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EDITIONS
 Tuesday, 28 January, 2003, 15:43 GMT
Wetland habitat set to grow
Fen violet, English Nature
Fen violet: Very typical of a type of habitat called fen meadow
A plan to return a large swathe of land in Eastern England to its old wetland condition has received a major boost.

I am proud to be a wildlife pioneer for the fens

Stewart Papworth, farmer
A farmer has sold his 83-hectare arable farm to the partnership running The Great Fen Project.

The initiative, which is running on a 100-year timescale, wants to join up two existing wetland reserves in the county of Cambridgeshire.

If this is achieved, it would recreate a wilderness not seen in the area since the 1800s and provide a vital and enhanced habitat for many rare and endangered species.

Unification plan

Although large parts of the Cambridgeshire fens were drained in the 17th Century, the Great Fen, as it is known, which once stretched from around the Wash from Cambridgeshire to Lincolnshire in the north, escaped being pumped out until 1851.

Water vole, English Nature
Water levels would be raised across 3,000 hectares
Today, only a few isolated fragments remain, such as English Nature's Woodwalton Fen and Holme Fen National Nature Reserves.

These pockets of traditional wetland habitat are of global significance and a partnership has been formed - between English Nature, the Environment Agency, Huntingdonshire District Council and the Wildlife Trust for Cambridgeshire - to unite them.

It means taking a three-kilometre wide corridor of land out of agricultural production and allowing it to flood again.

The aim is to create a reed-covered wetland super-reserve of 3,000 hectares.

First steps

Stewart Papworth's holding abuts Woodwalton Fen. He plans to give up farming and take early retirement.

His decision to sell up will see the land turn full circle within three generations.

Whilst his grandfather Harry laboured to clear dykes of reeds and wild flowers to plant crops he will be watching a medieval landscape of fens re-establish.

Farmer, English Nature
Stewart Papworth is soon to retire
He said: "My grandfather pioneered clearing it, and I am proud to be a wildlife pioneer for the fens."

Great Fen Project Manager Chris Gerrard says the farm acquisition will raise the area of land under wetland management to more then 600 hectares.

"We've got a long way to go, we know that, but it is a start," he told BBC News Online.

The land still outside the project is controlled by a handful of private owners and the Crown Estates.

"The peat on which farming depends is highly valuable but it is disappearing," Mr Gerrard said. "At some point in the future the land owners may decide they have a dwindling asset and decide that they should either sell to us or come into partnership."

Open space

The project would like to raise water levels across the old Great Fen area to bring back the reeds, grasslands and rare plants, such as insect-eating bladderwort, which are now confined to the Woodwalton and Holme reserves.

Mr Gerrard said: "The bittern is a bird that would have been very abundant in the fen and occasionally returns to Woodwalton - and a whole range of waders like snipe and lapwing.

"One of the key species is fen violet which is found in only found in two other places in the country. It is very typical of a type of habitat called fen meadow - it's that sort of habitat that we want to restore.

"We don't want to see the whole of the fen restored to the way it looked in the past, we just think the balance should shift towards nature conservation and tourism and away from the farming we see there today.

"We hope that in years to come [the new super reserve] will be transformed into a beautiful wild space open to the public where walkers, cyclists and horse riders can get closer to nature."


Click here to go to Cambridgeshire
See also:

17 Jun 02 | England
31 Jul 01 | Science/Nature
26 Jun 01 | Science/Nature
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