Get close to nature on the GREAT FEN
During the 17th century a consortium of wealthy landowners led by the 4th Earl of Bedford employed a Dutch engineer called Cornelius Vermuyden to design a drainage scheme in the fens that would turn hostile, unproductive wetland into profitable farms.
Two straight cuts of more than 20 miles each were created from Earith in Cambridgeshire to Denver in Norfolk. They drained water from the River Great Ouse out towards King’s Lynn and the Wash. It was the first step in a long and dramatic process that would turn natural marshland into arguably England’s richest arable farmland.
There was a price to pay, of course. Virtually all the unique wild wetland vanished for ever and with it went much of the wildlife. But all was not lost because four tiny fragments of that early environment live on and are thriving in the Cambridgeshire fens today.
Two of these precious natural gems are Holme Fen and Woodwalton Fen, both National Nature Reserves managed by Natural England. They sit one above the other between Peterborough and Huntingdon and are among the final remnants of the last great East Anglian fenland. Together the reserves are home to internationally important flora and fauna and are surviving. However, the two fens remain separate entities, too small and isolated to support the special wetland species and therefore unsustainable in the long term.
This is where one of the largest land restoration undertakings in Europe comes in — the Great Fen project. Set up in 2001 its aim is to link the two reserves to create a mosaic of new fenland habitat, which in parts will mirror the landscape of old, covering 9,000 acres.
As they stand today Woodwalton Fen and Holme Fen cover 514 and 657 acres of land respectively. To achieve their goal the project’s partners are buying, managing and changing parcels of surrounding farmland, eventually linking them to create a new landscape. They
estimate completion within 100 years, so there’s a fair way to go yet!
Great Fen Project Manager Kate Carver said: “Working together the five project partners have embarked upon a major project of international significance, creating the first of the UK’S Living Landscapes. A new wetland is being created, a vibrant haven for fenland wildlife which will also be a great resource for people, offering a fabulous place to get close to nature, to enjoy and explore the countryside and to learn about the history and heritage of the fen landscape. We want to create new opportunities for farmers and business, as well as developing tourism for the area.
“Another important aspect of our work is how we can manage this lowlying land to protect it from flooding. As our climate changes and more prolonged heavy rainfall is predicted we can expect the possibility of flooding to become a much more critical issue. Don’t forget, many areas in the fens lie below sea level.
“Flooding can be devastating for communities as we have seen over the past couple of years elsewhere in this country. In this region Woodwalton Fen is used temporarily to store water during heavy rainfall, but it is not big enough to cope with the extremes of rainfall we are told will happen. Storing floodwater here is also bad for the rare plants and animals that depend on the nature reserve.
“Two of our project partners, the Middle Level Commissioners and the Environment Agency, are working to create new, much larger water storage areas to protect thousands of acres of farmland, businesses and homes from flooding.”
So, after 13 years what has the Great Fen to offer its visitors now?
Some 55 per cent of the land needed for the project has been acquired with well over 3,000 acres in restoration and more than 4,000 acres — including the two National Nature Reserves — managed for nature conservation. The project team is working with farmers to establish pasture which is being grazed and cut for hay, the first steps towards establishing new wetland.
Among areas open to visitors all year round are the Wildlife Trust Countryside Centre at Ramsey Heights. It is surrounded by a small nature reserve, which is popular with families and school groups.
Less than a mile further along Heights Drove Road (also known as Chapel Road) is the entrance to Woodwalton Fen, one of the UK’S first nature reserves, which features a unique thatched bungalow on stilts built in 1911 by Nathaniel Charles Rothschild, banker and founder of what has become The Wildlife Trusts.
Holme Fen is home to the famous Holme Posts, which stand at the lowest land point in Great Britain — about nine feet below sea level. The posts illustrate how the industrial-scale drainage of the fens has caused the peat to dry out and shrink, lowering the ground surface dramatically over the past three centuries. Holme Fen has also been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) for species of fungi associated with the birch woodland.
The Great Fen Information Point (New Decoy Farm) is situated between Holme Fen and Woodwalton Fen north of the B660, a road known locally as Long Drove. There are maps and information boards in the car park, a waymarked walk that passes ponds, wet meadows and woodland, a picnic area and a straw-bale bird hide. New Decoy Farm is the designated spot for the Great Fen’s proposed new visitor centre, the design for which won a prestigious competition run by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in May 2013.
“The Great Fen will cost millions to complete,” concluded Kate, “in addition to the support and commitment of many individuals and organisations, expressed not only in financial terms, but also in time and dedication.”
The project partnership was awarded an impressive £7.2 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund — the largest grant ever given by the HLF to a natural heritage scheme — in 2008 and a further £1.8 million in 2013. With matching funds from other organisations and more than 1,200 donors the partners were able to buy many hundreds of acres of land and begin restoration and other important programmes such as those involving education and community work.
Even though there is much work to do there are already many trails to walk and wonderful places to enjoy. There is plenty to choose from — beautiful woodlands, water meadows, reed beds and much more. And then, of course, there is the wildlife — animals, rare plants, exotic fungi and some of the country’s most fascinating birds. Well over 5,000 species of flora and fauna have been confirmed in the two fens. Many are rare or endangered and some are found nowhere else in the country.
The Great Fen partners are The Environment Agency, Huntingdonshire District Council, the Middle Level Commissioners, Natural England and the Wildlife Trust for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire.
Among the Great Fen’s well-known supporters are the Prince of Wales (Royal Patron); author, broadcaster and allround entertainer Stephen Fry (Great Fen President) and Walking with Dinosaurs presenter Nigel Marven (Patron).
We have said that Holme Fen and Woodwalton Fen are two of the four remaining fragments of ancient fenland. The other two are the National Nature Reserves of Wicken Fen, owned by the National Trust, and Chippenham Fen, managed by Natural England.