A new dawn for farming on the Fens

Sphagnum Moss - Vicky Nall

The Great Fen Restoration Manager reviews the pioneering Water Works project nine months in and reflects on its potential impact and timely relevance to the current climate crisis debate

A new dawn for farming on the Fens 

The Water Works project could not be more timely. When we came together to form this exciting, innovative project and apply for funding most people didn’t have agriculture and soil carbon high on their list of concerns. The loss of peat from farmland in the fens was a relatively unknown problem with little relevance to everyday life.

Fast forward a few months and the country has declared a climate emergency, a new Agriculture Bill is published, DEFRA and the farming industry is focused on the challenges of farming, soils and carbon and we are at the cutting edge of a new way of saving our environment. 

Nine months into our funding and machinery is just about to begin preparing the growing beds where we will be planting a series of wetland plants which have potential as farm crops. These new crops can grow and thrive when the water levels in the soil are high – protecting the carbon that is locked up in the peat, and helping to clean the water while providing food, building materials, and medicines.

Habitat restoration at the Great Fen

Habitat restoration at the Great Fen with neighbouring arable fields 

The plants are in nurseries and glasshouses in the UK being grown and prepared, and armies of people are on standby to help with the planting. By the time the spring comes there will be rows of tiny plants getting their feet wet and offering new hope and inspiration.

At a time when the impact of climate change has never been clearer – and our hearts break over the Australian bush fires - governments, cities, businesses and individuals are aspiring to reduce their carbon footprint. I am heartened to know that with Water Works we are starting the journey towards real and life-changing solutions. 

So the Thomas Fuller quote goes: ‘it is darkest hour of the night just before the dawn’, maybe as we break ground on our wet farming project, the dawn is breaking for farming on the Fens. 

Wet farming outline

The aims are to provide a new technique to turn land that lays wet from a problem to an asset, in partnership with The University of East London, the Centre of Ecology and Hydrology and Cambridgeshire Acre. Our pilot wet farming plot at the Great Fen is hosting research into new crops and farming innovation enabling us to restore damaged wildlife habitats and test food crops which will suit a future UK climate.

The ambition is to bring a new way to diversify and tap into developing markets for high value crops.

The wet farming field trials are testing a range of crops: as well as producing food, fibre and medicine, this farming system will reduce carbon emissions from peat soils, clean up water and reduce the need for pump drainage.  We are working with DEFRA to explore how these services can be monetised in future agri-environment schemes. 

Woodwalton Fen

A Water Works Project

Water Works Logo

Water Works is a two year project aiming to look at ways to develop a more sustainable future for fenland resources – its soil, water and people. Through the project we are trialing new farming methods designed to protect our precious peat soils and water resources, by using new science and technology to develop and monitor these techniques and by applying for UNESCO Biosphere Reserve status to support and unite people to create a thriving fenland economy and countryside.

The project is managed by a partnership between the Wildlife Trust Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire; Cambridgeshire ACRE, The Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and the University of East London and is funded by a grant awarded in 2019 by the People’s Postcode Lottery Dream Funda grant-giving charity funded entirely by players of People’s Postcode Lottery.

Find out more about Water Works in our short film:

Water Works project partner logos
Peoples Postcode Lottery Dream Fund logo