Restoration work brings new life to the Great Fen
The Great Fen project aims to create a resilient living landscape for both wildlife and people protecting and connecting two National Nature Reserves.
Restoration work at the Great Fen has been ongoing for about fourteen years so far, during which much has changed both in terms of landscape, wildlife and opinions.
The first part of the jigsaw began in 2004 at Darlow’s Farm, wrapping around the North and West of Woodwalton Fen, followed by a succession of other farm areas thanks to the Heritage Lottery Grant.
How the restoration process works
Restoration work itself begins once the last crops have been removed from the land. A five species grass seed mix is sown into the soil to quickly get a vegetative covering and bind the soil before it’s blown away by the notorious fen blow. Initially the grass is often overtaken by tall growing Mugwort. This is quickly taken under control by cutting, allowing the grass to take hold.
Once the grass has sufficiently grown grazing animals are brought in. The cows will break up leaf litter, allowing seed to get a hold and will also churn up (poach) the ground which creates micro habitats for other species of plants and animals.
Cows and sheep graze differently, with cows eating coarse, tall vegetation that sheep won’t eat. Sheep are selective in the way they graze preferring shorter vegetation and leaves, this tends to create a sward of a less variable height.
Challenges of working on the fens
Much of the Great Fen area is to be transformed into a mosaic of fenland habitat including, wet grassland and reedbed, but years of drainage, a legacy from growing root crops means that the land taken into restoration is usually very dry.
Survey work identified areas where fenland habitats were most likely to develop. Working with soil type, hydrology and topography enables the transition to these habitats more likely and most effective in terms of resources and cost.
As the Great Fen is in an area with one of the lowest levels of rainfall an abstraction licence held to be obtained to enable water to be taken from the surrounding drains. Water is moved through a system via gravity allowing a head of water to build up at the sluices. Boards put in place are then raised enabling water into the next section of channel.
This was very exciting for the Great Fen team, as for the first time during 2017/18 it was possible to abstract water and fully test out the system. During this process the water level rose sufficiently to allow water to spill onto the land thereby create natural pools in areas that were previously dry.
Progress and future plans
In just a few years the vegetation has started to transition into what would be common within a wetland environment and more birds have begun to arrive and take advantage of the wetter soils for feeding and breeding. However, drier areas exist on the Great Fen boundaries and these areas are likely to remain dry due to the land topography and underlying soil type.
Although funding from the Heritage Lottery ended a year ago restoration is still continuing and many exciting changes are happening. The next phase will be to start raising water levels at Corney’s Farm and New Decoy Farm as well as at Old Decoy Farm.
Visit The Great Fen website for full project information and latest updates.