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Last Updated: Saturday, 11 August 2007, 02:23 GMT 03:23 UK
A great life in the fens
By Janey Doyle
BBC News, Cambridgeshire

Andy Mason overlooking Woodwalton Fen
A large part of Cambridgeshire farmland will be returned to wetland

Cambridgeshire's pastures and green farmland could soon be a forgotten landscape as an area the size of the city of Peterborough is restored to wetlands.

The county's Woodwalton Fen is to be united with nearby Holme Fen under the Great Fen Project.

Andy Mason is the assistant site manager at Woodwalton Fen.

"Everyday you walk over the bridge you don't know what you're going to get," he said.

"I've been working here 35 years, my father, grandfather worked here - I was born here, so actually I've been here 53 years."

Soon more than 9,100 acres (37 sq km) of farmland will return to fen, creating a landscape on a scale not seen in the area since the 1600s.

The Great Fen will run between Huntingdon and Peterborough

The project, established by Environment Agency, Huntingdonshire District Council, Natural England and the Wildlife Trust will see the area between Peterborough and Huntingdon restored to a complex mix of rivers, streams, wet grassland, woodland, raised bog, reed beds and fens.

Since the 17th Century, the 6,000-year-old fens have made way for agriculture - 99% of the wetlands have been eroded, and wildlife has declined.

Whittlesey Mere, once one of the largest inland lakes in England, was drained in the 19th Century and its peat bed has since dried up at a rate of up to 2cm a year.

"It's something talked about since the two reserves were designated in 1954 - I think it's a brilliant idea," Andy Mason said.

"We're so very lucky that Stewart Papworth, the first farmer to give land to the Great Fen Project, gave his farmland for restoration."

The next generation

Andy's grandfather George Mason began working on Woodwalton Fen in 1919, nine years after it was purchased by Charles Rothschild, who went on to establish the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves.

Mr Mason said he thought Mr Rothschild had amazing foresight.

Woodwalton Fen
The Great Fen will be the size of 5,200 football pitches
As land is secured by the project it will be restored by raising water levels
Hungtingdonshire Fens were the last of the East Anglian fens to be drained - they had disappeared by 1850
Oliver Cromwell was known as the 'Lord of the Fens' as he helped fenlanders defend the land against the king's drainage schemes

"He bought pockets of land to maintain it - now less than 1% of the fenland still exists and he built a bungalow, where he used to do research, on stilts."

But the changing work on the reserve has meant that a fourth generation of the Mason family cannot work the fen.

"Most jobs are mechanical now. There has been up to five people working on this place - the fen men - but man power has now reduced to two.

"What would probably take four men a week, would take me half a day."

"My eldest son would have loved to, but there is no position for him, and I can't afford to retire," Andy said.

'New Eden Project'

But it is hoped the Great Fen Project, which has secured a 8.9m grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, will increase tourism and provide jobs.

The Great Fen area has been described as "providing a lung within a growth area", by Huntingdonshire District Council.

Charles Rothschild purchased Woodwalton to preserve the fens

Malcolm Sharp, of the council, said: "There are likely to be more people working in the Great Fen area than are currently working on it for agriculture.

"The focus is on rural regeneration as employment in agriculture declined quite dramatically.

"We see the Great Fen linked to visitor potential and new businesses - craft industries.

"The population is getting more interested in ecological projects - people flock to the Eden Project - once we have a proper visitor centre the opportunity is there to make more of tourism."

Already the project is drawing attention.

Andy Mason said he has noticed an increase in visitor numbers - which he believes will rise further over the next 20 years as the project expands and develops, a goal he is committed to.

"I've stuck at it for 35 years, I work all day and see an end product, whatever we do today is still going to be here tomorrow and for many generations to come."

The money will help restore acres of arable land to a natural wetland

Wetland restored with 8.9m grant
01 Aug 07 |  Cambridgeshire
Wetlands scheme awarded 94,000
22 Sep 05 |  Cambridgeshire
Fenland project gets land boost
23 May 07 |  Cambridgeshire
Stephen Fry supports fen project
05 May 06 |  Cambridgeshire
500,000 boost for fens reserve
20 Apr 05 |  Cambridgeshire
Wetland habitat set to grow
28 Jan 03 |  Science/Nature

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