Celebrating the Fens

Celebrating the Fens

Woodwalton Fen waterways - Danielle Page

Saturday 19th June was Celebrate the Fens Day. The day drew events across the region, bringing communities together, showcasing the unique landscapes, heritage, nature and beauty of the fens. In the Great Fen, Rebekah O’Driscoll led a guided walk around Woodwalton Fen National Nature Reserve, an SSSI and one of the last fragments of ancient wild fens.

What better way to ‘Celebrate the Fens’ than with a walk around one of the oldest nature reserves in the UK, Woodwalton Fen. This remnant Fen forms a part of the more recent landscape-scale project of the Great Fen, which, at its core, aims to join Woodwalton Fen and Holme Fen through land acquisition and restoration, thus protecting and buffering these special places for the future. 

I was met with eight eager faces on the entrance bridge which crosses into this magical site, none of whom had visited Woodwalton Fen before so a real morning of discovery lay ahead. It was a cool day for June and the first conversations were about the crazy weather we are seeing in 2021! The consequence was very little activity from flying insects such as dragonflies, which a week earlier had been too numerous to count, and butterflies which have been noticeably absent so far this year. The birds too were a bit subdued but we were treated to a cuckoo singing before we had set foot inside the reserve…. a first ever hearing for one of our company. 

Woodwalton Fen walk attendees

Woodwalton Fen walk attendees - Rebekah O'Driscoll

After a quick introduction and orientation of the site, we headed off southwards down the eastern boundary. This is normally a good hide-out for basking lizards on large tree stumps, but today a display of mature willow and alder trees captured our attentions, noting the female alder catkins which look like cones and stay on the tree all year.

Cutting back in towards the centre of the site led us past water structures which highlight the artificial way the water on site is managed, allowing a top-up from the river in dry periods and a release after flood events. The ditch flora was on good display with lesser water parsnip and frogbit in strong leaf and the unmistakably huge water dock leaves along the edges. The ditch edges cut last year now boast a diverse herbaceous sward full of meadowsweet, ragged robin, lesser spearwort and gypsywort to name but a few, before they become dominated by reed again as the years progress. The flowering grasses, sedges and rushes gave us opportunity to look at some of the species and to share aide memoires I was taught many years ago to distinguish between stems…. ‘sedges have edges and rushes are round’! The crested dog’s tail, cock’s foot and timothy grass shone a light on the wonderful world of grasses and the walkers were fascinated to stop and notice a group of plants often overlooked. My small company were taken by the sudden feeling of being in the middle of nowhere and were glad they had a guide, concerned it would be easy to become lost. I always think of Woodwalton Fen as being a bit like Milton Keynes, with rides either heading squarely east/west or north/south, with a few wiggles here and there, but it is indeed easy to become disorientated so new visitors are best advised to follow one of the three marked trails to begin their exploration. 

Heading north we passed a patch of orchids, both early marsh and common spotted, which draw the eye quickly in with their vibrant pink showy flowers. A game of ‘whose poo’ turned out to be the swans, which we sadly didn’t encounter but a mother mallard duck with three ducklings crossed our path as they navigated a bridge to rejoin the ditch they were travelling on. Silence fell as we watch the sheer determination of these little souls as they jumped out of the water onto the bridge, taking a few attempts each before dashing across to join their mother. These encounters with wildlife, no matter how common the species, always lift the spirits and reconnect us with the natural environment, a glimpse of the trials and tribulations of the inhabitants of this landscape. Our route was edged with the song of many elusive warblers, garden warbler, reed warbler, blackcap and chiffchaff all marking their territories as we come to the later stages of the breeding season. Every now and again a soft chirping of youngsters could be heard in the scrub, a sign that at least for some the year has been productive. Many birds have struggled this season with a late start to spring and a distinct lack of caterpillars for feeding chicks, but hopefully we will see a late surge of butterflies and moths to lay plenty of eggs for the next cycle.

Turning west again we headed to the Rothschild’s Bungalow, a bungalow on stilts built in 1910 by Charles Rothschild who owned the site at the time. A forefather of nature conservation (and from the well-known wealthy banking family), Charles had seen how quickly the landscape was changing with agriculture and drainage putting huge strain on the native fenland flora and fauna. He purchased both Woodwalton Fen and Wicken Fen to protect these remnants of Fen habitat, and thank goodness he did otherwise the loss could have been almost absolute in Cambridgeshire. The markers on the stilts of soil surface level and flood events show the pressures still on this site. A designation of the site as a flood storage bowl continues to have a detrimental impact on floristic diversity with the influx of nutrients favouring more dominant species. The flood events themselves are damaging to a whole range of inhabitants and an aim of the Great Fen in the long term is to divert the flood storage to other areas. 

Continuing west we ascended the bank and saw an open flat landscape before us, a chance to view the wider Great Fen area stretching out toward Holme Fen in the north-west. The restored land being a sharp contrast to land in arable production with dense areas of reed and rush and large splashes of shallow water. A few swifts rushed over our heads collecting unsuspecting insects and giving us up close views of these amazing aerial acrobats. A sedge warbler sang excitedly and a reed bunting popped briefly into view. The east coast rail line marks the boundary of the project area and a passing train gives some perspective of distance which is otherwise hard to perceive in the flat Fen landscape.

Up here on the bank was a chance to mention Water Works, a project funded by the postcode lottery to undertake a number of field trials to grow crops in wet conditions, or paludiculture as it is known. The aim of this trial, being led by the Wildlife Trust, is to show that native wetland species can be grown as viable commercial crops whilst keeping the water levels high and thus protection the precious peat soils. 

We headed north for a junction before turning east and back into the noticeable shelter the reserve provides. Garden warblers greeted us with their soft melodic warble, very similar to a blackcap but less scratchy, and a few blue damselflies hovered over the vegetation. A single bumblebee and a young cricket put in an appearance but the insect life is quiet, hunkered down in the cool conditions. We stop to look at the ‘Rothschild Sunflower’, which is actually heartleaf oxeye, a non-native plant introduced by Rothschild in an attempt to provide an extra food source for the re-introduced large copper butterfly, which had gone extinct in the UK in 1851. Sadly the attempts to reintroduce this species were not successful but the flowers will be covered with other invertebrate life when they bloom in July. The Great Fen does not have an agenda to re-introduce species, but the habitat restoration has seen so many species re-colonise the area without any help at all - create the habitat and they will come! 

So as we drew towards the end of our walk we rejoined the eastern boundary path along the Great Raveley drain and marveled at the height of the marsh sow-thistle growing here. A two hour introduction to the Fen certainly whet the appetite of the participants who all want to return and explore more of Woodwalton Fen and the wider Great Fen. It was so lovely to meet them, many of whom were members supporting the work of the Wildlife Trust. It's one of my greatest pleasures to introduce this landscape to new people and I hope we'll see many more new faces at the events coming up soon. 

Congratulations to Fascinating Fens for arranging an excellent Celebrate the Fens Day, and thank you to all our guests!

Walking at Woodwalton Fen

Walking at Woodwalton Fen - Mark Hamblin/2020VISION

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