Since the wet farming beds were completed, the next significant stage of the Water Works project has been planting. And this has meant all hands on deck, at an acceptable social distance, of course! We have been delighted with the eagerness with which volunteer groups have sprung into action. Some have been fortunate to catch the end of the summer sun whilst some have battled the gale-force autumnal winds sweeping across the flat fenland. Everyone has worked incredibly hard.
Made to measure
Using pre-measured rope markers for spacing and trusty dibbers for uniform holes in the black soil, the trays of plants once soaking in the drainage gullies have been steadily emptying plug by plug. Beds are now filling up with bulrush, reed and sweet grass, which is a wetland cereal crop. Planted first, the bulrush and reed will filter the incoming water to clean it ready for the food and medicinal crops positioned in the farthest beds. These will eventually include watercress, wild celery, meadowsweet, comfrey and hemp agrimony, among other novel fenland crops.
Read all about it!
Press and media interest is growing too as the project continues to take shape. The Wildlife Trust’s CEO Craig Bennett recently pitched in with the planting himself when he visited the site with Sunday Telegraph journalist, Boudicca Fox-Leonard, to talk about his vision for a "WildBelt" and nature-based solutions to climate change. An article appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on 27 September with a fabulous photograph showing Craig planting with the Great Fen team at the Water Works site, as well as three pages in the September edition of Environment magazine (CIWEM).
The site has also been visited and the team interviewed by Emily Beament from the Press Association, freelance writer Mark Hillsdon, and Professor Steve Waters of the University of East Anglia, who is creating a series of podcasts about notable figures in conservation. Emily's wonderful article (which was used in more than 30 titles nationwide) in the Shropshire Star can be read here.
The project is also attracting considerable interest from policy makers. Craig Bennett and Wildlife Trust BCN CEO Brian Eversham recently hosted a visit of Defra officials and politicians meaning the Water Works project is now feeding into policy formation of the emerging Lowland Peat Strategy.
In their own words
Hear from some of our volunteers themselves:
Barbara Cracknell, Great Fen Conservation Volunteer: "Getting back to volunteering on the fen after such a long time just felt so liberating and made me feel everything was normal again. It was great to see familiar faces and engage in some good humoured banter whilst working together. I think everyone has missed their volunteering days during the lockdown months.
We worked in two small groups and spread ourselves out across our designated planting areas. We soon had an efficient system up and running - one person making the holes and also keeping the planters supplied with plants! It was surprising how much we all achieved during the day.
Being involved with the Water Works project was not only hard work but it was also rewarding. I am really looking forward to returning later in the year to see how the crops we planted are fairing."
Water Resources East @WaterREast
Thankyou to @wildlifebcn for inviting @WaterREast and some of our members to join you today for a brilliant day of reed planting as part of the @greatfen project. What an amazing project, transforming #farming, #carbonsequestration and #watermanagement in the #Fens!
Natural England West Anglia Team @NE_WestAnglia
“A busy morning for us, helping our friends at @greatfen with planting up their #wetfarming trials. This innovative approach aims to demonstrate the multiple environmental and carbon benefits of new farming systems in the #fens”
Justin Tilley, Natural England: "Lots of smiles and lots of great conversations between everyone."
Alistair Grant, Huntingdonshire Local Group of the Wildlife Trust BCN: "Apart from the opportunity to be out on areas of the Great Fen not normally accessible by the public, planting hundreds, if not thousands (across our whole planning party), of Great Reed Mace plugs turned out to be surprisingly therapeutic. We can’t wait to come back at some point and see how the crop have grown."
Danielle Page, Great Fen Marketing Assistant: “It was so wonderful to get out of the office and be a part of this project on the ground. It was especially significant to be actively tacking climate change on the Global Day of Climate Action. It was fascinating to learn of the filtration route the water will take through various crops and to enjoy the other wildflowers already inhabiting the rich peatland.”
Caroline Lewis, Great Fen Conservation Volunteer: “A good day in the fresh air - and it was lovely being able to work in a team again.”
Lauren, Peterborough Youth Ranger: "It was cool to be a part of this innovative project that could help to reduce climate change and rewild a local area. It was hard work but lots of fun planting over 800 reed plugs and we just about escaped the rain. I hope to be back to have a look at how the crops have grown in a few months' time. Thanks for allowing us to be a part of this!"
Ethan, Peterborough Youth Ranger: "It was great fun getting back to helping the local wildlife and also working on a unique project. I have enjoyed learning more about the project. It was nice to go and have time outside in the fresh air and meet people i have not seen in ages.”
With winter approaching planting will pause until the spring, but the project team still has work to do. Lorna Parker, Great Fen Restoration Manager, says, “We’ll be regularly monitoring the health of the crops planted so far to see how they handle both our local weather and wildlife, and working with the carbon monitoring teams to track the effect these crops start having on CO2 flux measurements."
Kate Carver, Great Fen Project Manager says: “We’ll be excited to begin planting our 'wonder crop' sphagnum moss in the spring, and Covid permitting, welcoming more volunteer parties to help. It’s been really fantastic seeing how interested and involved our volunteer planting parties have become. There is nothing like spending a day in the open out on the Fen, getting tired, wet and dirty, to bring home the fact that working together we can make a real difference to the fight against climate change.”
Our thanks to the following volunteer groups who have contributed to date:
- Huntingdonshire Local Group of the Wildlife Trust BCN
- Natural England West Anglia Team
- Water Resources East
- Great Fen Conservation Volunteers
- Peterborough Youth Rangers
- Great Fen staff
- WTBCN Cambridgeshire Reserves
- WTBCN Fundraising Team
- Water Works project partners, University of East London
- WTBCN Cambridgeshire Wider Countryside Team
In 2019 the Wildlife Trust for Beds, Cambs and Northants, working with project partners, was awarded £1m by the People’s Postcode Lottery Dream Fund for its Water Works project.