Earlier this year, the RSPB's best known reserve in England, Minsmere, celebrated its 70th birthday. It first became famous because avocets started nesting there a week after we took on management responsibility in 1947, then because wetland creation techniques pioneered by Bert Axell helped breeding waders and terns and most recently as the foundation for the remarkable rise in the bittern population. Today, 100,000 visitors a year enjoy Minsmere which now provides homes for 5,700 different species with more than 1000 moths and 1000 fungi, as well an amazing variety of plants, insects and mammals.
I am looking forward to returning to Minsmere tomorrow to find out about this year's breeding season. Minsmere has inspired a host of wetland creation projects in England over the past few decades from Otmoor to Ham Wall and from Lakenheath to Ouse Fen. The latter is still in development, as I saw last week when I was taken around the site by my colleague Matt York. We were joined by Alastair Driver who is Director Rewilding Britain. He has been touring England and Wales looking at great landscape scale conservation projects and had been spending a lot of time in the hills. So, I wanted to show him what can be achieved in the lowlands.
Andy Hay's image of Ouse Fen taken in 2012 (rspb-images.com)
Working with the minerals company Hanson, we are half way through a 30 year project to create 700 hectares of wetland habitat including the largest reedbed in the UK, spanning 460 hectares. It is demonstrating benefits for nature and people through minerals restoration required through the minerals planning system. Over 30 years, starting in 2001, 28 million tonnes of sand and gravel will have been extracted from Needingworth Quarry. Once the aggregate is extracted, a new landscape is created providing homes of for wetland species that Minsmere made famous - marsh harrier, bearded tit and bittern. We are also creating a network of public rights of way which will help the local community and visitors to enjoy the site.
What I really like about this site, is that you can see (as shown in my photos below) the habitats at different stages of development - a bit like the wetlands we are creating at Langford Lowfield with Tarmac in Nottinghamshire or our arable reversion and chalk grassland restoration project at Winterbourne Downs in Wiltshire.
While the scale of Ouse Fen is impressive, it will also link up neighbouring RSPB reserves at Fen Drayton Lakes and the Ouse Washes, creating a near-continuous wetland of some 2,500 hectares. Add in the work that the National Trust is doing at Wicken Fen and the Wildlife Trusts at the Great Fen, and it is possible to imagine a very different future for the Cambridgeshire Fens.
The new Environment Secretary set out his ambition to restore nature on Friday and will soon finalise the promised and much anticipated 25 year environment plan. I hope he takes inspiration from practical examples such as Ouse Fen which show how the state can work with the private sector and with charities and local communities to engineer wildlife back into the landscape.
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