Catfield – jewel in the crown, for how much longer?

Nature conservation needs systems and processes and, yes, bureaucracy, and forms and meetings and all the paraphernalia of decision making and due diligence.  But, as we all know, sometimes the means can take over from the ends, and sometimes people can lose sight of what the processes are there to deliver.

I recently visited Catfield Fen in the Norfolk Broads at the invitation of the owners of part of the Ant Broads and Marshes SSSI, Mr and Mrs Tim Harris.  It’s a lovely spot and an interesting story which I hope will have a happy ending.

The main players in this story are the owners (Mr and Mrs Harris), Natural England (a government delivery agency), the Environment Agency (another government delivery agency), local farmers and water suppliers and local naturalists.  And I guess, a point that I do not tire of making here, you and me, as our taxes are sprinkled around this story in paying delivery agencies to do their jobs, paying farmers, and paying land managers to deliver nature conservation on the ground.

There are three things that are agreed by all – as far as I can see.

1. Catfield Fen is an amazingly important site for wildlife.

It is an SSSI and has been described as the finest example of unpolluted valley fen in Western Europe (in the SSSI citation).  The nature conservation importance of the site really isn’t questioned and the site was designated in the early 1950s and early 1970s so it’s been recognised for a very long time.  It’s a jewel in the nature conservation crown.

2. Catfield Fen is drying out

This isn’t in question either.  I’ve seen photographs of how the site used to be and walking around it a few days ago my wellington boots weren’t really needed.  People with a much longer experience of the site point to the sparser and lower reed growth and the incursion of grasses into the reedbeds and there is now a whole bunch of hydrological measurement going on.

3.  Catfield Fen is losing its nature conservation importance because it is drying out.

You have only to look at the Natural England website to see that it classes the reason for the unfavourable and not recovering status of units 3 and 11 of the site as being water abstraction.  Local naturalists point to the declines of the following plant species as being important and indicative of drier conditions: crested buckler fern, Sphagnum, soft hornwort, marsh stitchwort, round-leaved sundew, marsh cinquefoil, cowbane, milk parsley, greater bladderwort, frogbit, cotton grass, slender sedge and heath spotted orchid (to name but a few).

So, with two government delivery agencies on the job we should be moving to a rapid resolution of this issue surely?  Well, maybe we will move to a resolution, and that’s the test of all the years’ of meetings and letters and memos and phone calls to date, but whatever happens now it won’t have been quick.  This matter has been dragging on, as the water has been dragged out, for decades.  Back in 1993 English Nature (NE’s predecessor) wrote to the National Rivers Authority (EA’s predecessor) over the insidious lowering of the ambient water levels over the last 25 years – and now we are nearly 20 years on and the discussions are still happening.

Through this period it has been the owners of the site who have fought hardest for its nature conservation future.  This isn’t a story of government agencies bullying the land owners to do a decent job to protect the site’s nature conservation value – quite the opposite!  This is a story of the owners fighting to get government agencies to pay attention to the loss of nature conservation value involved and to find a solution.

Natural England originally classed Catfield Fen as being in favourable condition but were pressed to change that to unfavourable by Mr and Mrs Harris.  And Mr and Mrs Harris have commissioned studies of the nature conservation interest (from leading specialists in the field) and the hydrology of the site (from yet more experts) in order to make their case, of which they are convinced, that it is abstraction of water, licensed by EA, by local farmers and for public water supply that is draining the Fen and destroying its wildlife.

The time is nigh, in fact it is long overdue, for EA to make some decisions about this site of European importance.  Does EA live up to the ‘environment’ part of its name, take NE’s advice that water abstraction is to blame for the deteriorating condition of the site, and halt abstraction – at least to see what happens?

I hope it does, because I hope that the fen orchids, swallowtails and otters will get a voice in this long-running debate, and I hope that their needs prevail, for if they do not then why do we have SSSIs, SACs etc?  And indeed, why do we have Natural England and the Environment Agency?



18 Replies to “Catfield – jewel in the crown, for how much longer?”

  1. It sounds a familiar story of government agencies not doing the right thing for our protected sites and species. The owners need to be congratulated and praised for a job well done, so many SSSI owners have different thoughts on ownership of such special places. They are real ambassadors!

    With an emasculated nature conservation agency and a crackpot at the helm in DEFRA it is now crucial that more people like Mr and Mrs Harris voice their concerns for nature. I think the major NGO’s are also going to have to shout a bit louder and lobby the government and fill in the void left by NE in its previous life. If we don’t lobby a bit harder it may be too late for fen orchids, swallowtails and otters.

  2. What a contrast with NE, Walshaw Moor and its owners. NE is truly a broken reed.

  3. ‘Why do we have Natural England and the Environment Agency?’ Well, the answer is that, here in Wales, we won’t have them very soon. Instead, the Countryside Council for Wales will join with EA and the Forestry Commision next year to form a ‘Natural Resources Body for Wales’. An advert for the top jobs went in the papers quite recently. Let’s hope them come up with a catchier name.

    It’ll be interesting to see whether this new body becomes an exemplar of joined-up thinking that England might copy, or if the needs of biodiversity are subsumed beneath a wave of flood defences and sitka spruce!

    1. How about NE and EA are merged to become the English Agency, having now dropped most of their natural or environmental credibility and responsibility? Also how about DSFRA – department of shooting, farming and rural affairs?

  4. Think this will become a increasing problem with water extraction,40 years ago a well perhaps 30 feet deep provided adequate water to be pumped to the farm then a farm about 3 mile away sunk a borehole and we ended up with very little water so had to sink a borehole as well.Seems astonishing that a borehole sunk that far away would have such a big influence.

  5. Hi Mark.
    I am not familiar with the site – do you know whether the drying out of the Fen is due to the woeful (mis)management of the water authorities? The falling water table in England (particularly the south) is an increasingly worrying problem not only for drought-stricken people but for important sites like this one.

    1. Anne – welcome! The owners, and others, are sure that it is local abstraction for irrigation and for water supplies.

  6. This discussion on water resources is very interesting. Planners glibly talk about building thousands of new houses but do they ever plan for where water is going to be sourced to service all these extra buildings. With climate change and an increasing population water is going to be serious issue in future.

    The situation at Catfield sounds similar to that at Redgrave & Lopham Fen a few years ago. Here a borehole sunk for public water supply had led to a serious drying up of the site. This had led to a 50% reduction in flowering plants and seriously threatened the Fen Raft Spider which is found on this site and at that time was not known to have occured anywhere else in the UK.

    I was Director of the Suffolk Wildlife Trust at the time who managed the reserve and as an organisation we resolved to either put the matter right or abandon the site. First of all we received tremendous support from Essex and Suffolk Water who owned the borehole and encouragement and money from the Environment Agency. The European LIFE fund chipped in with over a million pounds too.

    We managed to get the borehole moved and removed 80 acres of scrub from the site and the Fen now is unrecognizable from those times. The flora is returning and the Fen raft Spider is safe. The latter though has not increased its numbers so there may be other factors that need to be considered for its survival.

    The site is a National Nature Reserve and what is amazing is the part played in this project by the then English Nature. Their local staff member responsible for the site was unco-operative and a small thinker never quite grasping what was needed. His superiors agreed with me that he was a hindrance but stated that they could do nothing about it. It seems thing have not changed.

    Without the willingness of the Wildlife Trust, Water Company and Environment Agency nothing would have happened. The Agency who had responsibilty for the site did little except at times be obstructive.

    1. Derek – an interesting perspective, thank you. Actually – verty interesting!

  7. Catfield Hall Estate with its fens, marsh, woods, pastures, wildlife and the many rare and endangered species must be protected from abstraction of water and draining of the fens. It amounts to a wanton destruction of this beautiful and unique environment – the Environment Agency should be ashamed, do they know what conservation means?. I fully support Dr Mark Avery on this.

  8. Catfield Hall Estate with its unique and beautiful environment must be protected from the abstarction of water and the draining of fens. Why does the EA wish to destroy the wonderful work done by the owners and indeed those of us who take such pleasure in visiting this place with its rare and endangered species ?
    Does the EA know what conservation means ? I support Dr Mark Averys report.

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