Going wild in the Fens

Published: 19 February 2007 at 09:52

With new project to monitor two landscape-scale habitat creation projects

A successful grant bid by Dr Francine Hughes of the Department of Life Sciences at Anglia Ruskin University has led to funding of £130,000 from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, one of the largest independent grantmaking foundations in the UK, to monitor and evaluate landscape-scale habitat creation projects in the Fens.

The project, which will be run from Anglia Ruskin University as a partnership with The National Trust and The Wildlife Trust, also involves the Environment Agency and the Natural Environment Research Council Centre for Ecology and Hydrology at Monks Wood, will see the creation of a new Project Officer post to carry out monitoring of both hydrological and biological parameters at two new habitat creation projects. The post will be based in the Life Sciences Department on the Cambridge campus and will be supervised by Dr Francine Hughes.

The Fens today present a familiar landscape of geometrically organised drainage ditches and straightened, slow-moving rivers. The land in between is used for intensive arable agriculture on remnant peat soils of what was once a vast wetland wilderness covering around 3,850 square kilometres between Cambridge and the Wash to the north. In the pre-Roman period, Fenland Rivers had well-established, meandering channels and the coastline was inland of its present location.  From Roman times until the 17th century there was piecemeal reclamation of the fertile peat soils of the Fens followed by major drainage phases during the 17th and 19th centuries. Drainage of the peat caused it to shrink and oxidise and land levels to drop. A once ecologically diverse landscape was turned into one with few habitats left for wildlife.

Four very small nature reserves in the Fens have preserved some fragments of the original floodplain mire.  These include the National Nature Reserves at Wicken Fen, Chippenham Fen, Woodwalton Fen and Holme Fen that all survive on areas of undrained peat. These nature reserves have extraordinarily high levels of biodiversity. At Wicken Fen around 7,000 species of flora and fauna have been recorded.

They are recognised nationally and internationally as being very important wildlife sites by their designations as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) under the UK Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981), Wetlands of International Importance under the RAMSAR Convention (1971) and Special Areas for Conservation (SACS) under the EU Habitats Directive (92/43/EEC:1992).

Two large-scale habitat creation projects are underway in the Fens, on former arable land adjacent to three of these National Nature Reserves:

  • The National Trust’s Wicken Fen Vision project aims to create 3,700 hectares of wetland and other habitats between Wicken Fen National Nature Reserve and the northern edge of the City of Cambridge (http://www.wicken.org.uk).
  • The Great Fen Project is a partnership between the Environment Agency, English Nature, Huntingdonshire DC, and The Wildlife Trust developed to create a 3,700 hectares of wetland between and around Woodwalton Fen National Nature Reserve and Holme Fen National Nature Reserve in Huntingdonshire (http://www.greatfen.org.uk).

Dr Hughes explains:

“The main aims of the two projects are to create extensive, species-rich areas that can act as buffer zones to the National Nature Reserves and to provide wild places in the landscape for peoples’ enjoyment. These projects are innovative in their approaches because they emphasize natural regeneration of a rich and dynamic mosaic of wildlife habitats with low intensity management by grazing animals such as the herds of semi-feral Konik ponies already present at Wicken Fen and by water table manipulation.”

“As a result they have less well-defined ecological objectives than many more traditional conservation projects where intensive habitat management techniques are used.  Because the approach to creation and onward management of these large-scale projects is novel in lowland Britain, they require new ways of monitoring biodiversity outcomes and evaluating achievements.”

The Project Officer will also work closely with volunteer groups trained in long-term monitoring techniques and with the project partners to design methods and protocols for monitoring and evaluating the achievement of large-scale habitat restoration projects. The creation of large-scale natural areas (often referred to as re-wilding) is an exciting prospect in the region that is now well underway and incorporated into Cambridgeshire’s Green Infrastructure plan.

The Department of Life Sciences has a strong track record of working with locally-based conservation organisations and this has both broadened the student learning experience and added strength to the department’s applied research. This new partnership research project will strengthen these links between Anglia Ruskin University and conservation organisations in the region.