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Birds and Bunnies at East Wretham Common

Once shaken by roaring Second World War aeroplanes, this is now a peaceful nature reserve.

Distance 2.7 miles (4.4km)

Minimum time 1hr

Ascent/gradient Negligible

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Gravel track and way-marked trails across heath

Landscape Heathland with some sparse pine plantations

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 229 Thetford Forest in the Brecks

Start/finish TL 913885

Dog friendliness No dogs allowed in nature reserve

Parking Norfolk Wildlife Trust car park off A1075. Open 8am to dusk

Public toilets None on route

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1 From the car park go through the gate and follow the trail marked by green-and-white arrows. This will take you over sandy Breckland heath that is pitted with rabbit warrens, so watch your step. Rabbits can nearly always be seen here. When you reach a kissing gate, follow the green arrow trail that takes you to the right through a pine plantation. You might notice traces of tarmac underfoot, a relic of the airbase.

2 At an electric fence with a bench on the other side (!), inspect the area beyond. You may see the crumbling remains of the airfield's concrete and tarmac 'panhandle' dispersal point. Make a sharp left, ignoring the green arrow that will take you on a shorter route, and continue on.

3 Go right at the bend to this path, passing more ruins before you reach a grassy track. Turn right, so that Langmere is on your left. A little way down the path is a sign pointing to the bird hide, an excellent place to watch resident waterfowl. However, because the water level in the mere is dependent on the water table (that is, how much water has been extracted artificially, as well as how much it has rained recently), the hide is often flooded, and therefore closed. Continue along the path, following the white arrows. Eventually, you reach another kissing gate.

4 Go through the kissing gate on to old Drove Road. This is part of the Hereward Way and is a wide gravel track with fences on either side. The Norfolk Wildlife Trust opens and closes parts of the reserve depending on season and weather conditions, so it is sometimes possible to extend the walk to Ringmere. Hopefully, you will be able to do this, in which case turn right off the Drove Road and, after reaching Ringmere, return the same way. Look for notices along the road to see if the path is open. The Drove Road will then take you past the memorial to Sydney Herbert Long, who founded the Norfolk Naturalists' Trust in 1926.

5 At the A1075, turn left and follow the marker posts back to the car park.

When you arrive at East Wretham Nature Reserve, and walk a short distance from the busy A1075, you will hear waterfowl clanking and splashing on Langmere, songbirds chattering in the gorse, the bleat of sheep and the hiss of the wind whispering through the pine trees. It is difficult to imagine that, during the Second World War, this was a large and bustling military base, with thundering Wellington and Lancaster bombers shattering the peace of the countryside. The Czech Training Unit were also based here, a situation similar to the one depicted in the 2002 film Dark Blue World.

The heath was acquired in 1938 by the Norfolk Naturalists' Trust (now the Norfolk Wildlife Trust), because the sandy scrub contained such a wide variety of plants and animals. Among its treasures are some rare spiders and moths, and unusual butterflies, such as small skipper, brown argus, grayling and Essex. However, nature came second to defence in 1939, and the Trust was obliged to relinquish it to the RAF shortly after. The military remained until 1970, but their concrete airstrips, roads and buildings are slowly being colonised by mosses, lichens and wildflowers such as vipers bugloss, dark mullein and wall pepper, indicating that nature has the upper hand once more.

The heath was the first nature reserve ever established in Breckland. It owes its current form to grazing by sheep and rabbits, which prevent it from becoming scrubland again. The first rabbits were introduced to England just after the Norman Conquest, when their fur and meat were a highly prized commodity. They were farmed in warrens and were rare and expensive - a far cry from their status today! Their sharp teeth prevent the area from being over-colonised by bracken, allowing delicate wildflowers to thrive. These include hair grass, thyme-leaved speedwell, heath bedstraw, harebells and early forget-me-nots.

In the 18th century, a belt of Waterloo pines was planted to shelter the heath from the prevailing winds and to help anchor down the light sandy soil. These days, oaks and birches have joined them, providing a haven for yellowhammers, willow warblers, finches and tree pipets. The old pines have been gnarled and moulded by time and winds, and now form dramatic shapes across the Norfolk skyline.

This unique area is important for all sorts of reasons. It provides a unique habitat for a number of rare or unusual birds, animals, plants and insects. It is also one of the few surviving areas of Breckland that has not been encroached by farms or other human development. For more information on the Brecklands and the conservation programmes that are currently in operation, contact the Norfolk Wildlife Trust.

Where to eat and drink

There is nowhere to stop for refreshment on the route, since the entire walk is on a nature reserve. However, the Dog and Partridge at nearby East Wretham has good food and a wide range of ales. It has a beer garden at the back, which is a pleasant place to rest after your stroll across the common.

While you're there

You can continue walking west along the Drove Road, which is also known as the Hereward Way, to the Devil's Punchbowl, a sinister tree-shrouded pool. The town of Thetford is also worth a visit. It has one of the tallest castle mounds in the country - about 80ft (24m) - dating from before 1086, along with the remains of a once-powerful Cluniac priory.

What to look for

The stone curlew often visits in the summer. You can identify it by its 'coolee' call and, when it is flying, by the white bands on its wings. Look for crossbills among the pines, feeding with their sharp beaks among the pine cones. They are not native to the area, but will come if the pine crops fail in Scandinavia.

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