Mention of the Fens conjures up images of a lost landscape, a landscape once dominated by water and rich with wildlife. Today this landscape is one of intensive agriculture and horticulture, the waters tamed by the framework of drainage ditches and pumps that regulate water flow and control water levels. All that remains of this once great fen is a tiny fragment, an echo of that former landscape held in trust as a nature reserve. Even this fragment cannot escape the creeping reach of progress; the waters that flow into the reserve carry with them the polluting waste and excess nutrients from the surrounding farmland, altering the structure of the plant communities within.
There is, as you will no doubt have seen, a creative vision that seeks to re-establish the ‘Great Fen’ over part of its former range. While this too is only a fragment of that lost landscape, it is a larger fragment and one that should, therefore, be more robust to the reach of the intensively-managed landscape beyond its boundaries. I paid my first visit to that vision the other week and saw for myself the scale of the project, both in terms of the area to be ‘reclaimed’ and of the technical challenges that lie ahead. Reversing the effects of decades of agricultural ‘improvement’ will not be easy and there is much that needs to be undone.
The Great Fen project is the first lowland attempt at landscape scale conservation and it is an ambitious project full of challenges, not least raising the many millions of pounds needed to purchase land currently under agriculture. The energy and vision of those working on the project are, however, two fundamental reasons why it will succeed and why it will deliver something that is worthy of being called a ‘great fen’. To see parts of this landscape as they are now, with carrot fields and other crops, and to then see areas that are being transformed into reed beds and pools, underlines what is possible. I shall return to this landscape-scale project again and again over the coming years to watch its progress and, I hope, to see the recreation of a fenland rich in wildlife.