Wildlife thriving at Cambridgeshire fenland oasis

The lush foliage, tranquil waterways and big skies at Wicken Fen
Published : 01 May 2019

A corner of England that has more species of plants and wildlife than anywhere in the UK is celebrating its 120th anniversary – with the arrival of never seen before animals. Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire has been managed as a nature reserve by the National Trust since its acquisition, making it the charity’s first. It has since become a rich oasis of wildlife, yet it started as just a two-acre patch of fenland in 1899.

120 years of caring for Wicken Fen

Having embarked on one of the most ambitious plans of its kind, we have since expanded the area to cover 1,941 acres (786 hectares) through a series of acquisitions, working with nearby landowners; and proactive wildling.

As a result, it has been officially registered as the most species-rich area of the country – with more than 9,300 recorded as living in this unique and special landscape.

The latest species discovery, Silvanus recticollis a flat bark beetle, joins the illustrious list of 25 completely newly discovered species to the UK recorded since Trust ownership, with seven species declared as being new to science.

Several other species including cranes, Norfolk hawkers and otters have returned to the landscape after an absence of several decades.  

The fen is also home to 188 endangered (red listed) species including the cuckoo,  great crested newt, soprano pipistrelle bat, milk parsley and the fen violet; and 483 nationally scarce (amber listed species), including the marsh pea, marsh fern, bittern, reed bunting and marsh harrier.  

Wicken Fen - Cuckoo in flight
Wicken Fen - Cuckoo in flight
Wicken Fen - Cuckoo in flight

Window on a lost landscape

Martin Lester, Countryside Manager says: “Despite our success at Wicken, it still makes up less than one per cent of the original fenland habitat that used to dominate East Anglia back in the 17th Century.

“The original fenland habitat was subject to centuries of draining to create farmland.  It takes decades for true fen habitat to develop, when starting from scratch, but there is huge wildlife value to the habitat, particularly in light of the warming climate.

“With the new land we’ve acquired we’ve been able to create a mosaic of different habitats through progressive wetting of the land, using excess flood water (over 250,000m3) from the river during the winter months.  This helps to lock away as much as 80 per cent of the carbon stored in the peat, preventing its release into the atmosphere which is a known contributor to global warming.

“By introducing more than 50 hardy grazing cattle and 100 ponies, we have been able to spread seeds over the landscape as they can carry them in their hooves, manes and coat – plus deposit them in their dung - as they wander across the landscape.”

Konik ponies at Wicken Fen
Konik ponies at Wicken Fen
Konik ponies at Wicken Fen

Our vision for the future

In an effort to ramp up its efforts at the site, the Trust set out a new Vision for the Fen 20 years ago with the ambition of expanding the site further to link it up Cambridge City itself.  If successful, this project could expand the fenland to 13,000 acres (5,300 hectares).

Martin continued: “Obviously with rising land prices growing the area of the fenland only through acquisitions is not a sustainable option – so we are also looking at partnership working.

“We also couldn’t have achieved all that we have without the help and support of more than 100 volunteers who work with us on a regular basis on this important programme.”

Conservation pioneer and owner of the Knepp Estate in West Sussex, Charlie Burrell, said: “This is one of the most astonishing sites in Britain – where herds of free-roaming horses and cattle are driving a dynamic landscape once again, and the result is both moving and inspiring.”

Paul Forecast, East of England Regional Director at the National Trust said: “The need to create more of this rare fenland habitat is greater than ever before, as the demand on our environment continues to increase.  

“Wicken is a real illustration of our strategy and desire to create a healthy, natural and beautiful environment that is bigger, better and more joined up for both wildlife and people.

“The enjoyment of the landscape by people is a key aspect of our plans, not only with access and recreation, but with volunteering and local community involvement.

“We also couldn’t have achieved what we have so far without our supporters and funders who have been absolutely vital to bringing this fenland back to life.”


Wildlife thriving in Cambridgeshire – a fenland oasis at Wicken Fen Nature Reserve

Wicken Fen near Cambridge was the very first nature reserve owned by the National Trust and has been in our care since 1899. Find out how we plan to care for this rich oasis of wildlife, with more than 9,300 species recorded as living in this unique and special landscape. The Wicken Fen Vision is an ambitious plan for the next 100 years to create a diverse landscape for wildlife and people stretching from Wicken Fen to the edge of Cambridge.