Rare plant life on RAF Lakenheath protected

  • Published
  • By Sara Harr
  • 48th Fighter Wing
Every day members of the RAF Lakenheath community hear the roar of F-15E engines as they burst to life. Flight line traffic moves at a constant, fast pace; carrying out the mission of the U.S. Air Force. But beneath the asphalt, fuel, and hundreds of thousands of tons of metal, lies a delicate environment established in the Middle Ages.

RAF Lakenheath is the site of medieval warrens, areas where free hunting was protected under the Anglo-Saxon Forest Law. This law allowed owners of the warren area to hunt without being fined or charged by the monarchy. The warren at Lakenheath was used to house sheep and collect their meat and wool. Later, rabbits were introduced to the area by a Royal Charter issued by King Henry VIII.

The eating habits of the rabbits in this area ultimately made drastic changes to the plant life on the base. Rabbit grazing ensured the survival of medieval plant life, and later changed the entire ecosystem to what you see around the flight line today. The rarity of the plant life at RAF Lakenheath has made the installation a Site of Special Scientific Interest by Natural England.

Among the plant life protected by English Nature is the wild grape hyacinth, a smaller version of its commercial sister, the grape hyacinth, which is available for purchase in most home improvement stores. The wild grape hyacinth is quite small and not easily noticed, but RAF Lakenheath is home to the largest amount of the plant within the entire United Kingdom. The presence of this plant on the base is significant.

"RAF Lakenheath is like a time capsule," said Richard Southgate, environmental program manager, 48th Civil Engineer Squadron. "The vegetation you see on the flight line now is exactly the same as it was during World War II and before."

The continuity of the base plant life, specifically the wild grape hyacinth, is a result of a special regiment designed to promote growth and protect current bulbs. Normally, grass is cut on a weekly or as-needed basis. In the case of the wild grape hyacinth, the grass is only cut September through February, allowing free growth from March to August. The bulbs are left to dry out and seed naturally.

"Wild grape hyacinths like poor quality soil," said Mr. Southgate. "We have an abundance of that soil in this area."

In addition to the wild grape hyacinth, RAF Lakenheath boasts an impressive growth of the perennial knawel, one of the most vulnerable plant species on the SSSI list. According to Natural England, the plant has only been found in Norfolk, Suffolk, and Cambridgeshire with no more than nine sites in recorded history. To preserve this rare plant species RAF Lakenheath uses a mowing technique that mimics rabbit grazing. The perennial knawel is so rare; it is the only plant on RAF Lakenheath that could potentially stop the mission.

RAF Lakenheath also grows 17 varieties of grass.

"It's not the species of grass that is unique, but the combination of these species growing in one area," Mr. Southgate went on to say.

The areas in which these species of grass grow are also protected by the SSSI. In fact, no herbicides or pesticides are used as a measure to protect the survival of the grass.

As a further measure of protecting grass and plants, the SSSI requires any digging to be approved by Natural England. All grass areas on the RAF Lakenheath flight line protected by the SSSI must be dug carefully and put aside until the digging project is completed. The grass and dirt must then be carefully moved back into the area, using no new soil or seeds.

RAF Lakenheath personnel must also take measures to protect these rare plants. Natural England recommends treating the grassland and rare plants with respect, refraining from any actions that will damage the area. This includes refraining from digging, engineering works, and driving on the grass.

For more information about the plant life on RAF Lakenheath, contact the 48th Civil Engineering Squadron environmental experts at 226-3990.