How Our Fens Were Sacrificed for More Farms
Randall, David, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
Loss of wetlands and wildlife is 'a catastrophe beyond comprehension', claims a new book
Very few parts of the British landscape have eluded great change in the past 1,000 years, but none of them has suffered a loss which can remotely compare to that of the fens of eastern England. These vast wetlands once stretched from just above Cambridge to north Yorkshire. But, at first gradually and then systematically, they have been all but destroyed, the loss amounting to around 3,500 square miles.
The story of this, the biggest transformation of nature in British history, is told in a new book, The Lost Fens. Its author, Ian D Rotherham, calls what has happened "the greatest single loss of wildlife habitat in Britain and maybe Europe. This was an ecological catastrophe almost beyond comprehension."
Instead of this rich wilderness, we now have sanitised, chemicalised agricultural acres that stretch for mile upon mile, and are more inhospitable to wildlife than the most decked, patioed, and over-tended suburban garden. Thus we have traded in what Rotherham calls the richest landscape for nature in all of Britain for food- growing on an industrial scale.
The fens were a vast floodplain with reed beds, swamps, slow, dawdling rivers, damp woods of alder and willow, bogs and pools. Most of all, they remained for longer than any other part of lowland Britain, primeval places, where wildlife fared better than humans. In the sluggish waterways eels thrived in such quantity that the monks of Ramsey in Cambridgeshire paid for the use of a stone quarry with a rent of 3,000 eels, and could, apparently, have made it 10 times that amount without depleting their own supplies. The same applied to birds and waterfowl. Rotherham reports that the feast for the enthronement of George Neville as Archbishop of York in 1466 included 204 cranes, 200 bitterns, 400 young heron, hundreds of ruff, woodcock and curlew, and a thousand egrets.
But it was the arrival of Dutch experts in the 17th century, the use of windmills to drive pumps, and then the use of steam power in the 19th century, that sucked the water and the life out of the fens. …