In the 1930's, the greater water-parsnip (sium latifolium) were found throughout Lincolnshire's fenland regions. But when surveyed in 2000 for Lincolnshire’s Biodiversity Action Plan, they were found, in just five localities.
Less than 200 individual plants remained - the fenland nature reserves on Baston and Thurlby Fens, between Bourne and Deeping, were their last stronghold.
This first county biodiversity plan for Lincolnshire was a sobering document for anyone concerned with our natural environment: 99.9% of the county's fenland had been drained and ploughed and 60% of the Fens peaty soils had already been oxidised or washed away. If there were no longer any genuine fenlands to be found, could Lincolnshire lowlanders any longer call themselves 'Fenmen'? Not only was the fenlands unique wildlife on the verge of being lost, so was its natural fenland heritage and culture. Was the real meaning of the word 'fenland' to become consigned to history, or just a name on a map?
Over the last two decades a number of individuals and groups have championed the cause for conserving Lincolnshire's last natural fenlands, but it was the county's biodiversity plans which helped to gel these groups and individuals together. The South Lincolnshire Fenlands partnership and project was informally initiated in 2004 (at first called the Baston and Thurlby Fens Project), historic information was gathered, surveys and studies were begun and proposals and plans made.
Only about 55 hectares of wet, semi-natural fenland remained in Lincolnshire, their swampy peaty habitats, black pools and shallow meres still retained an amazingly rich variety of specialised wetland plants and animals:
- A huge water beetle, Dytiscus dimidatus, was discovered for the first time on the adjacent Baston and Thurlby Fen nature reserves. We couldn't find an English name for this animal so we called it the 'fenland diving beetle'. It was only known on the Great Fen in Cambridgeshire, the Somerset Levels and here in Lincolnshire's last fenlands.
- The two kilometre squares in which Baston and Thurlby Fens reside are the most diverse for aquatic plants in the Environment Agency's Anglian Region, Northern Area (approx 8,950 square kms).
- Lincolnshire's largest remaining block of semi-natural peat fenland habitat, about 35 hectares of which is peaty swamp and wet-grassland was vital refuge for many rare and endangered plants and animals. This also functions as a washland - preventing uncontrolled flooding by safely storing water in times of high rainfall and water run-off - vital in 2007, the UK's wettest summer for 241 years.
Even these remaining fenlands however, had to be regarded as unsustainable: they were small and vulnerable to potential pollution incidents, drought or even long-term flooding and inundation through climate change, which could result in unsuitable habitat transformation and declining biodiversity. Over the previous decade, Baston Fen had lost breeding wetland birds such as lapwing and snipe and even the remaining greater water-parsnip were in decline, although the return of otter provided encouragement.
It became clear that if Lincolnshire's surviving fenlands were to remain sustainable and their wildlife protected, they would have to be far larger than they were at present.
In 2005, the South Lincolnshire Fenlands partnership engaged a Project Officer to work on its behalf in developing its proposals and plans.
The project aims, to restore over the next 25-50 years up to 800 hectares of fenland around or close to the remaining fenlands sites, received a mixed response in 2006. The general public were overwhelmingly (80+%) in favour of the project while many landowners were far more circumspect, or even hostile to restoring wet-fenlands. Some landowners however, had already engaged in their own initiatives creating ponds and wildlife areas, or were working with Natural England to put some areas adjacent to the remaining reserves into High Level Stewardship management - lapwing returned to breed. Even with Stewardship support however, the economics of fenland restoration to 'peat forming' wetlands, and farm business income for individual landowners was always going to be a challenge.
In 2009, a significant breakthrough was attained by the purchase of Willow Tree Fen by the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust and its members, with support from the South Lincolnshire Fenland partnership, Heritage Lottery Fund, Lincolnshire Waterways Partnership, Natural England and the Environment Agency. This 114 hectare site, always a challenge to keep dry, will be restored over the next two years to a mixture of reedbeds, shallow meres, seasonally flooded pastures and hay meadows, providing habitats for rare and threatened wetland species such as otter, water vole, hairy dragonfly, spined loach, redshank, snipe and greater water-parsnip.
Willow Tree Fen will increase Lincolnshire's remaining fenland area by 200%. Critically, the site is linked to the remnant fenland nature reserves by the River Glen and Counter Drain, and from these water courses the rare and endangered fenland plants and animals will be able to colonise the newly restored fenland habitats. The new reserve and its support staff will also provide opportunities for local people and schools to get involved in wildlife and landscape conservation.
In 2011 and beyond, the South Lincolnshire Fenlands project and its partners will continue to seek mutually beneficial ways to work with local communities, landowners, farm tenants, the mineral industry and businesses to integrate the fenland project into the development and diversity of the local economy. It will seek ways to provide benefits for green tourism, through improved access and help to raise awareness of the importance of our ecological inheritance and historic landscapes so that future generations may experience and appreciate their unique fenland heritage in perpetuity.
The South Lincolnshire Project is supported by: Baston Environment Group, Environment Agency, Farming & Wildlife Advisory group, Lincolnshire County Council, Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust, Natural England, South Holland District Council, South Kesteven District Council, Waterside Garden Centre - Baston and the Welland & Deepings IDB.
For further information
To visit Willow Tree Fen contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Or contact the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust.
Telephone 01507 526667
About this article
This article was produced in partnership with the Waterside Garden Centre (Baston)and published in the garden magazine Exquisite (2010/2011).