If you had visited the fens just a few hundred years ago, you would have seen many animals and plants now lost to the area.
This area was not always a vast wetland. After the last Ice Age (approximately 10,000 years ago), large forests developed across the land as the climate warmed. Wolves and large herbivores such as elk and aurochs (the ancestors of domestic cattle) roamed these forests along with wild boar.
As the glaciers melted, sea levels rose and the low-lying land of the fens flooded. The ancient forest could not survive in this new environment and the huge trees died and fell to be gradually buried and changed, over thousands of years, into black bog oak.
It was then, around 5,000 years ago, that the fens came to life.
The fens developed into an extensive landscape of reedbeds, wet meadows, open water and wet woodland. There was so much wildlife that thousands of wildfowl and fish could be caught and eaten every day. For example, eels were so plentiful that they were even used as rent: Ramsey Abbey paid 3,000 eels per year to Peterborough Cathedral in exchange for use of their quarry.
Beavers were found in the fens for thousands of years, building dams and canals to protect their homes (known as lodges) from predators. By building dams and canals, harvesting wood and digging ditches, beavers helped to make new habitats for many other species of fen wildlife. They naturally helped to both create and maintain the fen wetlands.
Sadly, by the sixteenth century, Beavers were hunted to extinction for their meat, fur pelts and scent glands. The Beaver pelt was highly prized because of the quality of the fur and Beaver glands were used for medicine and perfume.
Many other mammals were found across the fens. Water Voles, now one of the most endangered species in Britain, were found in abundance. Otters hunted fish and eels in the water courses. These species can still be found today in the fens, and their numbers will increase as the Great Fen develops. Water Voles, in particular, find fenland ditches very favourable habitat.
In the fens the sky would often have been full of flocks of ducks, geese and other wildfowl and local people made a good living from shooting. Ducks were also caught in large elaborate traps known as decoys.
The aerial displays of Marsh Harriers and Ospreys would have been a familiar sight and owls would have hunted over the wet meadows. Bitterns, which are now endangered, would have been heard booming from the reedbeds.
One of the birds that was once widespread in the fens is the Common Crane. This magnificent bird stood a metre tall and its trumpeting calls carried clearly across miles of marsh. As a result of the drainage of the fens and hunting, Cranes had largely disappeared by the 17th century. Here is a page with more details about the Common Crane.
The wet conditions and spongy peat soils produced abundant plant life which, in turn, supported a huge variety of insect life. The fens are particularly known for the variety of colourful Dragonflies.
The undrained fens sustained innumerable butterflies and moths, including lost species of butterfly such as the Large Copper (Lycaena dispar) and the colourful Swallowtail (Papilio machaon). Collectors travelled from around the country to gather specimens here. In the 20th century attempts were made to reintroduce the Large Copper to Woodwalton Fen from the Dutch population, but unfortunately this was unsuccessful.
Many other insect species were lost when the fens were drained, but there are still rarities to be found in the fen fragments of Woodwalton Fen and Holme Fen.
The peat soils of the fens provided a huge variety of plant life, from the Fen Violet with its pearly sheen, to pink Marsh Orchids and Yellow Flag Iris. There were a wide variety of sedges, rushes and grasses supporting many insects.
However, when Whittlesea Mere was drained in the 1850's many of the plant species it supported disappeared from the area too. Just a few of the many species long gone are Round-leaved Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia), Bog Orchid (Hammarbya paludosa) and Cranberry (Vacinium oxycoccos).
The Present Wildlife pages describe some of the species that can be found on the Great Fen today.