Landowners win 8-year battle to save Catfield Fen

14383238916_1112e351c5_zThe Catfield Fen Public Inquiry report is a comprehensive and overwhelming victory for the owners of Catfield Fen (Mr and Mrs Tim Harris) in their battle to save their fen from the impacts of water abstraction by local farmers.

In it the inspector finds that:

  • there is clear evidence that the Fen is in danger
  • the cause is increased acidification
  •  water abstraction is the likely explanation because it reduces the flow of alkaline groundwater to the Fen
  •  the fen management is good and not the cause of the problem
  •  there is no overriding public interest in favour of the farmer keeping his extraction licence

This victory is notable for several reasons:

  • it was the owners fighting to save the wildlife on their land and not some bunch of outside experts (although the outside experts recruited to the cause eventually)
  • it took eight years of struggle, expense, worry and being abused before victory was achieved
  • the statutory agencies (Natural England and Environment Agency) were not initially acting like champions of nature but eventually got on board but the Broads Authority were highly conspicuous by the very small part they played in this battle to save and protect the wildlife interest of their area (were they nobbled by the local NFU I wonder?).
  • RSPB were a bit slow on the uptake but were a useful and powerful ally eventually.

Mr and Mrs Harris said;

We are pleased that the Planning Inspector has at last vindicated our long, bitter and costly struggle over the last eight years from a position where we were alone in trying to protect Catfield Fen to one where the RSPB, Natural England, the Environment Agency and now the Planning Inspector agree that  the Fen is in danger and that water abstraction is the preeminent cause.

We hope that lessons will be learned from the Catfield case, most particularly that the general public should not put too much faith in the public bodies to do the right thing and protect the unique habitat of the Broads. We acknowledge that eventually both the EA and NE listened, agreed and together with the RSPB, made strenuous efforts to win the case. The lack of involvement of the Broads Authority, which is a statutory body with specific conservation objectives and obligations, is particularly noteworthy and demonstrates a worrying lack of leadership on conservation issues.


This makes me wonder how many other sites are being damaged because their owners are not as motivated and well-resourced as these are?  How good a job are NE and EA doing, let alone National Park authorities, in acting to protect the wildlife in their care?  How fit for purpose is the statutory nature conservation sector?

This is a classic example of the interests of a private farming individual colliding with nature conservation.

In a post-Brexit world will the protection of the Fen Orchid in a Special Area of Conservation weigh so heavily in the decision-making process?

When industry and landowners moan about red tape will they think about the fact that this case, won by nature, has taken eight years when, it could be argued, the outcome that delivered the most public benefit was pretty clear from the start? Red tape works both ways and the farmer has had the benefit of damaging water abstraction while this case has proceeded at a water snail’s pace.



See here, here, here, here, and here for some history.


12 Replies to “Landowners win 8-year battle to save Catfield Fen”

  1. A great result but it is clear that the statutory bodies are being corrupted. You only have to look at what has happened to Natural England, the two most senior executives being Tory Party donors and rewarded with these positions for doing so. Since their appointment we have had the atrocity of the badger cull, in which NE has been totally compliant, and their near total silence on the continuing illegal activities of landowners and their lackeys in the slaughter of protected wildlife.

    NE makes the National Trust look militant.

    1. The National Trust being militant is actually a description I have started to see in some of the usual suspect’s blogs and articles. I think we’re witnessing the Tories deliberately shifting the Overton Window to the right on environmental and ecological matters as well as how they’ve shifted it drastically in mainstream politics. Very disturbing.

  2. I think we should coin the term ‘green tape’ for instances when environmental regulations rather than needless bureaucracy are preventing damage to wildlife and habitats.

  3. Huge applause to Mr and Mrs Harris – this was no doubt something of an ordeal for them, but they kept with it when so many wouldn’t even bothered starting to fight this battle. If the big orgs that shied away from this because it might be a ‘bit awkward’ then they have to think what the Harrises went through. There’s supposed to be a big problem in East Anglia with wildlife and soils being damaged because of intensive agriculture and water abstraction – obviously it’s another issue being swept under the carpet.

  4. Congratulations to the Harrises, seriously well done.

    At the risk of dislikes from hard working grass roots NE staff (who are not the ‘target’ of this comment)….

    Is Natural England ‘fit for purpose’ anymore?

    OK, perhaps I should define purpose …. to safeguard the natural environment and all associated sub-titles.

    Cull it, and yes I should be careful what I wish for, but remind me what they actually do well that other organisations couldn’t do at least as well if not better?

    Separate off the various sections, NNR land management, regulatory and agri-welfare payment schemes?

  5. EA and NE have been bullied into submission by government. Their chief execs are brought in to stand before the minister on a weekly basis and told what to do. Their boards have been stuffed full of individuals who represent developers, farmers, shooters etc. Their independence was removed, in NE’s case by the NERC Act 2006.

    We could campaign for them to be cut, abolished or otherwise further weakened…or we could campaign for their independence and (always modest) funding to be restored. I would suggest that the latter would be rather more effective.

    1. Greenfly : I recall we did that in 1997, similarly I seem to recall they got an extra £6m into their budget. They were in theory independent and then as you say, politics entered their management structure. Politics and pressure resulted in, for example, them walking away from the Walshaw complaint and handing over how many million of public funding instead – remind me of public benefit achieved by that, remind me of ‘leadership’ in that instance? I imagine the poor folk of Hebden Bridge were none too happy about that u-turn?

      All you say simply reinforces the point that they morphed from “Muzzled Watchdog” to a lapdog.

      Sadly, genuinely sadly I’ve not the time to waste campaigning for the bunch we try to work with here. I could offer cases to evidence how they’ve worked to undermine local campaigns trying to safeguard Natura 2000 sites as well as SSSIs etc.

      The state of SSSIs, review of and then refusal to notify new is another example.

      Yes, grassroots staff are demotivated, so my plea to them would be to get a backbone and work with real conservation but yes, choose those allies carefully. I know it does and can happen, but increasingly rarely. Appreciate they wish to keep civil servant salaries and pensions, understandable.

      This response has to be worth at least another dozen dislikes?

  6. Very well done Mr and Mrs Harris.
    When it comes to stopping the decline in biodiversity start with water levels. It’s vital to help the landscape to retain water by restoring bogs, fens and marshes everywhere. This in turn reduces the need for abstraction.
    I wonder if those destructive pre-1966 licences with ‘extraction by right’ still occur on small tributaries. The NRA used to regard these licences as ‘a thorn in the side’ as there was no way of stopping streams being pumped dry.
    Any attempts to place a restriction order would be countered by immediate appeal and the NRA paying the court costs.
    If that sort of abstraction is still legal it needs banning.
    Repeal it. Then re-beaver and re-peat everywhere.

  7. Congratulations to the Harrises, and very well done. Amazing to keep it up for 8 years against all the opposition and discouragement.
    Is there a case for challenging the governments appointment of the heads of statutory bodies on the grounds of the appointed people knowing nothing and caring less for nature? Sounds like it from what people are saying about NE. Isn’t there, or shouldn’t there be, a statutory obligation for the leaders of such bodies to be pro-nature, not just Tory donors?

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