Science and Nature: Water World ; an Ambitious Project to Bring Back the Lost Fens of Cambridgeshire Is Now under Way. PETER MARREN Reports on a Tug-of-War between Farming and Conservation

By Marren, Peter | The Independent (London, England), September 16, 2002 | Go to article overview
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Science and Nature: Water World ; an Ambitious Project to Bring Back the Lost Fens of Cambridgeshire Is Now under Way. PETER MARREN Reports on a Tug-of-War between Farming and Conservation


Marren, Peter, The Independent (London, England)


Adventurers Fen, named after the merchant adventurers of old, who began the great drainage of the Cambridge-shire Fens, has a strange, tide-turning history. One hundred years ago, it was acquired by the National Trust, supposedly in perpetuity, as a nature reserve. Its marshy glories were recalled in a book by the bird artist, Eric Ennion. Then, in the 1940s, Adventurers Fen was requisitioned under the wartime "Dig for Victory" food production campaign. In a way, the digging up of this deepest of fens, this natural hollow in the flattest, lowest corner of England, was as great and surprising achievement as its conservation. The man who did it, farmer Alan Bloom, also wrote a book. In it, he described with pride how the fenny watercourses were transformed into deep trenches, the bog oaks preserved in the peat blown to pieces by dynamite, the drying reeds set ablaze.

Adventurers Fen's pair of books make a parable of the perpetual tug between exploitation and conservation, between use and delight, which has shaped the landscape of today. Which Adventurers Fen serves Britain best, the one of bitterns or the one of potatoes? The traditional answer, in the Fens must be potatoes. The Fens of Cambridgeshire must be among the most artificial non-urban landscapes on the planet. Even great cities contain green spaces that preserve the land as it was before houses were built. London has its wild parks and commons, Bristol the gorge of the Avon, Edinburgh its mountain heart at Arthur's Seat. But the Fens have been wiped clean by drainage engineers. The old riverscape of floodlands and slow, winding streams has been turned into a grid of lodes and drains scoring through a flat prairie. The few patches of wild that survived as washland are often described as "islands", when they are the opposite: patches of wet in a boundless level of dry. Only the names survive: Soham and Whittlesey Meres, the natural lakes long ago drained away, or Bottisham, Swaffham and Burwell Fens.

The rainwater and streams that kept the Fens wet are now conveyed to the sea by the steep-sided lodes and the high banked main rivers. The blanket of peat that once covered the bottomlands between Cambridge, Ely and Huntingdon has been stripped or recycled back into the fertile soils of the modern Fens. The old Fens have gone forever. Or have they? A recent feasibility study commissioned by the National Trust has concluded that much of the Fen between Cambridge and Wicken could be reflooded. In the Netherlands, large tracts of former intensively cultivated arable land has been returned to fen. The secret lies in the same process that created the farms - water control. Banks and lodes can be used to keep the water in, as well as out. A system of banks and dams could even allow farms and fen to exist side by side.

The conservationists who look after the last natural remnants of fen are worried. The nature reserves at Wicken and Woodwalton Fen have a sorry record of losses since they were set up, nearly a century ago.

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Science and Nature: Water World ; an Ambitious Project to Bring Back the Lost Fens of Cambridgeshire Is Now under Way. PETER MARREN Reports on a Tug-of-War between Farming and Conservation
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