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?