launch of the Claylands Wilder Connections project.

The launch of the Claylands Wilder Connections project. From left, Rose Eddington, a member of Heritage and Habitat, with Norfolk Wildlife Trust chief executive Eliot Lyne, acting conservation manager Helen Baczkowska, habitat connectivity officer, Ben Newton, Claylands community engagement officer Sue Grime, living landscape officer Matt Jones, and senior community engagement officer Gemma Walker, in Gissing. - Credit: Danielle Booden

Helen Baczkowska, NWT's acting conservation manager, said the Norfolk Claylands are perfect for this project pilot.

"Despite the many changes of our landscape in the past 500 years, the elements of this ancient, unplanned countryside are right here," she said.

"Turn off the main road and you find yourself among tall old hedges with pollards of hornbeam or oak, or ponds formed from clay pits, once used for building materials.

Great crested newt

A great crested newt - Credit: Rob Peacock

"All of these are wonderful for wildlife and evidence of how, for thousands of years, the human and natural histories of this landscape have been closely linked.

“This project will help us restore and expand the connections between these habitat fragments and provide vital help to wildlife as a result." 

The Claylands Wilder Connections project is being funded through the government's Green Recovery Challenge Fund. The NWT is working with Norfolk County Council and supported by People’s Trust for Endangered Species, Norfolk FWAG and RSPB.

People can find out how to get involved through six "Making the Connection" events this winter, hosted in community venues and wild spaces within each hub and including talks and wildlife walks. 

And in November, the project’s first online species survey will ask South Norfolk communities to share their winter owl sightings through an interactive digital map. 

Common carder bee on a sulphur clover flower

A common carder bee on a sulphur clover flower - one of the flagship plant species in the Norfolk Claylands - Credit: Henry Walker

A sample map showing some of the satellite-derived habitat data available for the NWT Claylands Wilder Connections project

A sample map showing some of the satellite-derived habitat data available for the NWT Claylands Wilder Connections project - Credit: Norfolk Wildlife Trust

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