‘The Broads are being destroyed before our eyes’, says Catfield Fen campaigner

Tim and Geli Harris, owners of Catfield Fen. Picture: James Bass

Tim and Geli Harris, owners of Catfield Fen. Picture: James Bass - Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2013

The landowner who won a landmark legal battle to protect Catfield Fen from agricultural abstraction says the potential loss of more water licences in the Broads should not be a surprise to farmers.

Tim and Geli Harris, who bought Catfield Hall and its 400-acre estate in 1994, fought a costly eight-year campaign to stop neighbouring farmers abstracting water, after becoming concerned that Catfield Fen was drying out.

It culminated in a three-week public inquiry in 2016, which concluded that 'continued abstraction cannot be shown beyond reasonable doubt not to adversely affect the integrity of the site, in terms of the loss or deterioration of habitat and species'.

The decision set the tone for the current review of abstraction licences which has angered farmers in the Ant Valley, where Natural England has also been unable to rule out abstraction as a cause of 'hydrological change with consequent effects on the vulnerable and endangered habitat'.

But Mr Harris said the farming industry should have learned more lessons from the inquiry, and done more to engage with the conservation community.

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'This shouldn't be a surprise to anybody,' he said. 'This has been coming for years, but the National Farmers' Union (NFU) doesn't look at the science and their immediate response is to say 'shock horror' and lobby as heavily as they can, going to ministers and saying we need to you to help us.

'I would expect more engagement from them.'

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Mr Harris' team of hydrology and ecology experts have gathered data showing parts of the Broads are showing signs of hydrological stress, even in average rainfall conditions, and they also suggest some of the rare calcareous fens are becoming more saline.

They recorded more salt-tolerant plants further inland as saltwater is penetrating further upstream, taking the place of the rare freshwater plants that characterise the fen.

'If you had a really strong flow of freshwater it could push that saltwater out again, but because we have got abstraction that is not happening,' said Mr Harris.

'The EA recognises that the reduction in ground water is causing major problems. The farmers are being shown this and told: This is why there is a problem and this is why you are going to lose your licence.

'The question is: Are we doing enough? There is this major awareness issue, and don't think for a moment that this is just restricted to the Ant. The evidence says the Broads are being destroyed before our eyes, and no-one is paying attention.

'We have to be sympathetic to farmers. I am a farmer myself. But the idea that this has come out of nowhere is ridiculous. They should have looked at it long before and the default position of simply blaming fen management does not hold water.'

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