Former arable fields are now a thriving wetland for wildlife

A rotary ditcher creating foot-drains at the Raveningham Estate

A rotary ditcher creating 'foot drains' at the Raveningham Estate, part of the wetland management for birds such as lapwings (inset) - Credit: Chris Hill / Trevor Taberham

A Norfolk estate has highlighted the wildlife benefits of converting arable fields into a thriving wetland - and the complexities of managing such a landscape for nature.

More than 60 farmers, conservationists, land managers and graziers visited the Raveningham Estate to learn how it manages its grazing marshes for breeding waders and wintering wildfowl.

The land, close to the village of Norton Subcourse near Reedham, used to grow swathes of wheat - but it was converted into a wetland in 2003.

The vegetation is controlled through careful grazing by cattle and hand-spraying tussocks of problematic "pin grass", while a rotary ditcher is used to dig shallow "foot drains" whose muddy margins supply the invertebrate food for waders.

Andrew Holland, Broads wet grassland adviser for the RSPB

Andrew Holland, Broads wet grassland adviser for the RSPB, speaking at the wetland management event at the Raveningham Estate - Credit: Chris Hill

As a result, the 100-acre marsh now attracts bitterns, cranes and raptors as well as flocks of teal, plover, pink-footed geese and 1,000 wintering lapwings.

The event, part of the Water, Mills and Marshes project in the Broads, was organised by Andrew Holland, Broads wet grassland adviser for the RSPB.

He said he hoped it would provide inspiration for new wetland projects - particularly as government policy evolves away from subsidies and towards environmental incentives.

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"It is just food for thought really on what can we achieve, what is available, and what they have used here to help with their management," he said.

"It is all about working together, and working across the landscape. By making all the marshes work harder and providing the chicks with substantial food we can make a difference across the board in the future."

More than 60 people joined the wetland management event at the Raveningham Estate

More than 60 people joined the wetland management event at the Raveningham Estate - Credit: Chris Hill

Mr Holland said it was important for the grass sward to be grazed to various heights between 5-15cm tall, to meet the contrasting needs of species like lapwing, wigeon and pink-footed geese.

"The shorter swards around the water will be ideal for wigeon, the taller swards of 15cm will be ideal for pink-footed geese," he said.

"Lapwing like to nest out in the open, on short swards which are less than 10cm, ideally 5cm or even less, whereas redshank like to nest in the grass tussocks.

"So you have two different types of wader, two different types of nest. That is why ideally you want to have a mosaic of sward heights. The grazing is really important to do that."

redshank ; nwt cley marsh.

A redshank - Credit: David Thacker / iWitness24

Mr Holland said another vital factor for the survival of wader chicks was an unobstructed view of an abundant food source.

"That is why the foot drains are really important," he said. "It is wet mud that we are after, and that is where a huge abundance of food is concentrated. As the water drains away, it leaves the mud, and that is where all the invertebrates are that they feed on."

A rotary ditcher creating foot-drains at the Raveningham Estate

A rotary ditcher creating foot drains at the Raveningham Estate - Credit: Chris Hill

Visitors to the event were shown how the water-filled foot drains are created and maintained using a rotary ditching machine.

The wetland was designed and created in 2003 by Raveningham conservation manager Mark Hambling, who has worked at the estate for 47 years.

He said the management plan includes the sensitive grazing by cattle between April and October, phased in to avoid trampling nests and chicks in spring. And his biggest job is manually spraying the tall tussocks of unpalatable "pin grass" to ensure they do not over-run the managed pasture - while leaving a few remaining so waders have somewhere to hide from predators.

Raveningham Estate conservation manager Mark Hambling

Raveningham Estate conservation manager Mark Hambling - Credit: Chris Hill

"We have got more than 100 species on here now," he said. "We have got the bittern here, which we have never had before, then we have got cranes, spoonbills, about 12 different types of raptors and of course all the wildfowl.

"With a field full of wheat there would have been nothing here for them."

The marshes have recently come out of a Higher Level Stewardship scheme and are due to start a new higher-tier Countryside Stewardship funding agreement this year.

Raveningham Estate owner Sir Nicholas Bacon

Raveningham Estate owner Sir Nicholas Bacon - Credit: Chris Hill

Raveningham Estate owner Sir Nicholas Bacon said: "20 years ago this land was arable. It was quite productive - it produced 3.5 tonnes of wheat - but it was difficult so there were reasons to take it out of arable production. 

"But it is not a rewilding project at all. It is quite the reverse, because it requires so much management.

"I hope people go away today thinking: 'Yes, I think I could do that', but also I think they will take away that actually it is not as straightforward as they thought it might be, and that there is a lot of management required to get it right."

A rotary ditcher creating foot-drains at the Raveningham Estate

A rotary ditcher creating foot drains at the Raveningham Estate - Credit: Chris Hill

Andrew Holland, Broads wet grassland adviser for the RSPB, speaking at the wetland management event at the Raveningham Estate

Andrew Holland, Broads wet grassland adviser for the RSPB, speaking at the wetland management event at the Raveningham Estate - Credit: Chris Hill