Cambridge fenlands to be recreated to preserve wildlife

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The Independent Online

An area of fenland is to be returned to its natural state, turning back the clock three centuries and creating the biggest reedbed refuge for Britain's birds.

An area of fenland is to be returned to its natural state, turning back the clock three centuries and creating the biggest reedbed refuge for Britain's birds.

The reserve being formed over the next three decades beside the river Ouse at Needingworth, near St Ives, Cambridgeshire, will sprawl over more than four square kilometres, roughly equivalent to a square with St Paul's Cathedral and Tower Bridge at adjacent corners.

It will recreate a portion of the fenland that was lost during the reign of Charles II when the Duke of Bedford hired Cornelius Vermuyden, a Dutch engineer, to drain it.

Six hundred years earlier, Hereward the Wake led the final Saxon resistance to the Norman conquest from the heart of this wilderness. In future, it will be a refuge for bitterns, bearded tits, otters and other wetland creatures.

Currently, it is an area of arable farmland that is being progressively quarried for gravel by Hanson. Under the deal with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, as each section is worked out it will become part of the growing reserve.

Graham Wynne, the RSPB chief executive, said the project "will create Britain's biggest reedbed and will become one of the most important wetlands for wildlife in southern Britain, with the potential to double the current UK population of bittern from 30 to 60 pairs".

Christopher Collins, the chairman of Hanson, said the project was "about vision, responsibility and partnership – a vital industry working hand in hand with a leading conservation organisation and planners to make a significant contribution to habitat creation".

Reedbeds have long been one of Britain's scarcest habitats and the creation of more is part of government policy. With several other projects around the country, including Lakenheath, 20 miles to the east, Ouse Fen will help meet the target of almost 3,000 extra acres (1,200 hectares) by 2010.

Alun Michael, the minister for rural affairs, who will launch the project today, said: "This project alone will assist the Government in achieving 40 per cent of its target."

The plan is to build an access road and car park within five years for visitors flocking to see the birds occupying the first reedbeds, which by then will have been established.

Eventually, more than 1,100 acres (4.4 square kilometres) of reeds will be recreated, enough to support 30 pairs of bitterns, 20 pairs of marsh harriers, 100 pairs of bearded tits, 200 pairs of water rails and 300 pairs of reed buntings. Already, relevant wildlife, such as otters, are near by and are likely to colonise the site naturally as the habitat becomes available.

Swallowtail butterflies, another rare fenland species, may require human assistance to set up home.

Spoonbills, extinct as a British breeding species since the 17th century, may also be encouraged to recolonise. More of these exotic marshbirds are arriving from Holland – as many as 11 were seen on in one Norfolk spot last week – and some have started nesting.

Creating the reserve will involve complex engineering. The reedbeds will stand below the surrounding water table so an impregnable clay lining all around must be built to prevent it turning into an extensive open lake.