NWT Weeting Heath is the best site in the country to watch the rare and unusual stone curlew. The species requires open, stony ground with short vegetation to breed, making the close-cropped turf of Weeting an ideal site. This special Breckland habitat has to be specially managed to keep it so low – as well as sheep, NWT employs eager volunteers: rabbits.
The heath is also home to woodlarks, green woodpeckers, lapwings and mistle thrushes. Other birds possible from the hides include kestrel, little owl, sparrowhawk, common buzzard, marsh harrier and, in summer, hobby.
Woodland birds are common in the trees around the visitor centre and on the woodland walk, with crossbills, tree pipits and spotted flycatchers sometimes seen. Numerous rare plants and invertebrates are also found on Weeting Heath, which is one of the finest remaining Breckland grass heaths. Indeed, the 2011 Breckland Biodiversity Audit led by the University of East Anglia (covering the whole of the Brecks) showed that more than 28% of all the UK’s rare species occurred in an area of less than 1% of the UK.
Though unpopular with farmers, rabbits play a vital role in managing Weeting’s delicate grasslands. Without them, many special plants would disappear from the site – as well as the stone curlews. Rabbits have also played a major role in the wider Breckland landscape; as early as the 12th century the region’s dry, sandy soils facilitated the widespread prevalence of rabbit warrens, with the animals kept for their meat, fur and manure. A visit to Weeting today is rather different, but visitors today are guaranteed to see many of these cute little mammals carrying on their excellent conservation management of the reserve’s heathland.
The stone curlew, or Norfolk plover, is a species of wader, but is not (as its name might suggest) related to the Eurasian curlew. In fact, the stone curlew is the only European representative of the Thick-knee family and does indeed have rather knobbly knees – though you’ll need a very good view to actually see this! Plumage-wise stone curlews are brown and streaky, possessing an almost dinosaur-like appearance with their strong bill, long yellowish legs, and their most distinctive feature – their large yellow eyes. This has led to another of their historical names: the goggle-eyed plover. Surprisingly, stone curlews are not always easy to spot, as they can somehow manage to look remarkably like a rabbit from a distance. Often, too, the birds sit motionless for long periods (particularly when on the nest) and it is not until they move across the ground in short, running bursts that they become obvious. Towards dusk, however, their activity levels rise and they often begin to make their haunting, wailing calls.
Shorter-tailed than the more widespread skylark, the woodlark also differs in having a distinct eye-stripe, which meets at the back of its head. In spring, the species carries out a beautiful, flute-like song flight. These birds can often be seen feeding on the short grass in front of the hides.