How the countryside around the Old West River became an important stronghold for rare and threatened species
The New Life on the Old West (NLOW) project takes its name from the Old West River — part of the Great Ouse flowing east towards Stretham. The river is surrounded by natural fenland areas providing a continuous habitat of verdant riverbanks and washland, important wetland sites, numerous parish-owned community green spaces, many hectares of farmland, and an extensive ditch network, some of which are particularly valuable for aquatic plants and invertebrates. But what has created this diverse corridor? To answer, we have to go back in time to look at the history of the Fenlands.
Early history of the Fenlands – Peat, Sedge and Fishing
Daniel Defoe called the Fens “the sink of thirteen counties”, as rivers drained most of Middle England into this area of low flatlands. In the spring, the rivers would flood, depositing heavy sediment thus creating sand and clay bars that caused the rivers to meander in wide arcs as they headed towards the Wash.
The Fens were filled with sluggish channels and standing water. Rich marsh vegetation grew in the standing water, which became peat, nearly pure plant material, when it partially rotted. Peat was used for fuels and the vast beds of sedge, reed, willow and grasslands were harvested regularly for thatch. Other activities included fishing, catching waterfowl, trapping eels, coppicing willows, and making baskets. No-one paid tax on these natural resources.
In Medieval times, the Church owned nearly all of the Fens through the abbeys and monasteries. When Henry VIII seized the great abbeys during the Reformation, he gave the Fenlands to his supporters, who allowed the locals to continue with their industry. But when Charles 1 needed more money, he eyed the Fenlands, knowing that super fertile peat soil would make great farmland – which he could then tax! He granted the fourth Earl of Bedford the right to drain 95,000 acres in 1630. The Earl, along with 13 fellow investors known as the Gentlemen Adventurers, hired the Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden to do the work; as he understood how the Dutch controlled water with a series of dykes, dams and sluice gates.
Locals opposed the drainage – after all it took away their livelihoods. The Fen Tigers are infamous for their sabotage, including smashing dams and dykes, and breaking sluice gates. Have you spotted the tiger on the Fenland flag? It’s in honour of this group of local Fenland heroes.
The Fenlands Floods
Vermuyden made the assumption that the rivers would easily drain into the drainage channels that he had dug. However, as the land was made of peat which rotted away as soon as it was exposed to air, within a few decades the fields had sunk below Vermuyden’s drains – and by the early 18th century, the Fens were once again flooded.
Farmers have struggled with flooding for years during winter months and when large storms hit our country. So many authorities have attempted to keep the farmland free from water but contradicting decisions, and Mother Nature herself, has often thwarted efforts. Today, big flood control works have kept the water at bay, but at what cost?
The Hedgerows of the Fens
The history of the area is not important to the wildlife that calls it home, but it is important for us to understand how the environment was made so that we can protect it now, and restore it where needed. Today, despite its turbulent past, the extensive ditch network created by Vermuyden is often referred to as ‘the hedgerows of the fens’ because of their high natural value; filled with native and visiting flora and fauna.
The Old West River corridor is of significant value for its biodiversity too. It is a stronghold for many rare and threatened species, such as the water vole and greater water parsnip – and the local drained farmland provides habitat and food for highly threatened birds including turtle doves and lapwing. Many of the community green spaces support rare terrestrial plants and insects, as discovered through work done by the Fenland Flora project and Buglife in the area, and the sites are of international importance for their lowland wetland habitats and species.
The small-scale habitats that the NLOW project is creating, along with sharing knowledge and understanding about our local area, are actions that together will create a more resilient landscape in the Cambridgeshire Fens; connecting dispersed species and habitats. Now, it is time to understand how to maintain the new habitats and embrace the old landscape to ensure it remains rich in biodiversity for generations to come.
Want to lend a hand? We always appreciate extra help!
There are lots of opportunities to get involved in the NLOW project and effect real change in the landscape you call home. There are activities to suit every age and commitment level, from recording species to lending a hand in the creation of new wildlife areas. If you’d like to become a volunteer, join a training session or to help improve local habitat working with wildlife experts, please get in touch via firstname.lastname@example.org
If you’d like to read more about the History of the Fens, visit these websites:
New Life on the Old West is a Heritage Lottery funded project managed and delivered by Cambridgeshire ACRE. Cambridgeshire ACRE is an independent organisation, a registered charity and a company limited by guarantee. We are part of the national ACRE Network of 38 similar organisations in England.
Our vision is to have thriving rural communities across Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. We therefore strive for positive change and work with others to improve the lives of those living and working in rural communities. Our action-driven approach is supported by our team of staff who are experts in their field and not influenced by any other body. Communities can therefore have peace of mind knowing that their ambitions are in the best possible hands. Our aim is to help rural communities seize opportunities and drive their projects forward, which includes improving their access to services, information and funding.
More information can be found on Cambridgeshire ACRE’s work with rural communities at https://www.cambsacre.org.uk.