NWT Weeting Heath has seen a remarkable rise in its rabbit population this spring, an increase which is highly beneficial to many a rare and much-loved species, including the enigmatic stone curlew.
Norfolk Wildlife Trust has been actively encouraging the rabbit population at NWT Weeting Heath as they are an essential part of the ecology of lichen grass heath. They create ground disturbance which is ideal for rare invertebrates, birds and plants. The natural grazing habits keep the grass much shorter than sheep can, providing perfect nesting conditions for the enigmatic stone curlew.
NWT Breckland Field Officer Darrell Stevens said: “Rabbits are not a pest here, but a crucial partner in our conservation work and we love ‘em. They keep the grass short enough to encourage back our beloved stone curlews. The stone curlew is a rare and secretive breeding bird, found only in south and east England, from Wiltshire to Norfolk. They are a ground-nesting bird, and so require open land, for which Weeting Heath is ideal. Seen at close range, they have sandy brown plumage, yellow legs, black-tipped yellow bill and large yellow eyes.”
In previous years the decrease of rabbits has been quite horrific, with many rabbits dying of myxomatosis in 2004. This resulted in a catastrophic die off and a huge population crash, with all the rabbits fighting for food and susceptible to disease. As the grass started to grow back, the rabbit’s population continued to fall. Rabbits will only colonise in short grass, as they like to see around them. This is the same for the stone curlew, who depends on a clear sight line of approx. 400 metres.
Rabbits were introduced to the Norfolk area by the Normans, and their foraging created the short grassland, rich in mosses and lichens, that we see today. The disturbed ground of NWT Weeting Heath is thoroughly enjoyed by the Stone Curlew’s who rest and breed there, as the short grass heath is alive with thousands of invertebrates, rendering these habitats as ideal feeding grounds.
NWT Weeting Heath was the first nature reserve in the UK to fence rabbits in and use them as a primary management tool. The nature reserve and visitor centre is open now - call 01842 827615 for further information.