The revival of the UK’s wetlands is a great postwar conservation success story. With flooding rising up the political agenda, Simon Barnes asks if our wetlands offer a way to work with nature instead of fighting it.
Author and journalist Simon lives on a marsh in Norfolk. “Once you’ve had kingfishers for breakfast, tea and toast is never quite enough,” he says.
Sun plus water equals life: that’s the way it works all over the world. In this country we’ve always valued sun more highly than water – only to be expected on our cold, damp islands. Go to the Luangwa Valley in Zambia on the day the rains come and it’s as joyful as the first day of spring in the UK. Visit an oasis in a desert – then you’ll really understand the life-giving meaning of water. But round here we’ve always taken it for granted, and for centuries we’ve undervalued our wetlands. In ancient times such habitats represented the savagery of the wild world and humanity’s desperate need to keep it in check. By the 17th century wetlands had become an opportunity, rich farmland ripe for the plucking: drain it and tame it and reap your harvest.
It all changed round about the end of World War II. Ask who invented the wetland as we know it today, and the result is a dead heat between Sir Peter Scott and Adolf Hitler. Scott opened Slimbridge in 1946, an early and significant step in the postwar relaunch of Britain. Wild swans, especially Bewick’s, came flocking in for the winter, and still do. Their ancestors were greeted by Scott, and fed by him. His pioneering organisation, the Severn Wildfowl Trust, later added the big word ‘Wetlands’ to its name, reflecting modern conservation philosophy. Protect the habitat and you protect the creatures that live in it.
Hitler did his bit for wetlands conservation here, too, though that wasn’t his principal aim. His priority was to flood Britain with German soldiers rather than water – but thanks to him, indirectly, we got the water. The problem the UK faced in World War II was how to keep
him out – tough on the populous south coast, much harder still in the wilds of East Anglia, an easy commute from occupied Holland.
Part of the solution was found in the eternal volatility of the coastline. Let it flood and the logistics of landing an army become 10 times harder. Lo and behold, a bird that had given up breeding in Britain returned to nest on the flood-ravaged, Hitler-defying soft coast of East Anglia. It was like a miracle: the toothpaste was somehow back in the tube.
The avocet became the symbol not only of the RSPB but of a thrilling new hope for the wild world – not just for avocets, but also for something that was beginning to understand itself as the conservation movement. It was the drama of wetland recreation that made it clear to us all that conservation works – that if we apply ourselves, we can not only save what we still have but also restore something of what we have lost.
That’s the most exciting thing about wetlands: they bring instant gratification. If you are a conservationist with a short attention span, go for wetland restoration. Restoring an ancient forest takes a little longer – say, 1,000 years. In the right place you can get a wetland up and running in one year, thriving in five. Dig a pond in your garden in the spring and you’ll have pondskaters on its surface before you’ve filled up.
It helps if the water is clean. Fifty years ago the Thames in London used to stink – and it was the stench of despair. But these days the river in the middle of town is jumping with cormorants, and as you go beyond Hammersmith Bridge you find grey herons. Cleaner waters, fish, life.
The great clean-up of our waters took place over the course of the 1960s and 70s. It is not a finished job, and there are continuing problems, but anyone with eyes in his or her head – or, for that matter, a nose – can tell you it’s better than it was. That makes wetland restoration easier than it’s ever been.
Thus there are extraordinary projects such as that at Lakenheath in Suffolk, where the RSPB turned an intensively farmed carrot field back into fen. Cranes, which became extinct as breeding birds in this country about 500 years ago, returned of their own accord to a remote part of north-east Norfolk in the 1970s – and, now, to Lakenheath.
In the East Midlands you can visit Rutland Water, a man-made reservoir run by a utility company, where the nesting ospreys have become a focus of pride. Abberton Reservoir in Essex has been radically rebuilt by another utility company to increase capacity – and has been reorganised for wildlife at the same time.
The wonderfully ambitious Great Fen Project aims to restore that ancient wetland landscape across 3,700ha of Cambridgeshire, private landowners working with conservation organisations to benefit people and wildlife (see pp64–65). My Norfolk neighbour, the Raveningham Estate, manages its marshes with wildlife as a priority, and has breeding lapwings, redshanks, avocets and marsh harriers. The conditions of Defra grants are put into practice with genuine commitment here, and it’s a template for such partnerships.
These days there are also countless wildlife ponds in the gardens of towns and suburbs. They began to proliferate after Chris Baines’
AT THE HEART OF THE PROBLEM IS THE IMPULSE THAT LED US TO DRAIN WETLANDS IN THE FIRST PLACE: WE DON’T VALUE WATER, WE VALUE SUN.
influential 1984 BBC programme Blue Tits and Bumblebees. Today, you can find newts in the tiniest ponds within the M25. This form of vernacular conservation plays an immeasurable role in protecting wildlife, and also in thee way we think about wildlife.
But one thing you learn in conservation is that no problem is ever solved, any more than any species is ever saved. Hazelwood Marshes reserve, managed by the Suffolk Wildlife Trust, was once a lovely freshwater wetland. After the great tidal surge of December 2013 it became an estuary. The wetland was blasted away after a mighty assault from the sea.
As the sea rises, many of our coastal reserves will change forever. Where are we going to find more freshwater marshes? They can be created further inland, of course: since Slimbridge and Minsmere we have acquired the expertise. But the land? The money?
At the heart of the problem is the same impulse that led us to drain and destroy wetlands in the first place: in Britain we don’t value water, we value sun. There is a widespread belief that the best thing to do with water is get rid of it – to hoosh it into the sea as fast as possible.
With our ever-more-volatile weather systems come ever-more-catastrophic floods, and in the public mind the only possible solution is dredging. Water is obviously bad, so gouge out the waterways and
get rid of the stuff. This is now a highly politicised business – votes depend on it.
At the heart of this is a deeply flawed notion of how water works. The best way to stop flooding is not to get rid of the water but to stop it getting to the trouble spots in the first place. In short, to start valuing water, preserving wetlands that soak up the stuff, and upstream trees and other vegetation that do the same job. But if you express a view that wetlands are good, people think you’re suggesting that ducks and curlews are more important than people’s homes.
It has also been claimed that storing water in wetlands to make them attractive to wildlife is a problem, because it leaves less spare capacity to hold floodwater when we need to. But analysis of the Somerset Levels floods in winter 2013/14 showed that to be false. The impact on flooding is minimal. Wetland reserves don’t increase flood risk.
There are other arguments to get across. One is embodied in WWT’s Steart Marshes, a wetland project on the Somerset coast, downstream from the Levels. Embankments were deliberately breached, allowing the tide to cover 300ha of land. Operating with local graziers, it will act as a floodpreventing sponge as well as a great home for wildlife.
Nigg Bay on the Cromarty Firth and RSPB Medmerry in West Sussex are other ‘coastal realignment’ schemes blending flood prevention with creation of wildlife-rich habitat. Wallasea Island in the Thames is another, being remodelled with spoil from the vast Crossrail project.
These grand projects are inspiring. But what’s being lost are the casual bits – not so much wetlands, in any formal sense, as wet land: corners of farms and fields, ponds and good messy ditches. Farming tends to
be a little too tidy these days.
Wetland restoration is one of the great triumphs of the UK conservation movement, a blaring, in-yer-face success story. Bitterns, once beleaguered, are now thriving in reedbeds managed beautifully to their convenience: the highest number of booming males – 140 – since the 1800s was recorded this year. Marsh harriers, in 1971 down to a single breeding pair in Britain – at Minsmere, where else? – are now commonplace in the wet parts of East Anglia. First little, then cattle and now great white egrets have established themselves as breeding birds in this country in recent decades, in response to welcoming wetlands.
The work continues, of course. The WWT recently launched its Wetland Manifesto to politicians, 10 points outlining the importance of these habitats to our economy and people.
Here is something available to us all over the country: a great and glorious celebration of wetlands and a proof that some harms can be healed. The best way to find it is to sit very still by the right stretch of water. May, before dawn, is about right. Dress for winter.
The dawn chorus will be wonderful enough. But keep sitting, and listening – not just for song, but for splashing. That might just bring you the sight of an otter, fur swept back from the top of its head like a boy-racer, whiskers adrip. A great sight, but also a great symbol: otters are one of the key conservation successes of the past half-century.
We get an awful lot wrong, but every now and then we get something right. That’s what wetlands tell us. It’s called hope.
HERE IS SOMETHING AVAILABLE TO US ALL: A GLORIOUS CELEBRATION OF WETLANDS AND A PROOF THAT SOME HARMS CAN BE HEALED.
Above: Sir Peter Scott watches wildfowl from his study window at Slimbridge, where he established the first WWT reserve. Right: otters are icons of wetland restoration, and now live in every English county.
Inspiring: the inundationof Steart Marshes in September 2014 created a 250ha saltmarsh that will protect Somerset homes from flooding.
Marsh harriers have made an amazing recovery.