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Wicken Fen Marks 125th Anniversary By Announcing Restoration Plans

The National Trust is marking 125 years of caring for one of the oldest nature reserves in the UK – and the very first it acquired - with the announcement of a £1.8 million project to restore 215 hectares (531 acres) of precious peat at Wicken Fen, making it the conservation charities largest lowland peat restoration project.

The work is vital as it’s anticipated that without action, the majority of the remaining peat in the Fens could be lost within 30 years – emitting harmful carbon as it degrades, rather than being an effective carbon capturer.

Degrading lowland peat soils are among the largest sources of harmful greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for 3% of England’s overall greenhouse gas emissions and 88% of all emissions from peat in England.

Situated in the southern edge of the Fens, Wicken is also one of the last remaining refuges for a host of fenland wildlife which depend on the peaty soils – such as the fen violet and the silver barred moth.

Growing from less than one hectare (two acres) in 1899, today the nature reserve covers 820 hectares (over 2,000 acres) the equivalent of 1,148 football pitches, in Cambridgeshire and contains one of the last surviving fragments of undrained fen, (less than 0.1%) from the original East Anglian Fens.

The new project will focus on restoring peat forming vegetation on three key areas within the reserve by repairing and installing low-level clay banks to retain rainwater and managing water tables to create saturated, healthy peat, helping to lock in carbon as well as enhancing habitats for nature.

The restoration has been made possible thanks to a Nature for Climate Peatland Restoration grant of over £1.3million from Natural England, and donations from Starling Bank, Anglian Water Flourishing Environment Fund, generous legacies and other fundraising.

The project will be delivered in collaboration with other organisations restoring peatland sites through the Fens East Peat Partnership, led by Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust.

Alan Kell, the National Trust’s Countryside Manager at Wicken Fen, said:

“Healthy peatlands are massively important as we tackle climate change. They store carbon, help to control flooding, reduce the risk of wildfire and drought, act as a natural water filter and provide habitat for rare and unusual plants, birds and insects."

“Despite now being considered one of the driest areas of the UK, the East Anglian Fens was once a vast wetland covering more than 3,800km2, larger than Cambridgeshire, consisting of deep peat soils, before being widely drained for agriculture in the 17th century."

“Since the first hectare of land was acquired back in 1899, we have been actively protecting the site by reversing historic drainage and re-wetting the peat soils to extend the area of fen and the biodiversity it supports."

“One of the ways we’ve been able to do this in recent years is thanks to the Wicken Fen Vision – a 100 year plan, which we’re a quarter of the way through – to create a landscape for nature, people and carbon capture, through a combination of acquisition and partnership work. Our vision is to expand this further with a bigger, better, more joined up landscape.”

Alan continued: “By improving our ability to manage the water table we hope to re-wet areas of dried out, degrading peat to once again enable the soil to become an effective carbon store. The associated wetland conditions should help cool down the microclimate of the area in the face of ever-increasing temperatures which is going to be a significant benefit."

“Across the fens, it’s estimated that we lose 10-15mm of peat a year, which would take 10 to 15 years to generate. That’s why we’ve got to act now, to care for the peat we have and the fen habitat it supports which so many species are dependent on, and we couldn’t do this without the vital grants and donations we receive.”

Through the peatland restoration work its already completed since the 1950s, the Trust has already seen positive results in reducing carbon emissions with an 80% reduction at Bakers Fen.

The Trust’s work at Burwell Fen, to create a wetland habitat by raising the water table during the winter months has also attracted thousands of wintering birds including wigeon, teal, lapwing and Whooper swans.

By doing this, the water saturates the peat, and it stands a better chance of surviving the summer months with less risk of drying out therefore reducing the subsequent oxidation and degradation, which results in both the release of carbon and the loss of peat.

Ellis Selway, Peatland Restoration Project Manager at Wicken Fen said:

“This project will have so many positive knock-on effects for nature including helping to safeguard and protect an array of rare fenland vegetation including the great fen-sedge, fen pondweed, milk parsley, marsh pea, marsh fern, marsh arrowgrass, and parsley water-dropwort."

“The creation of additional wetland habitats will provide future areas for these populations to grow and expand into, whilst also improving the biodiversity of the sites with invertebrates, animals and birds all benefitting.”

The work already completed to protect and grow Wicken Fen has resulted in it becoming one of the most biodiverse sites in the UK. Although the area of fen remaining today may be small, it is definitely mighty, punching way above its weight with close to 9,500 (9,457) species recorded at Wicken since records began in the 1820s.

Insects make up 70% of all the wildlife that thrive in the landscape. The largest species-rich groups are the flies (2,072 species), beetles (1,775 species) and moths (1,252 species). Plants are in abundance too with over 875 species across all types including flowers, trees, grasses, mosses and algae.

The earliest species records date from the 1820s when Victorian entomologists (insect specialists) visited the site. Since then, the National Trust’s knowledge of the importance of the fen habitat for scarce wildlife has built considerably.

Thirteen species new to science and 30 species new to Great Britain have been discovered at Wicken Fen, the most recent being a parasitic wasp and a flat bark beetle, both in 2019.

One of the smallest and rarest UK beetles Microptilium palustre was discovered new to Britain at Wicken in 1967.

2023 saw a further 15 species recorded new to Wicken Fen and in March this year, a new spider species for the reserve was discovered. The gorse orbweb spider (Agalenatea redii) was found in its web, under a plank in the car park, likely hibernating.

Alan added: “After 125 years of looking after one of the UK’s oldest nature reserves, you might expect us to have found all of the species that live on the reserve. But nature’s not like that."

“One of the reasons we’re still making discoveries is due to the reserve increasing by 476 hectares (more than doubling in size), since the National Trust launched its Vision in 1999. With a greater area, there is more space for nature to colonise, spread and become more abundant. Our active management of the landscape, through the use of grazing herds of Konik ponies and Highland cattle is helping to create a dynamic mosaic of habitats for nature to thrive in."

“Another reason is climate change, with warmer summers many species, especially insects, that were limited to the south of England have been moving northwards and inland.”

One of the sites great success stories has been the increase in the numbers and range of wetland birds that come to the nature reserve.

Cranes and bittern now breed on the reserve along with marsh harrier, garganey, little egret, and in winter the rare hen harrier and short-eared owls can be seen hunting and coming into roost.

Water vole and otter which were near extinction in the fens by the 1990s, have re-colonised in the last two decades, alongside other mammals including water shrew, harvest mouse, soprano pipistrelle bat and brown long-eared bat.

Ben McCarthy, Head of Nature and Restoration Ecology at the National Trust said:

 “What has been achieved at Wicken Fen is all the more remarkable in the light of rising temperatures with Cambridge often making the headlines each summer with record breaking highs."

“It demonstrates how vitally important it is to invest in our priority habitats – to work at a landscape scale and to engage with landowners and partners to achieve great things for nature."

“There is so much more we can all do to rescue these at-risk habitats – and to bring back nature to our lives and landscapes to benefit us now, and in the future.”

To coincide with the anniversary, National Trust Ranger, Ajay Tegala has a new book coming out about Wicken Fen called Wetland Diaries.


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