The challenges that communities and Fen landscape are facing now are likely to become more acute.
Flooding: The Fens, so far, has escaped the worst of wet weather events the country has recently experienced. Could the Fens have coped if it had received the same amount and intensity of rainfall as the Somerset Levels (which are managed in a similar way)? Indiscriminate flooding is in no-one’s interests. Not only damaging farmland and property but also affecting sensitive wildlife species.
Drought: At the other end of the spectrum, East Anglia is one of the driest parts of the country. Water availability for spray irrigation is a growing issue for farmers in the Fens. New sources of water supply such as additional farm reservoir capacity are likely to be needed in the near future.
Water Quality: Many Fenland Rivers have been heavily modified to aid drainage, this can reduce their capacity to support wildlife and increase their susceptibility to pollution from farm run-off. As a result many are failing to meet quality standards required under the EU 'Water Framework Directive'. New approaches to river and land management will be needed to meet these standards in the future.
Soil Erosion: As peat is drained it shrinks; becoming lighter, friable and vulnerable to erosion. Much of our most valuable soil is being blown away before our eyes, releasing carbon into the atmosphere in the process.
Biodiversity Loss: Less than 1% of the original fen wetlands remain as fragments scattered across the Fens. Protecting small populations of wildlife on a limited number of isolated reserves and in the context of a changing climate is not sustainable into the future.
Community cohesion: Parts of the Fens contain communities that are amongst the 10% most deprived in the country. There is a need to attract more investment into these areas.
Wetlands can help to meet some of these challenges. The idea of allowing more water back onto the land might at first seem like a backwards step, it is not, instead it is working with nature. The strength of this approach is its ability to provide a more integrated approach to developing solutions to the challenges being faced. Wetlands in the right place can be a flood defence, water treatment works, reservoir and a beautiful to place to be in and enjoy, all rolled into one. This makes them potentially a very attractive investment to a broad range of partners including, farmers, drainage engineers, conservationists, local authorities and private businesses.
Water in the wetlands can be stored for summer crop irrigation or percolate into the groundwater for human consumption rather than being lost to the sea. The flow of water is slowed, absorbing it in times of flood and then slowly releasing it back into the catchment. Slowing the flow rate can reduce soil erosion and allow contaminants to settle out before reaching our rivers, improving water quality. Re-wetting areas of peat stops it from oxidising and being lost to the atmosphere, retaining fertility, buried archaeology and carbon.
Beautiful wetlands rich in wildlife act as a huge draw for many people, providing opportunities for tourism and recreation and helping to create better places for people to live, work in and visit. They can act as a catalyst for increased inward investment into local communities and providing opportunities for farm diversification and the development of local businesses. Products of wetland agriculture include extensively grazed cattle and a range of fibres (reeds, rushes, sedges and willows) that can be used in construction, biomass and local crafts.
Re-integrating the beauty and usefulness of the Fen wetlands into a modern farming landscape, and promoting joint ownership of them so that they benefit everyone involved is central to the vision of the Fens for the Future Partnership. Find out how we are working to 'build a sustainable future'