The Destruction of the Fens – All Is Not Lost


Around the coast of the Wash in Eastern England lies The Fens or Fenland. Until the early 1600s, it was a

The livelihoods of many medieval fen-dwellers depended on reed cutting. The rights to cut reed were carefully controlled by manorial courts. Willow and reeds were used in building and thatching houses. In this photo from the early 1900s, Mr Mason of Lotting Fen is still stacking cut reeds in the traditional way.

vast natural area of lowland marshes. Wildlife thrived in the reed marshland and wet woodland, plants and insects flourished on the peat soils, and in the open water fish and birds were abundant. Local people relied on fishing, wildfowling, and the harvesting of reeds for their livelihoods though unpredictable flooding caused many deaths. To make the land more productive though, the Fens have been drained over many centuries and most of the land now lies below sea level. Only four pockets of the original fens survive and the impact upon biodiversity has been devastating. The final irony is that the drainage of the Fens has made the land far more susceptible to the flooding that will result from rising sea levels caused by climate change.

A Brief Natural History

Fenland reaches into four historic counties: Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire, Norfolk, and a small part of Suffolk, an area of nearly 3,900 sq km (1,500 sq mi). The fens formed about 5,000 years ago as sea-levels rose after the last Ice Age. A fen was the local name for areas of nutrient-rich shallow fresh- or salt-water in which dead plants did not fully decay. Peat forms from this partially decayed vegetation, and a rich flora of plants grows in this saturated peat. Beavers, otters, water vole and other wildlife thrived in the reed marshland and wet woodland, plants and insects flourished on the peat soils, with abundant fish and birds in the open water.

Nearer the sea were washes, salt marsh and tidal creeks, and in higher areas where the peat grew above the reach of land water, were moors. There were also shallow lakes or meres: Brick, Ramsey, Trundle, Ugg, and Whittlesey Mere. The largest was Whittlesey, which was in Huntingdonshire. It extended to 3,000 acres (1,214 ha) in winter, and it was the largest lake in southern England. There were also isolated areas of higher ground, called ‘islands’, which remained dry when the low-lying fens around them were flooded. The largest of the fen-islands is the Isle of Ely, on which the cathedral city of Ely was built, which is 39m above sea level at its highest point.

Early Settlers

This partly imagined map of the central part of the Fens in 1070 shows vast area of marsh south of the Wash with eight or so meres, and a variety of ‘islands’. The Ouse and Nene rivers join south of Wisbech, although as can be seen from the map below, they now follow separate artificial channels to the sea.

The fens were densely settled in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. Timber trackways were used in some places to move around the flooded landscape. Helped by a fall in sea levels, the Romans built a road, the Fen Causeway, from Denver near Downham in Norfolk to Peterborough. Gravel was used to raise the road above the marshland to link what later became East Anglia and central England. The Romans also dug the Car Dyke, an 85-mile (137 km) long ditch which runs along the western edge of the Fens, which is believed to have been used as a canal. But other than this, the Fens were generally left unsettled by the Romans. After the end of Roman Britain, it is thought that peoples from the Iceni tribe of British Celts may have moved west into the easily defended Fens to avoid the invading Anglo-Saxons who were settling in what would become East Anglia. In Christian Anglo-Saxon England, hermitages on the islands in the Fens became centres of communities, and in the 10th century monastic revival under the Saxon king Edgar, these became monasteries and abbeys such as at Chatteris, Crowland, Ely, Peterborough, Ramsey, and Thorney. Ramsey Abbey, which was founded in 969, became a major centre of religious learning. The abbey’s illuminated manuscript Book of Benefactors, described the island of Ramsey.

The island stretches for some two miles in length … and is garlanded roundabout with alder thickets and reed beds, [and there was] flowering ash for building the church. [The island was] encircled by eel filled marshes … fish and swimming birds.

By the time of the Norman invasion, Ramsey was the fourth richest monastery in the country. Of interest, some of the family and servants of the Danish King Canute (or Cnut) were caught in a storm on Whittlesey Mere in 1020 and nearly drowned. And it is believed that Hereward the Wake, the 11th-century leader of local resistance to the Norman Conquest, sought refuge in the Fens after his escape from the seige by the Normans of the Isle of Ely in 1071.

Draining the Fens 

This map of the Fen waterways today, shows how rivers were straightened as they got nearer to the Wash. Between March and Ely are the Sixteen Foot Drain, and the Old and New Bedford Rivers, the latter also called the Hundred Foot Drain.

The first large-scale draining of the Fens was started in 1634 during the reign of Charles I by a group of wealthy landowners, the ‘Gentleman Adventurers’, led by the 4th Earl of Bedford. Field ditches and long straight drains were dug through the marshland, and rivers to the sea, the main ones being the Ouse, Nene, Welland and Witham, were straightened, and new channels cut. Fen-dwellers were fiercely opposed to the draining as it would deprive them of their livelihoods of fishing, wildfowling, the catching of eels, the coppicing of willows and other trees, taking peat for fuel, and the harvesting of reeds or sedge for thatch. Fenland was being replaced with arable land owned by strangers. The ‘Fen Tigers’ tore down dykes and sluices, and set reed beds on fire, halting drainage work.

As the land was drained, the peat started to dry and shrink, causing the land to sink leaving the rivers and drains, within their banks, at a higher level. From 1685, windmills were used to power pumps to lift the water from the ditches into the drains. The shallow meres silted up. As the land continued to sink, much of it now below sea level, new sluices and drains had to be built. Large scale drainage continued up to the 1820s as did opposition to it with fierce local rioting and sabotaging of works.

The sinking of the Fens due to shrinkage of peat is well demonstrated by the Holme Post in Cambridgeshire. The post was drilled into the peat and underlying clay in 1851 in order to monitor peat loss and the top of the post was at ground level. Now the top of the post is 4 metres above the ground. This area of the Fens is the lowest point on land in Britain, 2.75 metres (9.5 feet) below sea level.

In the 1820s, wind pumps were replaced with pumps powered by steam from coal-fired steam engines. Steam pumps could operate in any weather and when flooding was likely they often ran for days and nights on end. And water could be lifted over a greater height from the ditches into the main drains. All the meres could now be drained with the use of steam power, and by 1850 it was done. Whittlesey Mere, which was once famous for its regattas, boat races and ice skating, was the last to be drained, although its name remains on OS maps. Wheat was cultivated for the first time. The annual value of the crops grown in Whittlesey Mere in 1853 was £12,350 compared with the £1,160 produced by the cutting of reed and sedge around the Mere before it was drained. By 1860 the value of the newly drained land had risen by at least ten-fold.

Steam-powered pumps, such as Old Engine at Stretham, were themselves replaced with diesel-powered pumps like those in the Prickwillow Museum. Flooding still continued up to until 1947, but was largely eliminated with the installation of the small electric stations that are still used today.

As a result of the draining of the fens, Fenland has become one of the major arable regions in Britain for grains and vegetables. The soil is particularly fertile, containing around half of the grade 1 agricultural land in England.

Thus potentially there are competing interests between farmers and organisations seeking to restore wetland habitats to the Fens.

Restoring the Fens

Only 1.4% of the original wetland habitat of the Fens remain, the largest being Wicken Fen near Soham in Cambridgeshire, which is owned by the National Trust. These fen habitats are still remarkably diverse. 8,459 species have been recorded at Wicken Fen. Despite the challenge, a number of ambitious habitat restoration projects are in progress.

The Great Fen in Cambridgeshire is a 50-year project to create a huge wetland area and join two of the last fragments of wild fen, Woodwalton Fen and Holme Fen which are National Nature Reserves (NNRs). On their own these fens are too small and isolated to support the special wildlife of the original fens, but plan is to create a fen landscape of 3,700 hectares around these two fens. It is one of the largest restoration projects of its type in Europe.

At Wicken Fen, the National Trust says that ‘extensive grazing by Highland cattle allows less competitive plant species to become established and trampling creates areas of bare ground which assist seed germination, whilst physical damage from animals lying and rolling contributes to the structural diversity of the vegetation’.

Wicken Fen, also in Cambridgeshire, includes an area of original fen that has never been drained and it is the oldest NNR in England. In 1999, the Trust launched the Wicken Fen Vision, a 100-year project to establish a 53 sq km nature reserve between Wicken Fen and Cambridge. The Trust has purchased areas of drained fenland in the surrounding countryside, including in 2001, Burwell Fen, which was only drained in the Second World War as part of the Dig for Victory Campaign. Highland cattle and Konik ponies, originally from Poland, were introduced in 2013 as a low cost and natural method of managing the fenland and creating a variety of habitats for the thousands of species that inhabit the fen.

Other NNRs and restoration projects include Willow Tree, Baston and Thurlby Fens in Lincolnshire; Chippenham Fen and the Ouse Washes in Cambridgeshire; Lakenheath Fen in Suffolk; and the Wissey Wetlands and Welney Washes in Norfolk. The Ouse Washes are largest area of washland (grazing pasture that floods in the winter) in Britain.


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