Journal Entry from the Countryside: An Alluring Liquid Scene | Written by Nic Wilson
As the sun rises, I gaze at the flooded area before me. The Welney Causeway, one of just three roads through the Ouse Washes, vanishes into the dark water. The sound of waves hitting partially submerged willow trees can be heard, reminders of the ditches and borders that exist in drier conditions.
I make a foolish decision to leave the airplane runway. As I step down, the ground gives way and sinks under my feet. At first glance, the area seems like it has been mowed and is covered in shadow due to the early morning light. However, upon closer examination, I realize that it is actually a surface of floating water mint leaves and duckweed. This soggy edge represents the uncertain and contradictory characteristics of fenland, which were noted by William Gilpin in 1772 as being “half water – half land – a type of liquid vegetation”.
“Yesterday, my daughter asked if that was the ocean as strong winds caused waves to form on the vastness of the Washes. It is difficult to picture this 2,500-hectare wetland as a man-made landscape, but that is exactly what it is. It was constructed over 350 years ago to store excess water from the River Great Ouse. Today, the Ouse Washes, which covers Britain’s largest expanse of seasonal flooded grassland, continues to safeguard low-lying towns, villages and farmland from flooding.”
The flooded washland, though not originally meant for wildlife, now serves as a source of food and shelter for thousands of waterbirds like wigeon, pochard, and whooper swans. As winter approaches, these birds can be seen flying in large groups, silhouetted against the colorful sunrise, carried by strong winds from the southwest. A flock of whooper swans flies close to the ground, calling out “houp-houp-houp-houp!” their lively trumpeting signaling the start of a new day.
Afterwards, I meet with Leigh Marshall, who is the centre manager at Welney Wetland Centre. She informs me that a total of 8,964 whooper swans have been observed in and around the Ouse Washes during this winter season.
Last fall, families of swans migrated from Iceland to the Washes. Some of the swans had young cygnets as young as three months old. During the day, they feed on waste potatoes and sugar beet tops in nearby fields. At dusk, they return to the Washes to rest. I promise to come back in late spring when the landscape transforms into wet pastures and becomes a breeding ground for snipe, lapwings, and redshanks.