In the sixth part of a series on the winners of this year’s CPRE Norfolk Awards, rural affairs correspondent CHRIS HILL reports on an inspirational community effort to preserve rare landscapes and wildlife at the headwaters of the Little Ouse river.

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The fertile headwaters of the Little Ouse and Waveney rivers were once part of a continuous chain of wild land – until drainage and lack of traditional management left these unique habitats fragmented and neglected.

But for the last ten years, a volunteer team has been reversing this decline, by systematically acquiring and renovating patches of fen, heath and woodland to reconnect the valuable corridor which is home to some of the country’s most important wildlife.

And now this inspirational project has added to its growing list of accolades with recognition in this year’s CPRE Norfolk Awards, whose judges hailed the huge community effort behind it as “amazing”.

The Little Ouse Headwaters Project (LOHP) was established in 2002 by residents from the parishes of Redgrave, South Lopham, Blo’Norton, Hinderclay and Thelnetham, who wanted to improve the wildlife diversity, water quality, landscape value and public amenity of their neighbouring river valley.

The project area, west of Diss, holds the largest remaining area of lowland valley fen in England. But despite the international importance of this rare habitat, the Little Ouse fens had become disconnected and degraded.

When the charity was formed only two fen remnants were managed for their wildlife, although the valley contained sites of national and international importance, including Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and a Special Area of Conservation (SAC).

Since then, the LOHP has acquired 65 hectares of land across a network of 11 sites which have been restored with the help of funding from sources including the Heritage Lottery Fund, Natural England and the group’s own appeal to charitable trusts.

Today, the charity remains entirely run by volunteers, managed by a board of trustees drawn from the local area. It harnesses the voluntary manpower of more than 100 people, contributing labour worth £80,000 in the last two years.

Trustee and founder member Helen Smith said: “The original long-term goal was to restore some of these damaged ‘forgotten fragments’, particularly of the valley fen, and link them together so we had a corridor for wildlife and for the public to come along and enjoy. But we have made much more impact on our long-term vision than we ever expected.

“We have put a lot of work into public access, and just seeing that in use is a real highlight for me. People are out there with their dogs and their children. It is an important part of ensuring people locally feeling that it is their patch – not our patch – which they are using. It has always been there for the benefit of the parishes, but the benefit they get now is a quiet environment and a lovely landscape in which to watch the wildlife.”

Dr Smith, who works as a freelance ecologist, said the wetland sites had previously dried out as a result of an Artesian borehole which was drilled nearby in the 1950s, while the demise of traditional peat digging and tree-cutting for firewood meant the fens had begun to revert to woodland.

Reg Langston, the LOHP’s treasurer and former headteacher of Garboldisham Primary School, said: “There are people who think that we don’t need to spend all this money, but without management of these sites, the trees will just take over.”

Although much of its work is funded by major grants, about half of the LOHP’s income comes from its own appeal to charitable trusts, run by appeal director Sarah Grieveson, which has raised £372,100 since November 2004.

The LOHP’s work began in 2002 when it secured ten-year tenancy agreements on two important parcels of land adjacent to the river: The Frith in South Lopham and The Lows in Blo’Norton.

In the following years, more grant successes, land acquisitions and renovations followed until the landmark year of 2011, when the project expanded westwards with the purchase of Scarfe Meadows and the lease of Broomscot Common.

At the same time, Webbs Fen in Thelnetham was re-united with the adjoining Bleyswycks Bank, reconnecting the last two isolated fragments of Thelnetham Fen SSSI/SAC.

But the charity’s aims are not purely about preserving wildlife, as its members are also committed to increasing public access and enjoyment of the area.

A network of more than 5km of public paths has been built, with guided walks taking visitors along bridges and boardwalks to see wildlife including damselflies, otters, butterflies, kestrels and grazing cattle.

Jo Pitt, the group’s chairman-elect, said she was delighted with the CPRE Norfolk award. She said: “Some of the regular volunteers who come to our work parties have been with us since the beginning. These are people who have been working on our sites for the last ten years, so it is great see them recognised in this way.”

In making their awards decision, the CPRE judges said: “This project is quite amazing. The charity has successfully managed to restore 11 individual but connected sites to improve and widen access to some of the most stunning areas of the Norfolk countryside.”

The CPRE (Campaign to Protect Rural England) Norfolk Awards Ceremony is at 7pm on November 21 at the Assembly House, in Norwich. Tickets to the event are free but need to be reserved. Contact Katy Jones on 01603 761660.

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