December 8 2013 Latest news:
Wednesday, August 14, 2013
A couple who have lovingly managed one of the Broads’ most precious wildlife havens through two decades warn its future will be under threat unless speedy action is taken to stop water abstraction close by.
Tim Harris, 66, and his wife Geli, 65, bought Catfield Hall and its 400 acre estate in 1993 and since then have been the proud guardians of a large part of Catfield Fen which supports an extraordinary range of Broadland species from swallowtail butterfly and Norfolk hawker dragonfly to fen orchid and other rare plants.
However, in 2008, Alec Bull, a leading expert from the Norfolk and Norwich Naturalists’ Society, alerted the couple to evidence that the fen – covered by the highest national and international conservation designations – was drying out.
They immediately passed on the concern to Natural England (NE), responsible for protecting landscapes, and the Environment Agency (EA), responsible for regulating water use, but five years on they have become increasingly frustrated by what they regard as the government departments’ inaction.
The renewal of two licences for abstracting water from the fen’s catchment area for use on local farmland is currently being considered by the EA, but Mr Harris is exasperated by the slow pace of the review.
He said: “For the first two years, the EA would not even talk to me because they said they only communicated with bodies, not people.”
Mr Harris said he had paid out of his own pocket for site studies by a top UK hydrologist and a world-leading ecologist from Holland.
They had confirmed damage to the fen through drying out, which had been recognised by NE – and yet they were still waiting for action to combat it.
He said the reduction in calcareous groundwater on the site was visibly changing its character and there was a significant growth in acid-loving plants, such as bog myrtle, at the expense of plants such as milk parsley, which, critically, was what swallowtail butterflies fed on.
Questioning whether the EA’s scientific modelling was refined enough to understand a complex Broads micro-climate, Mr Harris warned: “It is hard to repair the damage once it is done. Unless action is taken quickly there is a danger that it will be too late to save the fen which the EA has described as ‘the finest unpolluted valley fen in western Europe’.”
He stressed that under EU law, the EA had a legal obligation to stop water abstraction affecting such a sensitive site unless it could be proved that it was not responsible for the damage.
Local MP Norman Lamb has supported the case for a thorough review of evidence and has twice written to Defra minister Richard Benyon calling for that.
He said: “I am concerned to ensure a full and transparent process takes place, and that the best scientific evidence available can be considered and followed.”
EA planning team leader Jonathan Thompson said: “In order to renew an abstraction licence we have to consider all the available evidence and information and consider submissions from other parties, not just Mr Harris.”
He said the complexity of the case explained the time it was taking – once they had arrived at a ‘minded to’ decision they would be consulting on it with all those involved.