Natural England brought over a hundred  Fenland farmers, water managers, nature conservation people and others together to look at the future of the East Anglian Fens and the desire to change to protect peatland soils and address climate change. Here are some thoughts from a really interesting and inspiring day. 

 An overarching theme

Climate change is at the centre of farming and land use across the Fens.  We need both to increase our understanding about our activities today and their context with climate change; and to seek better alignment of our needs – for ourselves and for society - with those of climate change, as we move forward. 

This encompasses several aspects central to thriving fenlands: greenhouse gas emissions and carbon sequestration, including targets to achieve Net Zero of both the NFU and Cambridgeshire County Council; future water resources, from increased winter flooding and drier summer periods with increased short heavy downpours; food production and suitability of current crops in the trajectory of climate change; the wildlife across our region’s farms and nature areas; and sea level rise, which will increase pressure on drainage systems. 

All of this needs addressing now. Met Office projections back in 2009 showed that we are likely to be living a world two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial in around the year 2040, a milestone on an ongoing trajectory of change that will be with us through our lifetimes. 


A mix of key aspects

There’s considerable patchiness and diversity of soils, and our knowledge about these needs updating.  There may only be relatively small area of deep peat, in terms of the Fens area as a whole.  We need to know more about our soils, including the importance of shallow peat soils – yet this shouldn’t be a cause for delay.  Each farmer will know your soils and so there’s much opportunity for ground up working, using this knowledge, whilst the top down picture is being developed. 

33 tonnes of CO2e lost per hectare per year from arable East Anglia peatlands is a staggeringly high greenhouse gas emission: we clearly must address this.  And the impact of increasing drainage on GHG emissions is also notable, by 3 tonnes per 10 cms lower water.   

Good to hear from the farming community about investment in nature, working more in tune with natural environments and talk of whole farm interconnections.  Nature should be an ally, providing financial benefits as well as environmental ones, and helping to build stability and security to develop farm businesses for future generations.  It’s good to hear of developments to manage current crops that’s more in tune with wetter soils and we await the GHG studies of this with interest. The Committee on Climate Change is calling for end to bare peat in fields and for wetter soils, so this too should influence farm management and, potentially, crop choices.

Water is clearly critical for farm profitability.  Yet we seem to be lacking a clear strategy for water management across the region, into the future. Climate change will increase winter rainfall, with implications for flooding and drainage; yet drier summers will increase demand for irrigation for current crops. We clearly need to hold onto more winter water, in managed ways, for all-year use. There’s also the new direction of public payment for public goods – we heard examples of water management and trading, integrated net gain and financing the societal benefits of peatland restoration – which will offer new ways to keep the management of peat soils profitable. 

Yet central to the East Anglian Fens, profitable farming will undoubtedly remain the core economic activity.  So it’s really encouraging to hear about the potential of wetland crops, pointing to ways to reap economic reward from soil management that’s more in tune with climate change and soil longevity. Early days perhaps, yet the new opportunities for farm businesses on re-wetted soils provide a really important avenue for a future of long term sustainability.  While we track the progress of the paludiculture trials here with interest, we also saw the hands-on, already happening reality of a typha farmer, a crop with an astonishing wide variety of uses: providing building materials, insulation, biomass, compost for horticulture, biological control, cleaning water and also food.  As an example of the wide potential for wetland crops, amazing.

Wetland farming in harmony with nature

Turning this potential for wetland agriculture into wide-scale reality across landscapes– and I do see this as necessary to achieve for soil sustainability and climate change targets - will not happen without both inspired leadership and thorough, detailed work across crop trials, market development, knowledge exchange and partnership working.  The conference showed that clearly, we already have some inspired leaders from the fenland community.

Defra must support this, both driving a clear vision forward and ensuring practical delivery, joining the dots and filling the gaps across what’s happening and developing now. Research, knowledge transfer and farmer support are all essential.  We’ll need both transition funding, and recognition of ongoing costs in the new Environmental Land Management scheme – the post-CAP timing is fortuitous and must be seized.

It’s challenge, yes, and also huge opportunity - even necessity - for all who work in the Fens: a critical period to develop a sustainable long term future, with profitable businesses on wetland soils in tune with climate change and vibrant with nature.