Wicken Fen – Ely – Woodwalton Fen
Cambridge lies in the Fenlands – a vast area of flat land in eastern England. In their natural condition these lands were subjected to frequent flooding and had a range of specialised plant communities. The Fens were also a paradise for dragonflies. They were also a magnet for farming and ‘development’. By 1900 over 99% of the original Fen Country was ‘under the plough’ and intensively farmed.
In May 1899 the National Trust purchased two acres of fenland. Charles Rothschild, of the banking family, was determined to rescue and preserve this unique habitat. Later in 1899 he purchased a further 30 acres of Wicken Fen and donated it to the National Trust to form part of Britain’s first nature reserve. In 1911 an adjoining landowner bequeathed over 200 acres to complete the initial preserved area. Wicken Fen has remained with the Trust ever since. (Charles Rothschild was the father of the famous biologist and personality Miriam, who took over his flea collection, and for most of her long life was the world’s expert on fleas … and was pretty good on butterflies, and in numerous other fields).
Wicken Fen nature reserve has an area of about 250 ha and contains a diversity of fen habitats and farmland. Traditional fen activities, such as sedge harvesting for roof thatch, continue as a management tool to maintain habitat diversity. A small number of Konik horses (a small, hardy, Polish breed) and Highland cattle have been introduced to the reserve to provide grazing pressure and maintain habitat diversity. Please avoid these feral horses and semi-domestic cows if you see them. Despite superficial appearance these breeds are not close to either Tarpans or Aurochs … any more than the German Shepherd/Alsatian is a wolf … but they are hardy, can be left to their own devices, and are the right scale for the task.
Wicken Fen is the base of ‘The Wicken Vision’, a plan by the National Trust to make the Wicken wetland about ten times its existing size by extending it upstream towards Cambridge. This expansion should markedly improve the sustainability of a natural fenland community.
Of particular interest to us is the British Dragonfly Centre, an interpretive exercise collaboration between the British Dragonfly Society and the National Trust. Some 22 species of Odonata are recorded from the fen. The Dragonfly Centre will be opened for us.
Useful links include:
Lunch will be at The Cutter, a pub on the River Great Ouse in Ely.
Ely was a famous ecclesiastical centre in the middle ages. This is where the disgruntled scholars from Oxford were headed before their wagons were blocked by the flooded River Cam. Ely Cathedral is regarded as one of the most beautiful pieces of mediaeval architecture (and we would have been dining in the Cathedral Almonry but it is under repair).
The present cathedral commenced building in 1083 under the direction of newly appointed Abbot Simeon, who was already aged 90. It became a Cathedral in 1109. The history of the Cathedral is complicated. It was listed for destruction during the Commonwealth, its stone to be sold to provide soldiers’ pensions, … and its survival may have been linked to one Oliver Cromwell, whose house is maintained as a museum within the town. Some aspects of Anglo Saxon worship are maintained.
Woodwalton Fen is far less visited. Its area is slightly over 200 ha. Again it was a purchase of Charles Rothschild, part of his vision for preserving fen habitat as entirety, recognising, as he did, that preserving entire habitats and ecosystems, was essential to the conservation of the species involved. But with one Fen the National Trust refused to accept the gift. Partially because they were struggling with the newly increased Wicken Fen and partially because they judged Woodwalton Fen to ‘only be of interest to entomologists’. For a while Rothschild maintained the Fen as a private reserve, before in 1912 establishing the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves for Britain and the Empire (SPNR), now the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts. In 1919 he donated Woodwalton to the Society. The reserve is managed by a Board of Trustees.
Woodwalton Fen is altogether ‘wilder’ and less developed than Wicken Fen. It forms the cornerstone for the development of the Great Fen project, a move to provide corridors so sufficient semi-connected fenlands exist to preserve populations of the specialised fen species through colonisation/recolonisation processes.
Among other research conducted here was Norman Moore’s dragonfly pond work. Charles Rothschild’s bungalow on stilts will be opened for us to visit.
Useful links include:
Our excursion starts at 0830, and we should return to Cambridge about 1700h.
Details will be announced at the Congress.