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Wednesday, April 14, 2010
The East Anglian fens are the bread basket of Britain. Long drained, it is hard to believe this was once untamed land, a watery outlaws’ hideout. Only at Wicken Fen can you now enjoy this walk on the wild side.
This unique National Trust property is the oldest nature reserve in the land. One of Anglo-Saxon Englands greatest heroes made his last stand in the fens around Ely. More prosaically, the fens were the home of a distinct people. They had their own independent way of life, often in defiance of the authorities, for centuries until vast tracts of land were drained and rivers straightened. How did Wicken Fen survive? At the end of the 19th century a new spirit of conservation arrived just in time to preserve it. Even so its story over the past century has seen many ups and downs. Now one of the most important areas of wetland in Europe it has ambitious plans to expand. Managed for centuries by sedge-cutting and peatdigging, it has become a sanctuary for rare wildlife, from birds of prey to dragonflies, snakes and beetles. Once the great fen covered an area between the upland areas of Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire. It was formed 5,000 years ago when sea levels rose and the land became waterlogged. So it remained until relatively recent times. Attempts at drainage went back to Roman times, but most human activity was limited to islands of higher land, such as Ely and Wicken village.
The Fen tigers were resourceful people. They made a living from wildfowling and harvesting the sedge and reed which grows in the fens and was used for thatch. During the Middle Ages the writ of law did not always run in the deepest fenland, and authorities were reluctant to stray into the trackless, seemingly featureless watery landscape known only to its inhabitants. In 1071 the Isle of Ely was besieged. Hereward the Wakes Saxon guerillas fought hit-and-run battles with perplexed Norman knights which only ended when the English were (according to legend) betrayed by the Abbot of Ely. By the 17th century times were changing. The Adventurers landed gentry who adventured money and engineers such as the Dutchman Cornelius Vermuyden began a long process of drainage to create rich agricultural land. Despite determined resistance, money and power talked; within 200 years 4,000 square kilometres were drained. But 19th century naturalists, particularly entomologists, were keen to avoid losing this threatened zoological outpost. Moth and butterfly collectors collected specimens at Wicken; Charles Dickens apparently studied beetles on sedge boats while studying at Cambridge in the 1820s. Illuminated moth traps at night were likened by contemporaries to city lights. Enthusiast Herbert Goss was the first to suggest the newly-created National Trust buy two acres; they did this, paying 10, in 1899. Other land was bought or donated over the years, sometimes after it had been drained for agriculture, and has since been returned to fen. Today the property covers more than 900 acres (360 hectares).
According to the National Trust there are 1,000 species of moth and butterfly, 1,000 species of beetle, up to 2,000 different flies, 20 dragonflies and 29 mammals. Harmless grass snakes bask and swim. Ornithologists are treated to sightings of barn and tawny owls, kestrels and sparrowhawks all year round while ospreys, peregrines, buzzards and red kites are occasional visitors. Look out for mute swans and kingfishers. Hopes are high that breeding bitterns, last seen in 1937, may return. On Verrals Fen, a portion of land used for agriculture during the second world war, an experiment is taking place. Hardy Konig ponies have been brought to graze the land, and prevent scrub growing.
The Great Fen saw-sedge has been harvested at Wicken since 1419, and is the basis for everything else that grows there. Sedge fields allowed a variety of wild plants and creatures to flourish. At the heart of the site, this wetland has never been drained. Once the sedge fen was individually held by smallholders, and was such a valuable crop that they successfully resisted drainage until Victorian times. The people used to live at the nearby hamlet; a surviving cottage next to the visitor centre helps re-create their way of life. Just as the market in sedge collapsed at the end of the 1800s the naturalists stepped in to save them for their own research. Sedge needs frequent cropping to avoid being naturally replaced by scrub as surrounding land dries out, but in places the scrubland is winning the battle. A network of ditches and smaller drains runs through Sedge Fen, the oldest dating to the 17th century. They provided access to individual plots of sedge as well as being boundary markers.
A number of trails of varying ease can be followed. The site is popular with school groups, who have their own hands-on area in the Adventurers Fen, where wellies are de rigeur. On a dry summer day the trails are easily traversible, the visitor can drink in the sights, and enjoy the quiet unless military aircraft are on exercises. Wicken Fen is one of the few Trust properties managed by a local committee providing expert advice and management. The area suffered during the second world war, when just two workers remained at the reserve and some land had to be returned to agricultural use to supply food to a hard-pressed population. Postwar conservation, aided by volunteer workers, helps the fen to survive. This isolated, fragile place is surrounded by areas of intensive agriculture, and maintaining it is a full-time job. Ambitious plans to expand towards Cambridge over the next century, and provide cycling and walking opportunities for an urban population, shows an optimistic vision for the future in an area under pressure to provide more land for housing.
Wicken Fen is between Ely and Cambridge, near Wicken village, telephone 01353 720274.