Getting underway - again - with Water Works

Great Fen Water Works land prep aerial Henry Stanier

Kate Carver, Great Fen project manager, gives an update on the Water Works project and the challenges we face after lockdown.

Water Works is a two year project which is piloting, through field scale trials (the first in the UK) a new, sustainable system of farming – wet farming (also known as paludiculture) at the Great Fen. This system has the potential to change the face of farming in the Fens, whilst protecting peat soils, locking in carbon, supporting wildlife, and creating new economic opportunities for farmers, growers and producers.

A bit of background

Current dry arable systems result in the loss of 4.5 million m³ of peat a year across the fens; 52% of CO² emitted by farming in the UK comes from lowland peat soil. The project aims to reverse such losses. Working with partners University of East London (experts in wet farming) new crops that will grow and thrive at higher water tables are being tested. These crops have potential application in industry and medicine, or can be can be used for food and flavourings.

One of the stars (and the one that get the project team most excited) is the wondrous sphagnum moss which can be used as a horticultural growing medium as well as having bio-medical uses.  All the wet farming trial crops have the potential to create new, sustainable income streams for the regions farmers and growers.

Spreading the word, and showing what can be done in real life conditions to real life farmers and landowners is a huge part of the project. In showing what can be achieved the Great Fen is hoping to create a ripple effect, changing perceptions and practices across a generation of fenland farmers.

Working with climate change experts the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology Water Works is also producing the site specific hard data to demonstrate carbon sequestration at higher water levels in a real-life setting where wet farming and nature conservation are the driving forces behind re-wetting.

The Water Works project, working with delivery partner Cambridgeshire ACRE is also spearheading the movement to create a UNESCO Fens Biosphere – a global accolade which recognizes the unique character of the Fens and its people, shares learning and supports development through harnessing all sectors of society to work together to achieve sustainable outcomes.

Getting underway

Ground works to create the Water Works wet farming trial started on the Great Fen back in February with construction starting over a 5ha (12 acres) site. 10 plots (bunded compartments) will be created, together with a water feeder/circulation system and a water storage pond. The 10 plots will contain 4 main crops: bulrush (typha), reed (phragmites) sweet grass or manna grass (glyceria) – a cereal which can be milled or used as a whole grain – and sphagnum moss. There will also be 11 (what the Great Fen is calling) “novel” crops, fenland species which have had a  variety of uses in the past and have future potential. Food – watercress, wild celery, bilberry and water mint; flavourings – meadowsweet, bog myrtle; and medicinal uses– comfrey, gypsywort, lady’s smock, yellow flag and hemp agrimony.

By the time lockdown hit in late March 6 of the 10 plots had been constructed and work had just started on the water storage pond. The plots were pristine (lovely bare peat, not a weed in sight) and the water levels in the feeder ditches were beginning to rise – just what we wanted. The site visits to show the project to farmers, land managers and scientists had just started, as had planting with the first handful of phragmites plants going in. In all, some 200,000 plants were in the process of being propagated or were ready for delivery for planting.

All stop.

All this came to an abrupt halt!

Contractors stopped work, diggers were silent and still, plant deliveries were turned around and held at the nurseries and site visits were cancelled. Wildlife Trust staff were told to work from home, contractors laid off, and only small numbers of Reserves staff were out and about.

The Lockdown continued…. April, May into June…….

May was exceptionally dry. The Great Fen’s Henry Stanier was one of those staff out and about species monitoring. Henry took some drone footage of the Water Works site. Here it is during that very dry weather in May when the peat was drying out and cracking.

Wet farming beds drying out in May 2020, taken by drone

Drone image of wet farming beds as they appeared in May, a very dry month, exposed peat has dried and cracked – Photo Henry Stanier.

Lorna Parker (Great Fen Restoration Manager) and I paid an anxious visit to the site, to see how water levels were holding up and to assess the weed burden which, it was feared would spring up both in the beds and on the bunds. The ground surface was dry, with a dry crust, but under the surface the peat was still damp. The weed burden was not too bad but grew significantly worse as time went on. Great Fen Restoration Officers Helen and Mark did sterling work cutting back weeds on the hard bunds but the soft beds (which couldn’t be mown) remained (and remain) weedy.

Getting underway... again!

Towards the end of June, to our great relief work was able to start again on site (hooray!), and by early July the 10 plots and the water storage pond had been constructed. This is how the site looked on 7th July. Work remains to be done putting in pipes for the water circulation system and installing pumps.

Great Fen Water Works land prep aerial Henry Stanier

Great Fen Water Works land prep aerial Henry Stanier

The big challenge now is to rewet the site, clear the weeds (all that green in the picture above), and start the planting. We hope to be planting in September and into mid/late October (weather permitting) with more planting in the spring. All the volunteer groups who previously expressed an interest in helping with the planting will be contacted; the WTBCN is in the process of devising Covid-19 safe Risk Assessments and Operating Procedures to make sure everyone planting can work safely and securely, and working out how and when it can welcome volunteer groups back – so watch this space! Things are by no means back to normal, and we are slowly mobilizing staff and resources to re-start this hugely exciting project and realize our dream.

If you are interested in helping with this exciting project please keep up to date with our website and social media and we will announce any opportunities arising. By joining in you can be part of this ground breaking project as well as taking positive action against climate change.

 

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.

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