Naturewatch: Out on the fens
Fenland Ramblers’ Brian Foster takes us on a tour of one of Britain’s rarest habitats and the stunning wildlife to be found in its distinctive environs
Of all the changes in the British landscape over the past few centuries, the loss of our native fenland has perhaps been the most dramatic. More than 99% of this distinctive habitat – which once stretched for hundreds of miles across eastern England – has been wiped out.
“To get an idea of the scale of change, go to the famous ‘Holme Fen Post’ on Holme Fen, south of Peterborough,” suggests Brian Foster, chairman of Fenland Ramblers. “It shows the original height of the land before it was drained for farmland in the mid-1800s; the post is now 13ft above ground level.”
Waymarked trails help you explore Holme Fen, which is a National Nature Reserve and is famous for its raised bog and the largest silver birch woodland in lowland Britain. Holme and nearby Woodwalton Fen now form the basis of the Great Fen Project – an attempt to return 14 square miles of farmland to its original waterlogged state through flooding and restoration.
For many walkers, though, a ramble through fenland today is more about grassy embankments high above drainage channels and grazing fields. “This is a flat country of big skies and wide vistas,” says Brian, “where the sight of a skein of pink-footed geese is quite breathtaking.”
Another wildlife-rich venue is Wicken Fen, where the National Trust has recorded 8,000-plus species of plants, fungi and animals over the past century. “Look out for the bright yellow brimstone butterfly and the emperor dragonfly,” says Brian, “as well as rafts of whirligig beetles skimming over the surface of ditches, and uncommon plants like great fen-sedge and marsh pea.”
For a memorable experience, go out early in the morning or at dusk. “Barn owls are a common sight in fenland, swooping across the grassy banks to hunt voles and mice,” says Brian. “Once seen, never forgotten.”
For the full version of this article with a complete guide to the wildlife of the fens, pick up the Autumn 2012 issue of walk from Cotswold Outdoor or why not join the Ramblers and get it delivered to your door four times a year?
Barn owl image by Phil Haynes.