Reedbeds and open water, fens and grazed meadows, dykes and remnant bogs, wet woodland and scrub: a rich mosaic of habitats are being protected and created across the Great Fen. Many of these are "UK BAP priority habitats" - identified as being the most threatened and requiring conservation action under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan.
(UK BAP priority habitats: Ponds, Eutrophic Standing Waters)
Open water is important for an immense range of animals and plants. Woodwalton Fen and Holme Fen already have meres, which are used by a variety of species including many wildlfowl such as Little and Great Crested Grebe, Tufted Duck, Pochard, Mallard and Coot. Fish in the meres and in Great Raveley Drain provide food for Otters and birds such as Kingfishers, Grey Herons, Bitterns and occasional wintering Goosander.
The image right shows a large pond in the northern part of Woodwalton Fen. There are also small ponds and a great network of ditches that are used to control water levels. Water Voles are sometimes recorded and the reeds along the edges provide breeding habitat for water beetles, dragonflies, damselfies, and amphibians including the Great Crested Newt.
Perhaps some of the most spectacular new open-water habitats will be large shallow lakes or meres planned for the northern part of the Great Fen, close to Holme Fen. These larger meres will attract flocks of winter waterfowl, including Widgeon, Teal, Gadwall, and Shoveler. They could also attract rarer breeding species, such as Garganey, as well as birds on passage such as the spectacular Osprey.
(UK BAP priority habitat: Reedbeds)
Reedbeds are areas of vegetation that are dominated by Common Reed, an active coloniser of wet areas. Over time, reedbeds naturally dry out as plant litter builds up, so reedbeds become overgrown by scrub and then woodland. In the past, when reeds were commonly used for thatching and basket making, reedbeds were managed to ensure a constant supply. That management process needs to be continued on today's nature reserves.
Colourful fen plants such as Yellow Flag Iris and Purple Loosestrife occur in the richer areas and the reedbed plants support a vast array of invertebrates. Reedbeds are one of the most important habitats for birds, providing secure breeding sites for Reed and Sedge Warblers and roosting sites for several raptor species.
The largest existing area of reedbed is in the northern part of Woodwalton Fen (image right) where paths through the tall reeds allow you to explore. However, an elevated bird hide provides a superb way of seeing and hearing wildlife such as the resident Marsh Harriers.
There will be many new patches of reedbed on the Great Fen but restoration has begun on a huge area north east of Holme Fen. This will be known as Rymes Reedbed - named after a historic reedbed that once occupied the same spot on the fringes of the Whittlesea Mere. This 500 acre (200 hectare) area will be a mix of reedbed, pools and wet grassland and, over the next decade, will develop into a wildlife spectacular. The area will be large enough to attract breeding pairs of the very rare Bittern - there are only about 75 pairs of this species currently in the UK. Other species that could possibly colonise the reedbeds include Common Crane, Cetti's Warbler and Bearded Tit. Apart from Otters, other mammals likely to benefit from the new expanse of reedbeds are bats foraglng for insects. Harvest Mice are also known to make their nests among reed stems.
(UK BAP priority habitats: Lowland Fens "Fen habitats support a diversity of plant and animal communities. Some can contain up to 550 species of higher plants, a third of our native plant species; up to and occasionally more than half the UK`s species of dragonflies, several thousand other insect species, as well as being an important habitat for a range of aquatic beetles.")
The word "fen" decribes a habitat somewhere between reedbed and wet meadows, where the water table is close to or above the surface for much of the year.
The vegetation can contain reed, but is generally shorter than in reedbeds and includes grasses and sedges, giving views across the landscape. Fen contains many plant species which provide abundant colour in summer. Purple Small-reed and various sedges provide a tall, grassy appearance within which a range of flowering plans grow, such as Meadow-rues, Yellow Loosestrife, Greater Bird's Foot Trefoil and Hemp Agrimony. There are already areas like this in Woodwalton Fen (image right) and, to a lesser extent, in Holme Fen.
There will be many areas of 'fen habitat' across the Great Fen and It is likely that the boundaries between fen, reedbed, wet meadows, and wet woodland will often be blurred as one habitat type gives way to another. In some places the boundary may be more clearcut, perhaps split by a path or ditch or by a change in land-management practice such as grazing, or reed cutting. This variety will create a sense of wild, intricate and dynamic landscape.
(UK BAP priority habitats: Purple Moorgrass and Rush Pastures)
Wet meadows provide an important place for threatened wildlife. Lapwing and Snipe chicks, for example, both have soft bills, and need the moist soils to dig for insects to feed successfully and survive. These meadows provide a mixture of pasture grassland, tall herbs and meadow plants, along with areas of rush. Colourful plants include Marsh Thistle, Ragged Robin, Marsh Marigold, Lady's Smock, and Meadow Sweet.
The meadows will typically be grazed by cattle. This helps to create an open low structure, providing nesting habitat for waders such as Redshank and perhaps Curlew, as well as Lapwing and Snipe, all of which have suffered large declines in lowland Britain over the last 60 years because of agricultural intensification.
The earliest restoration area of the Great Fen, Darlow's Farm, is already becoming wet meadow habitat (image right) and many other parts of the project area will turn into wet grassland in due course.
(UK BAP priority habitats: Lowland Meadows; Lowland Dry Acid Grassland)
At the moment, dry meadows exist across much of the Great Fen land that is under restoration. These areas are managed by hay cutting and grazing livestock, predominantly sheep, (image right by Terry Brignall) but also cattle. The open meadows support a range of wildflowers and other plants, including a variety of orchids and these plants, in turn, provide nectar sources for many bees, butterflies and moths. The songs of Skylarks can be heard as they ascend into the sky, along with the descending display flights of Meadow Pipits. These ground-nesting birds successfully breed in these habitats, well hidden in the grasses.
The grassland in drier areas provides habitats for Brown Hare and a variety of small mammals, which in turn attract birds of prey such as Kestrels, Harriers and Barn and Short-eared Owls as well other predators such as Stoats and Weasels.
A good example of high-quality dry grassland is the National Nature Reserve at Upwood Meadows, which is close to Woodwalton Fen. It is hoped that it will be possible to use seed and green hay from Upwood Meadows NNR on the Great Fen. An initial trial will be carried out on Engine Farm as part of the Coronation Meadows project, initiated by HRH Prince of Wales, the Royal Patron of the Great Fen.
Many of the present dry meadows, such as those at Middle Farm, Corney's Farm and New Decoy Farm, will eventually become wet meadows but, on the higher land in the south of the Great Fen area, dry grassland will continue to dominate, providing a natural edge to the wetland.
(UK BAP priority habitats: Lowland Raised Bog; Lowland Heathland)
Bogs are wetlands that accumulate peat and they occur where the water at the ground surface is acidic and low in nutrients. They have a distinctive group of plant and animal species but this habitat is becoming increasingly rare, particularly in lowland Britain. The peat of the East Anglian fens was all formed by bogs thousands of years ago.
Very small pockets of bog remain at Holme Fen and Woodwalton Fen. Sadly, due to drainage around Holme Fen, its bogs have been drying out and bog species disappearing. An example is Sphagnum Moss, once plentiful and used for centuries for dressing wounds. However, some of the bog plants have maintained a very precarious foothold in Holme Fen and their future will be more certain as water levels are again raised.
Heaths are rather dryer habitats, characterised by open, low growing woody vegetation. There are also very small pockets of wet heathland in Woodwalton Fen and Holme Fen. Many more plant species thrive in wet heaths notably, here, Fen Woodrush which is not found anywhere else in the country.
Where deeper peat soils remain, rewetting may lead to the colonisation of plants and animals more characteristic of recovering bog and wet heathland. These include such species as Cross-leaved Heath, Ling Heather, Bog Myrtle, Tormentil, Purple Moor Grass and even some bog mosses.
Although these areas may be small, they will add significant diversity to the Great Fen, providing a glimpse of the past landscape and a possible view of what might develop in the future.
(UK BAP priority habitats: Wet Woodland; Lowland Mixed Deciduous Woodland)
Woodwalton Fen has areas of woodland and Holme Fen is the largest silver birch woodland in lowland England. There are also many areas of scrub - a habitat between the stages of grassland and woodland. The woodland and scrub areas of Woodwalton Fen and Holme Fen support many species of woodland birds. These include residents such as Jays, Green and Great Spotted Woodpeckers, Treecreepers and Great, Blue, Long-tailed and Marsh Tits. In summer they are joined by many species of warblers including Blackcaps, Garden Warblers and Whitethroats.
Wet woodland, which exists at both nature reserves, is rare in this part of the country and extremely rich in invertebrates. The birch woodland of Holme Fen is important for its 500 species of fungi and this led to its designation as a National Nature Reserve.
Throughout the Great Fen, new small patches of woodland will become established. In wetter areas, Willows will dominate whereas, in drier areas, other native trees such as Oak, Ash and Alder will develop. The image right shows a young plantation of Alder and Silver Birch at New Decoy Farm.
Unless otherwise stated, the images of habitats on this page were taken by Barrie Galpin