RESTORING THE GLORY OF WATERWORLD ; an Ancient Landscape Is Revived; A Project to Replace Arable Fields with Pools and Reedbeds Will Create Habitat for Threatened Wildlife in the Fens. Michael McCarthy Reports
McCarthy, Michael, The Independent (London, England)
The Fens are coming back. Southern England's long-lost great wetland is to be recreated on a massive scale by several huge restoration projects which will turn farmland into watery wilderness.
In terms of putting back the countryside to the way it once was, Britain has seen nothing like it. The various schemes aim to recreate a total of nearly 25,000 acres of wetland " continuous stretches of reedbeds, marsh, wet grassland and lakes " which, it is hoped, will not only be teeming with birds and mammals, wild flowers and butterflies, but will provide a much-needed amenity which people can wander through on foot, on bicycles, sometimes on horseback or even in boats.
Cambridgeshire, where most of the projects are set, is the poorest country in England for wildlife and rural recreation. It has less than half the national average of publicly accessible countryside, and the lack of it will become even more telling with the large-scale housing development now targeted at the region. Up to 200,000 new homes are expected by 2025.
The county is such a disappointment for wildlife and worthwhile country walks because it is given over to intensive agriculture, which is itself a direct result of the drainage of the Fens over the past 400 years. The peat of the drained fenland provides a very rich soil, which supports mile after mile of sugar beet, wheat and carrot fields, although as it dries out it is steadily shrinking and eroding.
The transformation has been immense. Once, the Fens covered nearly 3,000 square miles of the low-lying ground between Cambridge and the Wash, roughly bounded by Peterborough to the west and the dry Brecklands of Norfolk and Suffolk to the east. They formed a strange and impenetrable swampland which the local inhabitants, who lived by wildfowling, peat-digging and cutting reeds for thatch, learnt to walk through on stilts.
This was Britain's equivalent of the Florida Everglades, and a landscape of legends; it was from the Isle of Ely, deep in the Fens, that the mysterious figure of Hereward the Wake led his Anglo-Saxon resistance to William the Conqueror after 1066. But it began to disappear in the 17th century, when landowners brought over Dutch engineers skilled at draining large areas of marsh by cutting channels and dykes. The drainage continued steadily for two centuries and reached a peak with the draining of Whittlesey Mere near Peterborough, the largest stretch of open water in lowland England, in 1851.
More than 99 per cent of the Fens went, and a unique countryside disappeared. But what has been lost even more, conservationists now realise from the few fragments of natural fenland that remain, was a wildlife reservoir of unparalleled richness, supporting flourishing communities of specialised animals, birds, plants and insects, many of which are now rare, such as the water shrew, the bittern, the fen violet and the swallowtail butterfly.
The main restoration projects are centred on these remaining fragments, now islands of biodiversity in a sterile sea of sugar beet. Three in particular provide the focus " Wood Walton Fen, Wicken Fen, and the Ouse Washes. All have long been celebrated nature reserves, and all are now to expand.
Wood Walton Fen, in what used to be Huntingdonshire, is at the heart of the Great Fen Project, which is a partnership between English Nature (the government's wildlife advisory body); the Environment Agency; Huntingdonshire District Council and the Wildlife Trust for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, North-amptonshire and Peterborough. Managed by the trust, the project aims to restore more than 9,000 acres of fenland from arable land between Peterborough and Huntingdon.
A similar scheme is envisaged for Wicken Fen, north-east of Cambridge, which is owned and managed by the National Trust. Here, the projected expansion is even bigger, aiming to restore 10,000 acres to fenland in a south-westerly direction, almost to the boundary of Cambridge itself. …