OPINION: Why our nature-rich wetlands must be restored and cherished

Olly Birkbeck, a director of the Little Massingham Estate in west Norfolk

Restored wetlands can be a valuable asset for wildlife says Olly Birkbeck, a director of the Little Massingham Estate in west Norfolk - Credit: Archant / Olly Birkbeck

Restored wetlands can be a valuable asset for wildlife says Olly Birkbeck, a director of the Little Massingham Estate in west Norfolk and a founding trustee of the WildEast nature movement.

Nowadays, driving across the fens on the A17, gigantic cabbages glowing purple on either side, lifeless except an old crow in the car park, it’s hard to imagine the glorious past of the fens.

Harder still, their glorious future on the front line of nature recovery.  

Just a few hundred years ago this land was "reclaimed" (as it’s euphemistically known) to make way for industrial agriculture, when consumption of whatever we want whenever we want it replaced sustainable consumption of seasonal grub.

Prior to that you’d have seen have seen not cabbages and crows, but pelicans and cranes skewering beak-fulls of wriggling amphibians.

You’d have seen native beavers working their architectural magic on the landscape and perhaps a lone lynx stalking the shoreline. A riot of birds and furry mammals unfolding across an endless, squelchy mirage of mud and sky. 

These were the "mershes", as medieval maps had them, the mecca for migrating birds of all shapes and sizes, 150,000 square miles of wetland habitat, the demise of Bad King John, who’s morbid countenance still haunts New Conduit Street in King's Lynn. 

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This watery kingdom was dominated by the Great Ouse, a colossus of biodiversity flowing through five counties, spilling into the Wash at King's Lynn.

I used to slide down it’s muddy banks as a nipper, amongst abandoned shopping trollies. The skeleton of this wild landscape is still intact, but the flesh has been picked clean. 

Let’s start with the boring reasons that wetlands are important.

Wetlands store unbelievable amounts of carbon through physical, chemical and biological processes. They are a buffer between land and sea, causing the land to be porous and preventing our houses from falling into the drink. They are living sponges, soaking up the weather and purifying our water.  

Wetlands prevent soil erosion because the roots of millions of plants bind the soil and prevent it from draining into the sea. They have the same effect the other way, absorbing the power of the waves before they crash through our farmland and poorly placed developments.  

But far more important is the intrinsic value of the natural world and our lost sense of wonder which uses to cause us to protect it.

Its wholesale destruction has happened mainly within a few generations (although the rot set in during the industrial age). We look back at 300 years of romanticised fenland life, but forget the 10,000 years of natural abundance that preceded it.  

Corporations, government agencies and a small army of enlightened farmers are doing their bit to revive our region’s wetlands, but we the public own the spaces in between.

The easy part of not settling for anything less than an epic restoration of our landscape is to rethink the sterile tidiness of the gardens and public areas that separate and therefore devalue the bigger projects.

The harder part is to rethink the bigger choices and compromises we face. What we eat. Where we build houses. But let’s pick the low hanging fruit first.  

The WildEast Map of Dreams shows you how what you’re doing in your back garden connects to restored wetlands, woodlands and grasslands, making them greater than the sum of their parts. Otherwise they’re just fragmented islands.

We need nature. We need it to breath, to drink water and we need it to avoid the unimaginable horror of it not being there, giving us succour, meaning and identity.  

We cannot and must not aspire to recreate a bucolic fantasy of times gone by, but to use existing features to reinvent the natural world while still filling our bellies.

Our wetlands are the principle feature of the delicate East Anglian landscape that we must, for our sake and for the survival of natural abundance, recreate and cherish.