Please note that many of these articles were originally written for the old GB Wildlife site in between 2008 – 2010 and organisations may have changed since then.

 

Wildlife Blogs – The Great Visions of the Great Fen

© Laurie Campbell.

© Laurie Campbell.

Beside the East Coast Main Line, between Huntingdon and Peterborough, lies an environmental project with tremendous restorative qualities and great vision. Thousands of acres of land are being restored to fenland habitat, benefiting wildlife and enriching the lives of those who live in, or visit, the East of England.

The Great Fen Project will eventually encompass more than 9,000 acres, and link together two extremely precious pockets of fenland habitat – Holme Fen and Woodwalton Fen National Nature Reserves. Whilst a full transformation from farmland to fenland may take one hundred years, the project is ahead of schedule and ecological restoration efforts are apparent, even to an untrained eye.

Cambridgeshire is a thriving county, with the highest population growth in the country, and there is a real need to provide publicly accessible “green” space for new and existing communities. The Great Fen Project has the potential to provide just such a haven for people and wildlife alike.

In rural Cambridgeshire the economy is heavily dependent on agriculture which, in the Fens, relies on the – up until now – rich resource of peat soil exposed after the area was drained in 1851. However, current intensive farming practices and climatic conditions are responsible for the loss of about two centimetres of peat soil each year. Like any other organic substance, when peat is exposed to air (which happens when soil is tilled), it oxidises and dries up. Thus, on current projections, the peat soil could be depleted in about fifty years and farming will become less productive.

The Great Fen Project will ensure that the precious peat resource – and the wildlife that thrives thereon – is preserved. Grasses and reeds will be allowed to grow and water levels will be raised slowly over time. This will create new wildlife habitats and provide for great recreational opportunities.

However, the project will not mark the end of farming. The project partners are already entering into productive relations with farmers to help with restoration work on the land, raising water levels and putting down grass seed. Already grazers are rearing cattle on the land, and plans are in place to develop traditional industries such as grazing, reed harvesting and hay cutting on the project area.

The project poses additional socio-economic benefits for the area. As more visitors come to the fen, more jobs in the hospitality sector will be created. Demand for guided tours, education, local crafts and recreation activities will mean the whole area will be transformed into a sustainable and productive socio-economic area.

Restoring the landscape to its original “sponge” form will also help prevent flooding. The Great Fen Project already plays an important and inherent part in flood prevention planning. Currently, Woodwalton Fen is used to store floodwater at times of high flow. As the Great Fen Project progresses and more land is restored to fenland habitat, it will seek to enhance flood protection by increasing flood storage areas within the Great Fen, further protecting homes and land around the area.

Project partners now hold almost 60% of the land in the project area, and in 2007 the project was also successful in its bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund for a grant of £7.2 million.

The project has also continued to increase its popularity with distinguished Patrons. The author, comedian and actor Stephen Fry has returned to the location of his childhood and Cambridge days to become the project President. His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales is the Royal Patron. Beth Rothschild, whose great-grandfather Charles Rothschild originally saved Woodwalton Fen and began the conservation movement, Tim Smit, Co-Founder and Chief-Executive of the Eden Project and former Prime Minister John Major have pledged their support. And just last month TV presenter and naturalist Nigel Marven became the latest Patron to join the project.

© Laurie Campbell - Common Blue Damselfly.

© Laurie Campbell – Common Blue Damselfly.

A journey into Woodwalton Fen will transport the visitor into Arthur Conan Doyle’s magical Lost World.
‘a landscape roughly tinted in colour… There was a pale-green foreground of feathery vegetation. At one point was an isolated, great tree. Behind it all, a blue tropical sky.
“Wonderful!” he repeated. “It is unique. It is incredible. No one on earth has ever dreamed of such a possibility.”’
The Fens hold a peaceful, lost world isolated from the modern world; virtually unchanged since they were first formed.

One feels quite removed from the hectic outside world. A walk through the reeds along soft, wide paths, overhead, dragonflies dart to and fro, swans glide over the water and occasionally a ruddy flash as a chinese water deer darts from the undergrowth. The only sound is the birdsong and wind rustling through acres of grasses and reeds. This is escapism in its purest form, and the sense of calm is tangible.

Roaming these wilds, one can also lose oneself in the rich history of the Fens. The area of the Great Fen Project tells a story of a time past. Among the elegant birch trees of Holme Fen stands a tall metal pole. The Holme Post is a unique piece of fenland history, plotting the drastic depletion of peat since the drainage of the Fens in the 1850s. To the north of the project area, there was once the great Whittlesey Mere – the largest lake in southern England – which not only provided a haven for wildlife, but dominated the social and economic intricacies of fenland life. Catching fish, shooting wildfowl and harvesting reed provided a sustainable source of income for the area. It also provided an arena for social and recreational activities. The cold winters created huge sheets of ice providing for great skating events, which drew thousands of people from miles around. In the summer months, large regattas were held and the nobility enjoyed warm weeks camped in fleets of vessels on the Mere.

However, in 1850, amidst great dissension from fenland inhabitants, the Mere was drained. Pumps were installed, and after a few months, the waters of Whittlesey Mere – and the wildlife and social activities it provided for – were gone. As the land dried out, the peat began to shrink. To mark this ‘success’, the Holme Post was delved into the ground with its top flush at the level of the soil. During the 150 years that have passed since then, the peat has shrunk to expose more and more of the pillar. It now stands 4 meters high. As one stands below this incredible post, the mind struggles to comprehend a different life that existed when the ground was many feet higher.

Eventually, the whole of the Great Fen Project will resemble Woodwalton and Home Fens, thanks to the efforts of the five partners involved – Environment Agency, Natural England, Huntingdonshire District Council, Middle Level Commissioners, and the local Wildlife Trust.

This will allow far more space for rare species to thrive, creating a valuable place to conduct research. It will also provide an even greater space for us to enjoy, away from the bustle of everyday life.

Take a visit to the Great Fen Project, where you can take a step back in time to when a vast mosaic of rivers, streams and marshes stretched before your eyes in this beautiful part of the country.

FOOTNOTE:
For more information about the Great Fen Project, visit http://www.greatfen.org.uk, email info@greatfen.org.uk or call +44 (0)1487 815524. Visitors are welcome at both Woodwalton and Holme Fens, although dogs are not allowed at Woodwalton.