My Year as Great Fen Voluntary Officer

My Year as Great Fen Voluntary Officer

Sunset on the Great Fen - Martin Parsons

The arrival of Christmas 2020 marked the end of Martin Parsons' tenure as Great Fen Voluntary Officer. So what did that involve and what has he been doing?

Working in conservation is something of a second career for me, having grown up on a small dairy and arable farm in Hampshire, studied Mechanical Engineering and then pursued a career in engineering industry, focused mainly on reducing diesel engine exhaust emissions. The year 2018 provided an opportunity for me to change direction and pursue my passion for landscape restoration, and perhaps make a contribution to addressing the twin crises of biodiversity loss and climate breakdown.

In September 2018 I embarked on a two-year part-time MSc at Anglia Ruskin University, studying Applied Wildlife Conservation, and I also got involved with the Great Fen volunteer work parties, which are always varied and enjoyable. Then the following year I was successful in applying for a twelve-month role as Great Fen Voluntary Officer, working three days per week for the Great Fen team, and so I decided to take a ‘gap year’ from my studies.

The Great Fen project is a long-term, open-ended conservation project designed to increase the wildlife and biodiversity on the fen, through managed re-wetting of the land and habitat restoration, guided by the management plan and a panel of experts – the Joint Technical Advisory Committee.

The Great Fen VO work comprised two main elements, monitoring and research activities with Henry Stanier, and conservation land management activities with Mark Ullyett and Helen Bailey.

Land management work on the Great Fen is very variable. My tasks included path maintenance via brush-cutting and mowing, assisting with the installation of gates, thistle pulling, and sometimes wading through waist deep water to cut and rake up vegetation growth on a small island.

Managing water levels is a key part of the Great Fen project. Waterflow through, and water retention within, the fen is a complex issue. The process involves the maintenance of a network of sluices, and sometimes syphoning of water onto the lower fenland fields whilst observing licensed quotas and monitoring via an inline flowmeter. This was one of my favourite tasks - standing up straight and watching water being syphoned out of the river, over the levee, and flowing on to the fen. It's only achieved after several minutes of serious manual pumping, and needs at least two people. But it is a fairly iconic moment, and symbolic of what the Great Fen is all about. I also learnt that the abundant fenland moles can be very useful in helping seal seepage through sluice boards, since handfuls of peat from molehills dropped down the upstream surface of the sluice can be fairly effective at ‘plugging the gaps’. One reward from this work was to see wetland birds such as snipe and lapwing appearing and feeding on the wetter land.

Monitoring of the water table and local hydrology, through dipwell instruments, is also an important activity. I was often involved in taking manual measurements on sets of dipwell boreholes, or down loading logged data from dipwells equipped with electronic data loggers. However, with the need for cattle to do conservation grazing, repair and maintenance of the wooden dipwell enclosures, weakened by cattle needing to rub an itch or reaching for a bit more grass, was also part of my task list.

British White cattle on Great Fen

British White cattle can be very curious about thistle pulling activities - Martin Parsons

Other monitoring activities included a range of surveys, covering farmland birds, raptors, butterflies and dragonflies, small mammals, and ditch plants. The monitoring of ditch plants, and the presence and abundance of species such as common reed, are useful indicators for assessing the status of a fenland habitat. A significant part of my role was to collate survey data into master spreadsheets so that long term trends can be easily investigated, for example the presence and abundance of any particular species, or changes observed over time in a given area of restoration work. It has been good to see skylark, reed bunting, meadow pipit and wren all featuring in the top seven most recorded species for the last four years.


Small mammal surveying at Engine Farm

Small mammal surveying at Engine Farm - Martin Parsons

After the spring and summer lockdown the focus shifted to the wet farming (paludiculture) project, and in September Helen and I trialled the planting process, planting rows of typha latifolia, or reedmace. The following week we led some Covid-secure ‘bubble’ work-parties, and the mass planting (and catch-up the Spring 2020 lockdown) was underway. Subsequent sessions involved planting large quantities of common reed, floating sweet grass, meadowsweet, hemp agrimony and yellow iris.

When spring 2021 arrives, there will be a need to plant a large quantities of tiny sphagnum moss plants, in close-spaced holes. In support of this I have designed and built a light-weight 15-point dibber tool, which should speed up the process and help achieve the desired result. In the meantime, I will be back to studying for my MSc in mid-January, and I’m particularly looking forward to a module entitled ‘Sustainable Land Management’.

Martin Parsons with his drill auger for planting at Water Works

Martin Parsons with his drill auger for planting at Water Works - Danielle Page

I have very much enjoyed my time as Great Fen VO. I have learnt a lot from some very knowledgeable people, and believe that the Great Fen is making a very significant difference in our efforts to help conserve wildlife and to address the impact of the climate crisis.

Martin Parsons
Great Fen Voluntary Officer (Oct 2019 – Dec 2020)

Sunset on the Great Fen

Sunset on the Great Fen - Martin Parsons