loading Loading please wait....



by David Phillips, 20th July 2016

Conservationists are recreating a vast watery wilderness with the biggest National Lottery Heritage Fund grant ever made. But they couldn't do it without their Land Rover...

The Fens of East Anglia are a vast prairie where huge arable fields stretch to the distant horizon, with no hills and barely a tree to break the bleak landscape. It is so flat you can see the curvature of the Earth. This is among the most valuable agricultural land in the country. But it has not always been this way.

Once, these flatlands of south Lincolnshire, north Cambridgeshire and west Norfolk were an impenetrable swamp, inhabited only by fierce locals known as Fen Tigers, who eked out a meagre living from fishing and fowling among the dark pools and whispering reedbeds. From Roman times onwards, Man pitted his engineering ingenuity against the waters of the Fens, embarking on drainage schemes aimed at converting the peat bogs and meres into land fit for the plough. Some of these schemes were more successful than others, but by the early 1800s most of the Fens were drained – apart from the low-lying area surrounding Whittlesey Mere – a vast lake that was England's biggest (second only to Lake Windermere).

This shallow inland sea, south of the Cambridgeshire town that gave it its name, varied in size according to the seasons. Dry summers would see it shrink its size, while wet winters would see it spill over across the surrounding low-lying land, but it averaged about seven miles long by four miles wide. Besides offering a living to the fishers and fowlers, Whittlesey Mere was also a mecca for pleasure seekers. In the summer months, huge regattas were held on its windswept waters, while the harsh winters experienced in the late 18th and early 19th centuries saw it covered with a thick layer of ice, upon which hundreds of skaters and thousands of spectators would assemble to race and bet upon the outcome of those races.

Between times, it was also a haven for rare wildlife, including the bittern, osprey, marsh harrier, otters and rare butterflies like the now-extinct large copper. Windmills and early steam engines had been used to drain most of the Fens, but they were never up to the job of draining low-lying Whittlesey Mere, whose waters lay below the level of the nearby embanked rivers and drains, making it impossible to lift the water away and out to sea. Thus its future as a wetland wilderness seemed secure, until the Great Exhibition of 1851, when a powerful new steam-driven centrifugal pump made its debut. Capable of raising 73,000 litres of water a metre in a minute, here finally was a machine that could lift the low-lying waters of the mere into man-made channels that could in turn be pumped out to sea. This, remember, was the Victorian era, when progress was all too often measured by Man's ability to tame nature. Thus the man most excited about the new Appold pump was the local squire, Admiral Wells, who owned thousand of acres of land, including Whittlesey Mere and its surrounding peat bogs. He assembled a bunch of venture capitalists, who bought the pump, installed it in a brick building on the bank of the Old River Nene and set about draining the mere. It took a couple of years, but eventually all that was left of the lake was a vast expanse of mud, from which locals harvested tons of stranded fish, including a great pike that weighed 52  lb and would, even today, be a British record if caught on rod and line. With Whittlesey Mere drained, very little of the original wild Fens were left – only around one per cent, in fact.

But that worried the pioneer conservationists of the Victorian era, including wealthy banker and entomologist Charles Rothschild, who purchased nearby Woodwalton Fen in 1910, to prevent it being drained. It was Britain's first nature reserve, in fact. Meanwhile, a few miles further north on the shores of the former mere, Admiral Wells unwittingly created another nature-friendly reserve when he set aside an area for his pheasant-shooting cronies, which he planted up as woodland. Today, Holme Fen is a rare example of preserved peat bog, although it has greatly shrunk since the drainage began in the 1850s. The extend of that shrinkage can be seen at the Holme Fen Posts – great steel posts that were sunk into the ground so that the tops were level with the surrounding soil. Today they tower 16 feet above the visitors who come to marvel at them. For over a century, this area was one of the most intensively-farmed areas of the country. The old Fens seemed lost for ever.

Yet there were always those who lamented the loss of the original wetlands and began to think, what if... In the late 1990s, a group of conservations, including the local wildlife trusts, began to dream of buying back the farmland between Holme Fen and Woodwalton Fen and recreating some of the old wetlands. The stumbling block, of course, was finance – after all, such rich land commanded high prices. But their luck changed thanks to the National Lottery, who in 2008 awarded a Heritage Fund grant of £7.2 million to begin the process of creating what was to be known as the Great Fen Project. It remains the biggest grant ever made to a conservation project by the Heritage Fund. As befits such a mammoth undertaking, the folk behind the Great Fen Project acknowledge that it will never be a short-term fix. Instead they have come up with a 50 to 100 year plan, which will eventually culminate in a massive nature reserve of 3200 hectares, which is bordered by the East Coast Main Line to the west, the Yaxley Lode to the north and the old course of the River Nene to the east and south. In fact, they have already acquired most of the land and their progress in transforming it has been astonishing.

Helping them achieve that progress is a very hard-working Defender 110, which was purchased from that grant funding in 2009. Without it, the tiny team of hard-working full-time staff would be unable to access many parts of the reserve – a situation that will hardly improve as more of the site is successfully flooded in the future. I meet up with Great Fen project manager, Kate Carver, and her team of two restoration officers, Mark Ullyett and Helen Bailey. I climb into the Defender with them as they give me a tour of their remarkable domain. Kate explains that recreating the old fens isn't just a matter of flooding the fields with water. Generations of farmers have laced the land with artificial chemicals and nutrients, which would be poisonous to many bog-loving plants. To get rid of those chemicals is a slow process, which entails growing crops of grazing grass for a couple of years to use up those nutrients. The water is then slowly introduced and it is only then that rare plants begin to recolonise. But while the return of  near-extinct plants like the fen violet may take many decades, the wild creatures of the old fens have been much more obliging. In fact, the return of wildlife has been nothing short of dramatic.

The skies above the Great Fen are already patrolled by many birds of prey, including marsh and hen harriers, red kites, buzzards and owls, including the rare short-eared owls, which hunt in daylight and attract bird watchers from all over the country. Other rare visitors include bitterns and cranes, while otters and water voles have found it very much to their liking, too. As Mark inches the Defender along the high flood bank of the Old River Nene, which borders the reserve, we watch a 100-strong flock of lapwings take to the sky with their distinctive 'pee-wit' cries. Once commonplace, they have declined alarmingly across the UK in recent years and refuges like the Great Fen are vital for helping them cling on. It is also hoped that corncrakes, now extinct in England, will also return to the grassy meadows of this fenland paradise. Our tour of the Great Fen includes inspections of the sluices that help keep the water table high in the reserve – and Mark adjusts them where necessary. These sluices are all in particularly inaccessible places where no other vehicle would be capable of traversing the soft peat without getting stuck. Mark admits that he has even got stuck in the Defender once or twice, but has usually been able to extricate himself with the help of the Warn electric winch mounted on the front bumper. It is the only modification to a vehicle that is otherwise standard and has also been used many times to recover lesser vehicles that have strayed where they really shouldn't have ventured. “It's a real workhorse, but we love it,” says Mark. “It has never let us down and its just keeps going. Most days it is also used to pull a heavily-laden trailer loaded with materials. We'd struggle to cope without it.” Today, a biting northerly wind is whipping across the open landscape, but this team and their Land Rover are out here every day, dedicated to their work whatever the weather throws at them. They are also helped by a small army of volunteers.

Despite all their efforts, however, they will never be able to recreate Whittlesey Mere. Until it was drained in the 1850s, it was the lowest-lying place in England. But, ironically, it is now much higher than the surrounding land. Kate explains that the bed of the mere consisted mainly of the calcareous remains of the tiny snails and mussels that lived there and it hasn't shrunk nearly so much as the peat bogs that once surrounded it. Recreating the Great Fen hasn't been universally popular with all the locals. At first some farmers were particularly resistant to the change, says Mark, although their attitudes are now softening. Some are even leasing the grazing rights to the Great Fen's new grassy pastures, which are ideal for fattening sheep and cattle. Other locals can see the possibility of income from the large numbers of tourists that are expected to visit in ever-increasing numbers as the project progresses and more wetlands come on stream. But besides being a haven for wildlife and bird watchers, the Great Fen also serves another vital purpose that's particularly pertinent at the moment, following the devastating floods that have struck northern England and Scotland in recent months. If such a deluge was to strike this corner of eastern England, vast areas of the Great Fen would be used to store the floodwater until the surrounding rivers and drains had subsided before being safely released. That's very reassuring when you happen to live in the most low-lying part of the country! And the final benefit is invisible yet hugely significant in these environmentally-sensitive times. As long as the peat of the Great Fen is kept wet, it acts as a vast sponge for carbon dixoide. Scientists have calculated that the peat bogs of the Great Fen will prevent the release of 300,000 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year – the equivalent of 45,000 homes (coincidentally about the size of nearby Greater Peterborough). And then there's the educational aspect. Most days see dozens of children coming to learn about the Great Fen Project, including its rich history. 

There will be facilities for many more once the stunning new visitor centre is built in the next few years. It's a win-win situation for the conservationists. No wonder Kate, Mark and Helen are always smiling. Or is that because they get to drive a brilliant Defender all day long?

Related content