Some good news brought to us in a guest blog by our Conservation Officer Amy Crossley 

At the heart of the Fens lies the Ouse Washes – a wetland wonder that has survived the extensive historic drainage of the Fens. It’s survival due to its role in managing the seasonal flooding of the area. The RSPB has been involved with the Ouse Washes for decades and our reserve alongside those of other conservation bodies has ensured that the area’s wildlife has a safe home. But the flooding that is life blood of the washes has changed in recent years – meaning devastating spring flooding threatens ground nesting wading birds.

The future for the characteristic breeding birds of the washes needs to involve imaginative and bold projects to create additional areas alongside the Ouse washes – one such project lies immediately to the west of the Ouse washes at Block Fen.

Block fen will see minerals and waste companies, decision makers, organisations and individuals alike work together to create a slice of habitat heaven for breeding waders and a host of other wetland wildlife, which will gradually emerge under the guidance of a local planning document called the Block Fen / Langwood Fen Master Plan. This Master Plan sets out a bold and brilliant vision to convert several hundred hectares of former minerals and waste land into lowland wet grassland (a form of traditionally managed grazing land), a rich home for birds and wildlife, and a series of large lakes for farmland irrigation and flood risk management. 

However last year this opportunity to create a breath-taking place for people and wildlife  was put at risk. Despite operators and owners of other quarry and waste sites in Block Fen committing to restore in accordance with the Master Plan vision, a proposal to restore a critical part of the area back to arable farmland threatened to undermine the widely agreed and supported objectives of the Master Plan, by preventing the restoration of large and continuous block of wet grassland next to the Ouse Washes.

This proposal would have undermined the Master Plan’s ability to complement this internationally important wildlife site, significantly expanding it and so enhancing its value for the species that rely on it. This is all made the more important given the Ouse Washes has been suffering from changing flooding patterns, which has reduced populations of some of its most important breeding birds , such as the  beautiful black-tailed godwit. As the Ouse Washes is one of only two major sites in the UK where black-tailed godwits breed, Block Fen stands to make a substantial contribution to the conservation of their national population, if it is restored as set out in the Master Plan.

Black-tailed godwit - one of the iconic wading birds that depends on the Fens. Photo credit Jonathan Taylor RSPB.

The benefits of the Master Plan restoration vision don’t stop there. Restoring wet grassland, managed by traditional farming methods such as cattle grazing and hay making, will also help protect the rich peat soils of the area into the future, and reduce the carbon emissions from ploughing the peat that would otherwise occur under more intensive forms of farming. The detailed design for the final Block Fen, including public access, still needs to be worked up but the Master Plan sets a clear intention for both the water bodies and wet grassland areas to provide a significant new green space for people and wildlife. Such benefits have gained the support of local communities, with the local parish council stating that without them, they fear the nearby town of Mepal is in danger of becoming ‘simply a dormitory’.

 

The bold and brilliant vision for Block Fen, Cambridgeshire.

Hence yesterday saw us doing something that we feel rather passionately about here at RSPB; Standing up for Nature. It’s not often we don on our finery and attend formal planning hearings, but yesterday’s meeting in Cambridgeshire saw us, and the Wildlife Trust for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire and Natural England, doing just that. And we’re pleased to say that on this occasion the right outcome was met.

This truly is sustainable development at its best, achieving a genuine balance of economic growth, environmental, social and wildlife benefits, for the long term.  

Yesterday could have seen permission granted for an area of the land to be worked but restored instead to intensive arable production, as a more financially profitable after use, but one that would sacrifice all the wonderful benefits the Master Plan restoration vision otherwise stood to provide.  But, the decision was rightly and unanimously taken to refuse this application on the grounds of non-conformity of its proposed restoration scheme with Cambridgeshire County and Peterborough City Council’s positive minerals and waste plan, and its accompanying Master Plan.

We commend this decision and look forward to seeing Block Fen realise its full potential, both for wildlife and for people, in the years to come.

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