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.

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Welcome - SIMON BARNES is a nat­u­ral­ist and au­thor. He wrote Ten Mil­lion Aliens, which was our Book of the Month in Novem­ber (£20.00, Short Books).

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’


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.


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.

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