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Re-building the Fens

RSPB Celebrates 40 Years at the Ouse Washes

It`s 40 years since the RSPB first bought land on the Ouse Washes in Cambridgeshire. In November 1964 - when the Supremes were top of the charts with Baby Love and Harold Wilson had recently become Prime Minister - the RSPB purchased 13 hectares of land on what was once called The Hundred Foot Washes. Forty years on, the reserve has grown to nearly 1000 hectares.Creating the Ouse Washes
To get the full story, we need to go back 374 years to 1630. It was then that the Earl of Bedfordshire and 13 adventurers (investors) employed the Dutchman Cornelius Vermuyden to embark on the draining of the fens. This was a piece of engineering that would change the landscape and wildlife of the Fens forever. Two channels more than 19 miles long and half a mile apart were excavated creating large banks to create an area for flood storage. This project was completed in 1652, and a spin-off was the creation of the cattle grazed wet grassland we know today. To this day, the primary function of the Washes is flood defence and they protect 29,000 hectares of agricultural land and properties. Godwits and the RSPB move in
The conservation story starts in 1952 when Edward Cottier, a Littleport schoolteacher and keen ornithologist, discovered a pair of Black-tailed Godwits nesting on the Washes. As the species had been absent as a regular breeding British bird for over 100 years this event made history but had to be kept confidential to protect them from egg collectors. For the next 15 years, with RSPB support, Ted Cottier and a small group of trusted helpers ensured the godwits` breeding success each summer by protecting them from disturbance by grazing stock, crow predation or floods. By 1964 the godwit population had grown to 24 pairs and the RSPB decided to take action to protect permanently their nesting habitat, which also held many other breeding birds and important concentrations of wintering wildfowl. An acquisition programme was initiated with the first purchase of wash-land finalised on 19 November 1964, followed in 1965 by acquisitions by the county trust (later becoming The Wildlife Trust, Cambridgeshire), and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust. During the next 35 years, the three conservation bodies gradually purchased more than 75 per cent of The Washes, building valuable refuge zones for wintering wildfowl.Over the years, the godwit population on the whole of the Ouse Washes has declined, with a peak of 65 in the early 1970s dropping to just five in 2004. The reason for this is the increased incidence of summer flooding - water coming onto the Washes during the birds` breeding season. This also affects the other breeding wading birds such as lapwing, snipe and redshank. Over the whole of the Ouse Washes, a summer flood can affect a thousand pairs of breeding waders. In the winter, the whole length of the Ouse Washes attracts tens of thousands of ducks, with flocks of Wigeon totalling more than 30,000. The wintering swans are famous, with more than 6.000 Bewick`s Swans from arctic Russia and more than 3,000 Whooper Swans from Iceland coming each autumn to use the flooded washes as their base.Looking forward
What changes can we expect in the next 40 years?
Action will be needed to help black-tailed godwits and other wading birds, otherwise the increasing incidence of spring and summer flooding means their prospects are potentially bleak. In future, the RSPB, in partnership with the Environment Agency, English Nature and others, would like to have other areas within the Fens for these charismatic birds to breed, free from summer flooding with all the requirements for raising young birds. That vision has its first small step with the Ouse Washes Habitat Creation Pilot Project at Manea, where the RSPB, with support from the Environment Agency, English Nature, Cambridgeshire County Council and Defra, has recreated 44 hectares of damp grassland from arable farmland for the benefit of breeding waders.

What other wildlife could be using the reserve in 40 years time? One of the species predicted to start breeding has already colonised. This year the reserve scored a first for Cambridgeshire with the county`s first ever breeding Little Egrets. At least two pairs of this small, white heron nested in an osier bed on the reserve. With their growth in numbers in the UK, coupled with the vision of more wetlands being created in the Fens, this could be just the beginning of a rapid growth in numbers.Climate change may bring other new species. Purple Herons and Spoonbills, which currently nest in Holland, may colonise. A reintroduction project led to Corncrakes nesting in Cambridgeshire at the RSPB`s Nene Washes in 2004, and the RSPB hopes they will spread to the Ouse Washes and elsewhere in the Fens. With a run of mild winters, Cetti`s Warblers have increased greatly in the Broads and East Anglian coast and are a likely coloniser. As the range of the tiny Fan-tailed Warbler spreads ever northwards in France, a movement into wetlands in the UK in the next 40 years is on the cards.

Farming around the edge of the Ouse Washes is likely to see big changes - for wildlife, for the better. The move away from subsidies for production towards more wildlife-friendly farming schemes is already a clear trend. Farmers and the RSPB have already boosted valuable fenland populations of the scarce tree sparrow, and better prospects for other farmland birds such as skylarks, turtle doves and reed buntings are a target.Cattle on the Ouse Washes
The management of the Ouse Washes has altered little over the past 352 years, and the RSPB hopes this will be similar in 40 years time. Cattle are used to graze the washes, which are essentially some 300 fields of grassland. Initially, several shepherds controlled the grazing of cattle on the washes. As they retired, the job slowly passed to the RSPB wardens but looking after over 2000 cattle is a very time consuming job. In the early 1980s, the RSPB started to employ stockmen to manage the cattle. This team has steadily grown to a team of five providing a high quality shepherding service for the cattle of our graziers who come from nearby and as far afield as Kent and Shropshire.Wardens come and go, but there`s always Cliff Carson
The RSPB`s first full-time warden on the Ouse Washes was Jeremy Sorensen. Cliff Carson joined him as an assistant warden in 1972, later succeeding him as warden in 1975 when Jeremy went on to be RSPB Minsmere`s warden for many years. Now, 30 years later, Cliff is still in charge, his soft, slow but authoritative voice as much part of the RSPB Ouse Washes as are Black-tailed Godwits. As well as the stock team, six other full-time staff and innumerable volunteers help to keep the reserve going, providing a great place for local people to enjoy this ancient fenland landscape. As with lots of England`s countryside it is only through the close association of people and landscape that the potential for all sorts of wildlife can be realised. New wetlands in the Fens
* In 40 years time, Britain`s biggest reed-bed will have been established at the Hanson-RSPB wetland project at the southern end of the Ouse Washes.
* Schemes now in their early stages, including Lakenheath Fen by the RSPB, the Great Fen project by the Wildlife Trusts/English Nature and wetland creation at Wicken Fen by the National Trust, will be the forerunners of many wetland creation projects in the Fens.
* New wildlife in the Fens will attract large numbers of birdwatchers and tourists with a boost for employment in tourism and related businesses throughout the year. New technology
Forty years ago, TVs were black and white, typewriters manual and there were no mobile telephones. Technology is already speeding conservationists` hands. A laser-guided rotary ditcher imported by the RSPB from United States efficiently created the Pilot Project`s water features, and similar ditches and field drains on many other wetlands. Changes are, of course, difficult to predict. For visitors, appreciating wildlife at first hand will always be important. But it`s likely that fancy gizmos will boost this: remote cameras on the reserve taking pictures to the visitor centre; interactive displays; who knows what else? For wardening staff, will survey data be entered in the field into hand held computers with voice recognition? In the reserve office, will keyboards seem as dated as carbon paper?

Some things remain the same, however. On that first field, purchased in November 1964, the first piece of a very large jigsaw puzzle, ditches that were dug in 1652 remain clearly visible. Now, as then, they are still used by snipe and other wading birds to feed their young. The RSPB would like to thank the people, too many to mention, who have provided support over the years to help create and maintain one of the finest wetlands in the UK.For further information contact
Cliff Carson or Robert Coleman, RSPB Ouse Washes Reserve 01354 680212 Chris Durdin, public affairs officer, RSPB regional office 01603 660066

Visiting RSPB Ouse Washes
The RSPB`s reserve is at Welches Dam, signposted from Manea village (2.5 miles/4 km), which is 6 miles/9.6 km east of Chatteris on the A142/A141 between Ely and March. Birdwatching hides are always open. The visitor centre is open 9 am to 5 pm daily (closed 25 and 26 December).

4th July 2014