Little Ouse Headwaters Project celebrates community biodiversity award
- Credit: Copyright: Archant 2016
A collaborative community effort which has devoted countless volunteer hours to the conservation of a unique and historic river valley has been honoured with a biodiversity award.
On land where poor villagers used to gather fuel and food for their families, a more modern community effort has been mobilised.
A determined gang of hard-hatted labourers are cutting trees and clearing scrub – but their motivations are very different to those who dug for peat and cut sedge for thatching centuries ago.
It is part of a huge voluntary effort to improve a special landscape for the benefit of the wildlife and the people who live there.
And it is this combination of community involvement and the reverence of ecology and history which has helped the Little Ouse Headwaters Project (LOHP) to rally 150 volunteers to its cause, and attracted more than £1.3m in grant funding.
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And it has also secured this year's 'best group' accolade at the Norfolk Community Biodiversity Awards for 'the imaginative way they have involved and informed their community in their ambitious, large-scale conservation work in several parishes'.
The charity was set up by in 2002 to promote the conservation and enjoyment of the valley fenland habitats and landscapes of the upper valley of the Little Ouse, on the Norfolk-Suffolk border.
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The LOHP now incorporates six parishes, managing more than 70 hectares of the valley, including nature reserves and sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs), with volunteers donating 1,500 hours of their time each year, including taking part in weekly work parties.
Previously private land is now publicly-accessible and the group has created a network of over 5km of permissive paths, offered guided walks and talks to encourage access and 'cultivate a sense of value in this network of sites, for the benefit of people and wildlife'.
Founder member Reg Langston, 66, from Hinderclay, is a retired headteacher from Garboldisham Primary School. He is still involved in teaching youngsters about the important wildlife of the area, which grew from the traditional management of the land under the Poor Laws.
'These are old Poor's fens, so when land was enclosed around the 1820 period, the poor were given the areas that were not worth enclosing,' he said. 'The old Poor's laws allowed people to come and cut for peat for fuel, use it for grazing and they would come to the river to fish.
'When they could no longer do that, the scrub just grew back and all the wildlife that goes with this area was lost.'
The group says the factors affecting the loss of wildlife include the end of traditional management practices such as peat digging and reed cutting, the lowering of water tables as a result of abstraction, and a reduction in water quality as a result of agricultural pollution.
To reverse this decline, the LOHP has worked to maintain water levels and clear trees and scrub, which has allowed the return of insects, dragonflies, water voles and otters, along with rare marshland flora, and a high density of marsh orchids.
The group is fortunate to be able to call on the expertise of five professional scientists within its membership, including Dr Rob Fuller, a retired biologist from Diss, who was a science director for the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) in Thetford.
He said: 'In a way, it is a relic of old England. A lot of villages would have had fens and marshes and areas of woodland that would have been felled and used for commercial agriculture, but this patch of the Little Ouse valley has survived, although not in the way it would have done 100 years ago.
'These valley fens are very rare. Trees are very special but we don't want woodland everywhere, and you certainly don't want it expanding into areas like this which are so scarce and unique.
'That is why it has become such a focal area of activity. It is about maintaining water levels, cutting vegetation and scrub, and mowing rank vegetation. It is about maintaining the unique balance of habitats that are here and maintaining those that have fallen into disrepair.'
Mr Langston said the dedication of the volunteer workforce was one of the defining elements of the project.
'We had a big HLF (Heritage Lottery Fund) grant of £420,000 a while ago,' he said. 'You can match-fund with volunteer effort, so we put in an application saying we would do a certain amount of hours in three years. We did it in two.
'We constantly have volunteers doing more than is expected. We have got work parties, people doing administrative and computer work. It is very easy to overlook the people who are working in the background.
'They keep coming back because they can see progress. They take ownership of it.'
The community links have been extended by working with local schools to promote outdoor learning, and establishing groups for local artists and photographers to be inspired by the natural environment.
In return for their time, volunteers are given training in countryside skills like tree-felling, as well as the fitness and social benefits of working outdoors.
LOHP chairman Peter Coster, from South Lopham, said: 'We are improving the conditions for wildlife and opening it up for the enjoyment of the local community.
'We have a broader vision to create a living landscape along the Little Ouse valley and to complement what is happening with the Suffolk Wildlife Trust.
'It is a legacy job too. If we don't do it, then in a few years' time, it won't exist.'
History of the group
The Little Ouse Headwaters Project has its origins in local voluntary groups that managed Blo' Norton and Hinderclay Fens on behalf of these parishes in the late 1990s.
By 2002 these groups had joined forces with other local conservationists and the group now incorporates six parishes, South Lopham, Blo' Norton, Redgrave, Thelnetham. Hinderclay and Garboldisham.
2011 was a landmark year, as the group expanded westwards with the purchase of Scarfe Meadows and lease of Broomscot Common in the parish of Garboldisham, and the acquisition of Webbs Fen in Thelnetham, adjoining Bleyswycks Bank, which re-united the two, isolated, remaining fragments of Thelnetham Fen SSSI/SAC. Together with the restoration of the Garboldisham sites, it was funded by a major grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
Along with grants from other funding bodies, the group has also entered Higher and Entry Level Stewardship schemes which funds much of its core land management work.
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