There are special places and then there are really special places.  I visited two really special places in Norfolk on Friday: our own Sutton Fen and Butterfly Conservation's Catfield Fen which we manage on their behalf.

Exploring the heart of these reserves is to be lost within a wild world where wildlife flourishes.  If there is another site in England with a higher density of Red Data Book species, I am not aware of it: 9 species are listed as endangered and 40 as vulnerable. These two sites alone are home to something like 5,000 fen orchids, more than 90% of the UK population.

Yet, there is growing concern that water abstraction and water pollution could seriously affect the quality of these sites. The stakes are high - make the wrong decision and we could push some species to the brink of extinction in England - something that the Government has pledged to avoid.

View of Sutton Fen, Catfield Fen's neighbour (Ben Hall,

In the East of England, water is a major issue.  It’s fundamental to the environment, the economy, our health, agriculture but also to many specialist species.   Although it may not feel like it after the rain of the last week, It is the most water-stressed region in the UK, meaning there isn’t always enough to go around. 

Catfield Fen is currently on the frontline of a debate about how we share this precious resource.  The site has an incredibly delicate ecology that is extremely sensitive to any changes in water management.  The habitat relies on the perfect balance of acidic rainwater and alkaline ground water to maintain the intricate web of life that exists within the fen. 

The habitat is so unique that many species are only found in the very particular conditions of water level and water chemistry found at Catfield Fen and nearby reserves.  Therefore, if there is a reduction in the amount of water available from the aquifer underneath the site, the ecology will shift towards more acidic conditions.  This could be catastrophic for a lot of the rare and declining wildlife that lives at Catfield Fen. 

What is really worrying is that once this change begins it becomes harder and harder to rectify until eventually the habitat is so altered that it will never be the same again.  This would lead to a whole array of species finding themselves in an inhospitable environment with very few places to which they can relocate.

This is why we and others are so concerned about water abstraction in the area adjacent to this jewel in the crown of the UK.

Two abstraction licence renewals to irrigate crops are currently being assessed by the Environment Agency.

This is not a straightforward choice between agriculture or wildlife, this is about finding an acceptable balance between the protection of an incredibly important site for wildlife, whilst enabling appropriate cultivation in the adjacent area. Some farmers are already developing water storage reservoirs and we support this work. However, there also needs to be a review of crops that are grown in particular areas to ensure that they are compatible with the wider environment. Salad crops may be profitable, but they can exact a terrible impact on wetland sites if they are grown in the wrong area due to the amount of water required to cultivate them.

However, the issue of sustainable water management is much bigger than this one case alone.  The demands on our current supply are many and sometimes those demands come into conflict with one another.  We can all do something to look after natural resources such as water: we can use less by choosing to have showers rather than baths, we can capture rainfall by installing water butts and we can build water reservoirs on land for agricultural needs.  The key is to manage water for the needs of everyone rather than each interested party competing for their ‘bit’.   

We will continue to work with statutory agencies, environmental organisations and local landowners and communities to try to find a way of ensuring that Catfield Fen doesn’t lose the qualities that makes it so special.  You can do a lot to help, from making choices that save water, to ensuring that others are aware of the issues wildlife is facing from poor water management. 

The needs of wildlife, agriculture, communities and tourism can all be met, they just need to be managed with care to ensure that no one loses out.  This is the conversation that needs to be opened as it is the only way can we expect to find a solution and guarantee a positive future for the wildlife of Catfield Fen.

  • Absolutely right Martin as summarised in your final paragraph. Wisdom requires the long view and that tells us that good forward looking water management is needed. I do not know the specific details of Sutton and Catfield Fens but I suspect that granting short term water extraction licenses would not only ruin these fens but within a few years those seeking the the extaction would still be asking for more water with these two fens having been wrecked in the meantime.

    The answer has to be to conserve water in water storage areas when it is available (for example we so often hear of wading birds the Ouse Washes being flooded out in the Spring.)

    Besides the lower rainfall in East Anglia, the geology is such that most of the area is on very porous sandy soil which has little abilty to retain water, so this compounds the problem. Water storage facilities would therefore seem to be essential and the sooner the better. Don't wreck magnificent wildlife sites, which will not solve any water problems in the medium to long term. Think ahead with suitable water management solutions for all.