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.
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.