This 9,000 acre project is revolutionizing the Fens by restoring it to a natural state.
When looking towards the northern direction at Woodwalton Fen nature reserve in Cambridgeshire, visitors can see a clear view of the flattest landscape in Britain. The vast expanse of sky covers an area of carefully drained fields that extend to the horizon without any hills or mounds in sight. The fertile, peaty soil is conducive for growing potatoes and other root crops in abundance.
But change is coming to this quiet corner of fenland – thanks to one of the largest and most ambitious restoration schemes ever launched in Europe: the Great Fen project. Organised by Wildlife Trust conservationists, the project has already cost £10m and its price tag could reach £30m by the time it is completed, they say.
Funding, including an £8 million contribution from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, is being utilized to purchase significant portions of farmland in order to establish a 9,000-acre area encompassing two nature reserves: Holme Fen and Woodwalton Fen. Woodwalton Fen was one of the earliest wildlife sanctuaries established in the UK. The land will then undergo a transformation through the reintroduction of water to previously drained fields, bringing it back to its original wetland state.
Fields that were once filled with onions and carrots will now be transformed into a diverse landscape of pools, streams, and water meadows. By restoring these habitats, it is hoped that a variety of animals and birds, including voles and kingfishers, will be attracted to the Great Fen. Some uncommon species, such as marsh harriers and scarce chaser dragonflies, have already been observed in the area, along with unique plants like cuckooflower, purple loosestrife, and greater water parsnip.
“I am very optimistic about our efforts to revive the biodiversity in this area,” stated Henry Stanier, the officer in charge of monitoring and research for the project. “We expect to see a variety of species, including hobbies, bitterns, snipe, and sticklebacks, returning to this location soon.”
Great Fen will be implementing innovative farming techniques in order to establish sustainable and climate-resilient agricultural practices. Additionally, the area will serve as a public space for visitors and ecotourists.
The acquisition of Speechly’s Farm has been a key part of our goals. It was finalized a few months back and is significant because it links two distinct portions of rewilded land that have been established near the Holme and Woodwalton reserves. By purchasing the farm, these two rehabilitated habitats can now be joined together.
“For the first time in the twenty-first century, we will have a connected area of undisturbed wet fenland spanning thousands of acres in the Great Fen,” stated Kate Carver, the manager of the rewilding initiative. Lorna Parker, the restoration manager for the Great Fen, also supported this statement, saying, “It’s a significant development for the project. This parcel of land will have a major impact.”
One of the main priorities of the Great Fen project is its peat reserves. The area in East Anglia was previously covered in thick layers of peat, but it is currently experiencing rapid depletion. It is calculated that approximately 2cm of peat is lost each year due to draining and drying of the land, causing it to disintegrate into dust.
The loss of peatlands can greatly affect rural areas. These areas serve as a natural defense against flooding by slowing down water from higher elevations. They also serve as important nesting and feeding grounds for various wading birds, as well as crucial habitats for rare insects and plants. Additionally, they play a significant role in storing carbon dioxide. According to Parker, an acre of peatland can store as much carbon dioxide as an acre of rainforest. Despite the attention given to rainforest conservation, the rapid depletion of peatlands is often overlooked.
During the Victorian era, the Fens were drained with the use of steam-powered pumps, resulting in significant transformations to the land. This is evident at Holme Fen reserve, where in 1848, a post was placed in the peat at ground level. Today, that post stands four meters above the ground, showcasing the significant decrease in peat levels over the past 170 years.
According to Carver, the current rate of peat loss is 4.5 million cubic meters per year, and if this continues, there will be very little remaining in just a few decades. It is crucial that we discover farming methods that do not deplete our valuable peat resources and contribute to carbon emissions.
One aspect of the Great Fen project will focus on testing alternative farming techniques that do not result in the depletion of peat and subsequent increase in carbon emissions. The proposed solution is to implement wet farming methods, also known as paludiculture.
As the groundwater level increases in the region, the soil will become more saturated, allowing for a broader selection of crops to be cultivated. Possible options include bilberry, celery, cranberry, nettle, sedge grains, sweetgrass grains, watercress, and water pepper.
Carver stated that utilizing wet farmland systems could yield numerous advantages. This approach would aid in preserving carbon dioxide levels in dry arable land and also safeguard our depleting supply of peat. These are the objectives of the Great Fen project.
Stanier supported this idea, stating that “this location is the birthplace of conservation and it is completely fitting that it will contribute to our efforts in preserving biodiversity.”