In the first of a series of features on the winners of this year’s CPRE Norfolk Awards, rural affairs correspondent CHRIS HILL meets the community volunteers behind a project to rejuvenate a lowland fen for wildlife and walkers.

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It’s difficult to imagine that the secluded wildlife walk where visitors can now marvel at the birds and animals of Boughton Fen covers an area once deemed “unfavourable” to nature.

But now this project, which began as a conservation scheme and grew into a an all-inclusive labour of love for a whole community, is set to be given county-wide recognition as a winner in this year’s CPRE Norfolk Awards.

The regeneration of the 44-acre site of special scientific interest (SSSI) near Downham Market has been achieved by the Boughton Fen Committee (BFC), a sub-committee of Boughton Parish Council.

The committee was formed in 2007 after Natural England classified the fen as being in “unfavourable condition” in 2003, with encroaching scrub which was in danger of becoming a woodland, resulting in the loss of important habitat and wildlife.

The process of reversing years of neglect began in 2008 with a Higher Level Stewardship agreement which funded scrub clearance work and rotational reed-cutting.

And the next step of opening the area up for the enjoyment of the public was boosted with the award of £9,950 in Lottery funding in April 2011.

Since then, a dedicated army of volunteers have installed 190m of boardwalk, cleared paths and placed marker posts for the 2.4km circular walk.

Luckily, the parish could call on the services of an architect, an engineer, a quantity surveyor, a timber salesman and a Scout leader – who all lived locally and offered their manpower for free.

Committee chairman Mark Pogmore said: “The original idea was to return the fen to favourable status as a SSSI and then we thought: ‘We have really got something here and people cannot really see it’. We had quite a variety of people who have come down, and some people who have been here nearly every weekend. We could have done this boardwalk with contractors, but we bit the bullet and did it ourselves.

“We couldn’t have done this without the Lottery money and we certainly couldn’t have done it without the volunteer help.”

Mr Pogmore said the workforce was “helped enormously” by offenders on a Community Payback programme, while the entire project sustained a core of between 20 and 30 volunteers, from within a village of only 200 inhabitants. The fen committee now has more members than the parish council itself – and a greater annual spend.

The team has been careful to ensure the improvements did not intrude on the fen’s wild appeal.

“It is not an urban park, it is a wildlife walk – so you have to dress accordingly,” said Mr Pogmore. “Although the site is owned by Boughton Parish Council, it is all common land so theoretically you can walk where you like. But I wouldn’t advise it because in some of the wetter areas you could sink without trace.

“We wanted to do it in a way that didn’t interfere with the wildlife too much, but that gave people the chance to appreciate the wildlife on the fen.”

Boughton Fen now provides habitat for a wide range of birds, butterflies and dragonflies, with breeding birds including kingfisher, water rail, nightingale and 10 pairs of roosting marsh harriers. Winter visitors include bittern, great grey shrike and jack snipe.

About 700 swallows come to roost among the reed beds every summer, while recorded mammal life includes otters, badgers and three species of deer.

Allan Hale, a naturalist and BFC committee member who has monitored and ringed hundreds of birds on the site, said: “It is very important for wildlife. It is a nice oasis of really good habitat amongst intensive agricultural land. So many coastal reed beds are disappearing because there is a policy not to maintain flood defences, so every bit of inland reed bed is becoming more and more important.”

The project will be completed in the next few weeks with the installation of information boards to raise awareness of the area’s flora, fauna and SSSI status, while future plans include grazing part of the fen with rare breed cattle.

Parish council chairman Frank Reid said: “When we formed the new parish council in 2007 we realised we were custodians of this lovely area and we knew that if we didn’t do something properly down here it would have been a gross neglect of duty. We see it as a legacy we leave for the future of the younger people who are growing up in the area now, and the main thing has been the enthusiasm and perspiration of the members of the community who have come down here to put time in.”

In making their awards decision, the CPRE judges said: “This small but perfectly-formed project has cleverly opened up an important but hitherto neglected piece of Norfolk landscape. The community involvement in particular is to be applauded, whilst the wildlife walk has successfully encouraged informed access to the countryside.”

The CPRE Norfolk Awards Ceremony is at 7pm on November 21 at the Assembly House in Norwich. The awards recognise individuals and groups working on landscape, education, restoration and conversion projects which enhance the Norfolk countryside. Tickets to the event are free but need to be reserved. Contact Katy Jones on 01603 761660.

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