The lit­tle fens

Herts’ rare wet­land habi­tats that need our help

Hertfordshire Life - - CONTENTS -

The morn­ing sun be­gins to clear the mist from the meadow, a wil­low war­bler is singing as it hops from stem to stem in the reed bed, and a marsh har­rier lazily drifts over­head – Hert­ford­shire’s fens are wak­ing up and the sight is beau­ti­ful. These wet­lands, a real rar­ity in the county, pro­vide a home for en­dan­gered birds and mam­mals as well as pre­cious habi­tat, shel­ter and food for rare plants, in­sects and rep­tiles.

A fen is a marshy wet­land that re­ceives wa­ter and nu­tri­ents from sur­face and ground­wa­ter as well as rain­fall. The name is from the Old English ‘fenn’ mean­ing marsh, dirt or mud. Fen mead­ows are spe­cial habi­tats pro­vid­ing the con­di­tions for a rich va­ri­ety of wildlife, yet they are one of the least well recog­nised. It is not sur­pris­ing per­haps, con­sid­er­ing they can be dif­fi­cult to ac­cess and much of the won­der­ful wildlife in them is hid­den from view.

Habi­tat de­cline

Fens in Eng­land have been de­clin­ing for many years as a re­sult of wa­ter ab­strac­tion, pol­lu­tion and pres­sures from de­vel­op­ment. From the 17th cen­tury, fens were drained for farm­ing and later for de­vel­op­ment, lead­ing to 99 per cent be­ing lost in the UK.

Fens should have water­logged or damp con­di­tions through­out the year, but through­out the UK many are poorly man­aged or drained of wa­ter for peat ex­trac­tion, farm­land and de­vel­op­ments, re­sult­ing in this wildlife-rich habi­tat be­ing de­stroyed. Fen habi­tat is com­plex and needs care­ful and con­tin­u­ous man­age­ment through con­ser­va­tion graz­ing, reed cut­ting and ditch and scrub clear­ance.

En­dan­gered species

Fens pro­vide a home for win­ter­ing wet­land birds such as snipe, shel­ter and food for mam­mals like the en­dan­gered wa­ter vole and habi­tat for moths like the vul­ner­a­ble wain­scot as well as many in­sects, frogs, newts, grass snakes and plants.

The wa­ter vole is the fastest-de­clin­ing mam­mal in the UK with a 95 per cent de­cline in its pop­u­la­tion in the last cen­tury. It re­lies on ditches to dig bur­rows and on wet­land plants such as sedges and rushes for food and cover from predators, so Herts’ fens pro­vide a valu­able habi­tat.

Wad­ing birds, such as snipe, re­quire spe­cific habi­tats to thrive – too wet and they can­not breed, too dry and they can no longer for­age for food. Snipe last bred in the county at Rye Meads near Hod­des­don in 1998. Although not cur­rently breed­ing, snipe still win­ter here, but num­bers have fallen dra­mat­i­cally from over 500 in the 1980s to only 85 in 2012.

Car­ing for Herts’ fens

About 114 hectares of fen or marsh habi­tats re­main in Hert­ford­shire. Herts and Mid­dle­sex Wildlife Trust man­ages a num­ber of these sites in­clud­ing Rye Meads, Thor­ley Wash near Bishop’s Stort­ford and Pur­well Nine­springs in Hitchin. These habi­tats are in a good con­di­tion thanks to the hard work of the trust’s na­ture re­serve teams, vol­un­teers and sup­port­ers. Rye Meads is clas­si­fied as a Site of Spe­cial Sci­en­tific In­ter­est and In­ter­na­tion­ally Im­por­tant Wet­land site for win­ter­ing birds.

The trust con­tin­u­ally works to con­serve and im­prove Herts’ fens. This year’s sum­mer drought means the vi­tal con­ser­va­tion work is more im­por­tant than ever – es­pe­cially for del­i­cate wet­land habi­tats. Win­ter is the ideal time for con­ser­va­tion work with­out dis­turb­ing wildlife. Ditches are cleared to con­trol wa­ter lev­els, cat­tle are brought on to graze the re­serves – stop­ping woody plants from dom­i­nat­ing, and scrub is cleared to re­duce over­shad­ow­ing.

The trust has launched an ap­peal for sup­port­ers of its work on Herts’ pre­cious fens. Find out more at hertswildlifetrust.org. uk/fe­nap­peal

Wa­ter vole num­bers have de­clined 99 per cent in the UK. Fens are a key refuge Photo: David Fran­cis

Rye Meads, near Hod­des­don

Wad­ing birds, like this snipe, re­quire spe­cific wet­land habi­tat

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