Catfield Fen – again

I have previously blogged about Catfield Fen on 30 May 2012, 22 August 2012, 10 September 2012, 30 September 2012 and 6 August 2013.  These things do drag on don’t they?  Many readers of this blog emailed the EA on this subject last year – for which I thank you, and for which I have a feeling Catfield Fen would thank you if only a Fen could.

What’s at issue here is whether permission should be given for water abstraction for farming that may be causing the drying out of a wetland of European nature conservation importance in the Norfolk Broads.  The Environment Agency is supposed to be deciding this issue and it is taking a very long time about it – and in that very long time the water abstraction continues.

Here is the EA website with lots of relevant, although slightly impenetrable, details here (for the whole kit and caboodle) and here (for links to the documents from which I have taken extracts for this blog).

Natural England have now given EA some advice on the appropriate assessment of the impact of water abstraction on Catfield Fen. Here are some key excerpts:

  1. The appropriate assessment concludes that you are able to ascertain that the proposal will not result in adverse effects on the integrity of any of the sites in question. Having considered the assessment, it is the advice of Natural England that it is not possible to ascertain that the proposal will not result in adverse effects on site integrity. Natural England advises that the assessment currently does not provide enough certainty to justify the assessment conclusion and that the EA should not grant the abstraction licences at this stage.
  2. The Appendix 4 assessment concludes that there will be no damage to the Upper Thurne Broads and Marshes or Ant Broads and Marshes based on technical assessment and conclusions presented in the appropriate assessment for The Broads SAC, Broadland SPA and Ramsar. It is the advice of Natural England that it is not possible to ascertain that the proposal will not result in damage to the SSSI’s. As with the appropriate assessment Natural England advises that the assessment currently does not provide enough certainty to justify the assessment conclusion and that the EA should not grant the abstraction licences at this stage
  3. Our key concerns are:1) Natural England has clearly stated in our advice to the EA that the impact of the abstractions should be compared to the naturalised scenario, however the assessment is based on the assumption that the hydrological regime was acceptable in 1986 and therefore uses the historical abstraction scenario in 1986 as the baseline. This is a fundamental issue and affects the whole assessment.
    2) Natural England does not believe the assessment has been sufficiently precautionary for the Habitats Directive in terms of the targets set and the risk categories within the risk
    matrix. In particular we disagree that a 5cm or less breach for water levels (related to
    threshold for non-drought summers) is a low risk.
    3) Based on our concerns outlined in points 1 and 2 above we do not agree that “abstraction is sustainable in terms of maintaining the conservation status of the designated features…”
    4) The assessment does not clearly document the conclusions of no adverse effect alone and in combination.
    5) Whilst the invertebrate communities are mentioned in table 3.1 (appropriate assessment
    p15) as sensitive features and the conclusion of the assessment 8.7.1 (p78) mentions the Broadland Ramsar designation, the assessment does not provide any consideration of the SSSI and Ramsar designated invertebrate communities that are very sensitive to subtle changes in water chemistry across the mosaic of habitats on the site. Although we do not have any hydro ecological guidelines for the invertebrates, Natural England advise that the Appropriate Assessment uses a precautionary approach that recognises changes from a naturalised baseline.

In other words (I may be simplifying a bit): water abstraction cannot be ruled out as an important factor leading to the drying out of these sites which are designated under EU and domestic legislation and we think you’ve done it all wrong anyway! All that ‘can’t be sure it isn’t having an impact’ stuff is important because the precautionary principle means that the benefit of the doubt, if there is any, should go to the environment.

It’s a very polite letter, but it tells EA that unless they have some better evidence, based on better methods, then they shouldn’t be allowing water abstraction to continue. And to simplify some more – NE have found some balls at last!

The Broads Authority are getting more involved in this issue too – probably because of increasing fears that water abstraction is having a widespread impact on the hydrology of the area.

The Broads Authority commissioned Prof Ken Rushton (who wrote the textbook on the subject – literally) to review the EA Groundwater Summary Report. Here are some extracts from Prof Rushton’s review:

  • There are several limitations in the approach adopted including:
  • • an unsatisfactory analysis of test pumping and a failure to explain how the radial flow model results are incorporated in the NEAC model,
  • • failure to take note of field information, for example ground surface elevations and the elevation of the base of the rooting zone,
  • • conceptual models which fail to take account of certain conditions in the fens such as ponding,
  • • unsatisfactory representation of hydrological conditions at the surface of the fen including ponding.
  • • failure to critically compare field and modelled hydrographs to identify reasons for differences,
  • • in certain locations there are insufficient groundwater head hydrographs to asses the ability of the model to reproduce field conditions. Piezometers into the Crag underneath the fens are essential for a check on the adequacy of the model responses and also for identifying changing field conditions.
  • • failure to appreciate the implications of the results for different grid sizes which show that it is necessary to have a fine grid to represent features such as individual drains in the fens and their effect on groundwater levels within marsh blocks.

and here is another by way of summary:

  • Since the above approach has not been followed, results from the modelling are not reliable.

Prof Rushton thinks, again I may be simplifying a little, that EA have a useless and pretty worthless model, it seems.  You can tell that by the way he uses the words ‘failure’, ‘insufficient’, ‘fail’, ‘unsatisfactory’ and ‘limitations’.

The Broads Authority interpret Prof Rushton’s report in a similar way to the way I do as they summarise the situation as follows:

Summary of Areas of Concern

A. An inadequate groundwater model development process has been followed, failing to use the Environment Agency modelling guidelines;

B. More detailed conceptual models required, especially for the fens;

C. Inappropriate mesh spacing of groundwater model – Technical Note prepared for the Environment Agency indirectly demonstrates that the 200m mesh spacing model cannot reproduce important processes within fens;

D. Lack of sufficient suitable observed groundwater level data to confirm the reliability of the model;

E. Need to develop a computational methodology for representing actual groundwater and surface water conditions in the fens;

F. Given the shortcomings of the conceptual models and computational modelling, the results from the modelling are not reliable and should not be used for licence determination;

G. Errors and assumptions about site hydrology of Sharpe Street Fen;

H. Anecdotal assessment of the role of site management without reference to
Broads literature;

I. Gaps and lack of consideration of water level and Ellenburg values;

J. Lack of ecological evidence to base the 1986 abstraction as acceptable.


Now this is all technical stuff – but what it means is that EA shouldn’t be consenting water abstraction that might affect Catfield Fen and it ought to be reviewing all other similar consents that might affect the Norfolk Broads or other similar wetland sites because the EA models are not reliable.  Under these circumstances there may be lots of abstraction licences that should be terminated.

In fact, unless EA can come up with a pretty robust defence of their position it rather looks as though they don’t really have a clue. Again, I may be simplifying a little.

I have huge admiration for Mr and Mrs Tim Harris, who own Catfield Fen, and who have battled hard, and at some considerable expense, to protect the wildlife gem which they own. Wildlife NGOs have been a bit slow to get involved, Natural England has only recently found a spine and some balls, and the Broads Authority possibly could have got involved quicker too.  But things are now moving, very slowly, towards what might just be a sensible conclusion.

EA – we are watching you with interest to see what happens next.

And it will be worth keeping an eye on the NFU too – they will soon be harrumphing about feeding the world no doubt.  There are a lot of vested interests at stake here, and a few backs that may want to be covered too.


10 Replies to “Catfield Fen – again”

  1. excellent analysis Mark.

    I think this provides sufficient data information and expert opinion for a complaint to be taken to the European Commission against the UK Government on failure to implement the Habitats Directive with regard to The Favourable Conservation Status of Catfield Fen and also the wider implications for other ground-water driven ecosystems protected under the Habitats Directive. The obvious people to take this complaint would be the site owners, and they would best approach an NGO with legal expertise to supprot them in their complaint. Client Earth comes to mind, although RSPB, with their “all nature” agenda also have the wherewithal.

  2. Catfield fen is the only place I have seen a wild otter. Also several swallowtails. In such places precautionary principle should hold.

    Such places the precaution

  3. Stopping abstraction here would set a precedent for other sites affected by water loss, which is probably most of them. It is too big a move given the lobbying and government control of EA.
    My concern is – why can’t the Natural England stop the abstraction here? I do not find anyone these days that knows what Natural England are there for. They seem to move the goalposts often, again in response to government pressure, I believe.

  4. At this link dated 22 April 2014 – – it says this: “Since April 2011, Natural England have re-surveyed the site and used new ecological data to come to a view on its condition. Their latest advice is that the Fen is no longer considered to be drying out, but that there is evidence to suggest a change in the ecology and that the reason for this should be investigated.”

    This is at odds with the statement in the letter from James Pereira in March 2013 “the drying out itself being an established and agreed fact”. So what is the truth?

    1. You seem to be concentrating on abstraction and ignoring the altered management of the fen. Could you explain why managing the fen differently has not changed the fen itself and that this in fact exhibits a greater observable correlation to the facts than abstraction.

  5. Filbert, I think Natural England is going through their previous positions on European Site issues and providing updated positions that are more acceptable to their clients and customers.

    I believe this may be being driven by something called the High Risk Casework Panel. My understanding is that this panel decides how Natural England will comment on impacts affecting sites where the case work is assessed as high risk to Natural England’s reputation and ultimately its future existence, as opposed to high risk of damage or destruction to wildlife or nature. But I’m very happy to be corrected by any NE people lurking anonymously around this blog.

    1. A panel of weasels – surely not? The quote from gov. says re-survey and new ecological data. Would that be policy-based evidence they have collected? I was hoping for some new temporal evidence concerning a long tube and a dipstick.

  6. Hi mark

    just spent a weekend working on the main bit of Catfield Fen which is owned by Butterfly Conservation and is now managed by the staff from the adjacent RSPB Sutton fen site. With the rest of the Cambridge Conservation Volunteers we took our annual autumn pilgrimage to the fen to clear scrub from the most critical parts of this amazing wildlife-rich fen. We were discussing the abstraction problems, and the concommittant acidification of the water, the increase in sphagnum and the decrease in vital broadland fen plants and invertebrates.
    The locals are still worried about the water abstraction, and I think the battle continues to drag on over the renewal of the licence, to the detriment of this site and no doubt others if the precedent is set.

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