Get close to na­ture on the GREAT FEN

This England - - English Excursions - VIN­CENT PRICE

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.

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