Enhancing biodiversity along Engine Drain (and the learning from this)

Installing the coir rolls

This Spring, Ely IDB (Internal Drainage Board) contracted Waterbeach/Old West IDB to install just under 1 km of pre-planted coir rolls along the eastern bank of the Engine Drain in Willow Grange Farm, Chittering.

This work was funded by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development via the Environment Agency and Cambridgeshire ACRE.

The plants in the coir rolls will help to prevent soil run off, improve water quality, increase bank stability and improve biodiversity.

The rolls were ordered Autumn 20, planted up February 21, and the first delivery was late March 21 with installation taking place in April 21.

Sharing the lessons learnt:

  1. The pre-planted coir rolls need to be ordered the summer before installation to give the plants a chance to grow and for their roots to bed into the coir. We were unable to do this and lost a lot of plants in transit as they were not well established enough to be moved. The suppliers (WLMS Solutions) came and replaced the missing plants in situ.
  2. Stakes: need to be strong and at least half width to withstand the force and volume of the water in the drain and be able to take the force needed to hammer them into ballast/gravel. It was decided to use 4 stakes/roll rather than the usual 3 stakes for added safety. This also meant using more wire to secure them. The wire was fastened to the stakes using staples.
  3. It is important to get the installation equipment delivered before the rolls so that everything is in place and there will be no delays to installation due to a lack of supplies.
  4. The rolls need to be taken out of their nursery beds at the suppliers about 4 days before transporting so they can dry out and be light enough to transport, sudden changes to delivery dates are not possible.
  5. Well established plants in rolls can wait happily for a few days before being installed, smaller plants needed watering ( a scoop of water from the drain using a digger bucket)
  6. Once installed into the drain the the plants started growth rapidly – this was helped by warm sunny mid-April.
Looking towards Engine Drain Pumping Station
Coir rolls and plants – close up

This experience will be used again, next Spring when we will plant more rolls in another drain and there will be a landowner/farmers event in September 21 to look at the rolls and plants once they have grown and talk to the IDB, suppliers and farmer ( for more details about this event contact rachael.brown@cambsacre.org.uk.)

A big thanks to Fiona Dunne – farmer, Willow Grange Farm and Jeremy Saddler, Waterbeach/Old West IDB.

First Fens Biosphere conference – how did it go?

The first Fens Biosphere Conference was held on the 13 January 2021, it was an online event with presentations/videos and a panel discussion in the morning and workshops in the afternoon. There was also an Exhibition Hall with a number of online “stands ” to visit The aim was to introduce the idea of a Biosphere, explain who was supporting the proposal for a Fens Biosphere and give everybody attending the chance to ask questions and make new contacts.

Some statistics

  • Number registered to attend: 274
  • Number attended: 164 (60% of registered attendees)
  • Most watched morning content: An Introduction to Biospheres (126 ) and The Economic and Social Value of a Biosphere for this area (126)
  • Average workshop attendance: 48 attendees
  • Number of morning chat posts: 337
  • Number of afternoon chat posts: 304
  • Average number of visitors to the eight online stands: 65

Initial feedback

Conference content

The conference was recorded and content is available to view on-demand (up to 12 February) to anybody who registered to attend the event. If you registered and have not received an email with this information please contact rachael.brown@cambsacre.org..uk.

After the 12 February the content will be placed on this website.

Any unanswered questions from the panel discussions will also be answered and posted on this website in February (date tbc) .

The Social and Economic value of a Biosphere for the Fens

This summer the Fens Biosphere Partnership commissioned a report to demonstrate the benefits to an area of gaining Biosphere status. The report, produced by Cumulus Consultants, drew on information from other Biospheres, local authority strategies and plans, and socio-economic data to explains how a UNESCO Biosphere can add economic value to the Fens, and enable the Fens to become a leader in sustainable growth and development.

The opportunities identified include:

  • Accelerating the transformation to sustainability in farming, adding value to agriculture and safeguarding Gross Value Added (GVA)
  • Society-wide commitment to managing water and other natural resources responsibly
  • Building a Biosphere brand that signifies sustainability, a high quality environment, and a place to visit and re-locate
  • Diversification of the economy
  • Leveraging in investment and achieving better returns on investment
  • Building international profile and reputation, thereby generating
  • additional investment.  

Future Fens Flood Risk Management

Photo by Andrew Sharpe

This year the Environment Agency published its National Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management Strategy for England.

Page 67 features the only measure within the whole document that is focussed on a specific geographical place:

Measure 1.5.4: By 2025 the Environment Agency will work with farmers, land managers, water companies, internal drainage boards and other partners to develop a long-term plan for managing future flood risk in the Fens.

The Environment Agency and its partners are not taking the future flood risk to the Fens lightly; they have established a project – Future Fens: Flood Risk Management – to consider what the future flood risk management choices for the Great Ouse Fens could look like for the next 50 to 100 years.

The baseline report for this will be available in May 21 but here are some facts and statistics which emerged from the recent (Oct 20) Anglian (Great Ouse) Regional Flood and Coastal Committee (RFCC):

There are about 300 EA owned assets delivering flood management the Ouse Fens area and 130,000 households, the benefits of flood defences to these and other assets comes to around £17.1 billion.

To maintain the level of flood defence (i.e. no improvements , not taking into account climate change ) will cost slightly in excess of £1.8 billion to 2100.

32% of the area in the Ouse Fens in under sea level, if the sea levels rise as predicted , 62% will be below sea level by 2100 with no intervention.

Much of the water (59-60%) in the area discharges, by gravity through Denver Sluice out into the washes at Kings Lynn. A rise in sea level as predicted will reduce this to 30% over the next 100 years. This may be even less if the slow movement of water causes even more siltation.

If all the flood defences were “turned off” now, it would take 7 to 12 years for the Fens Basin to fill up with water.

In drawing up this report the consultants and technical group (drawn from project partners) also developed a new methodology for assessing the cost of flooding to agriculture. This is to take into account the often high value of fen crops and other factors unique to the Fens area.

The baseline report and future reports will be found on a bespoke page on the ADA (Association of Drainage Authorities ) website

Winners – Build the Fantastic Fens

Ella - second place under12's
Henry – winner: “Really shouts out the Fens”
Nathanael – winner: most original model
Hollie – third place under 12’s
Louie – winner: over12’s

Build the Fantastic Fens Competition

The competition is closed, the judging done and the winners announced. 67 entries were hard to choose from but by adding two extra prizes for the under-12 category (so many excellent models) we managed.

As part of the entry requirement entrants were asked to describe how their model demonstrates what they value in the Fens:

 My model shows how much greenery, water and wildlife there is in the fens.

My model shows how fantastic the Fens are because it’s beautiful and relaxing. We take our dogs for a walk by the river and see people fishing and it’s so peaceful. The Fens are Fantastic and I love living here. 

The water ways are an important part of the history and future of the fens as without the pumping stations and rivers the fens would be unusable for farmland and they are an important habitat for lots of species of plants, animals, insects and migrating birds.

The Fens is home to a variety of land uses and activities, all of which are crucial in contributing to its future. In my model you’ll spot agricultural fields which are such a key part of the local economy, but I also created some wetlands complete with peat soils, gravels and forests that showcase the diverse natural spaces and value of the area. I also included a small representation of the homes, high-tech business and a certain famous landmark that all help make the Fens such a thriving place to live, work and visit! 

Fenland Wildlife Visions

Grey Heron by George Howden

There are some bold, large-scale plans for improving and providing space for fenland wildlife and we often hear these ideas mentioned – but what do they mean and what changes will they make? Our expert partners help us out below:

The Wicken Fen Vision

In 1899 the first two acres of Wicken Fen were purchased by the National Trust for £10.  Since then, we’ve been looking after this special place which is home to more that 9,000 plants and animals.  Launched in 1999, the Wicken Fen Vision is a 100 year plan to create a diverse landscape for wildlife and people over an area of 53 square kilometres; an historic landscape that will provide space to breathe, think and explore for the modern world.

In the first 20 years we more than doubled the size of the nature reserve; but the need for the Vision is greater than ever before with demands on our environment continuing to increase.  The Wicken Fen Vision will deliver on a landscape scale to give nature the space it needs.  It will continue to expand to create a healthy natural and beautiful environment that it bigger, better and more joined for both wildlife and people.
Sarah Smith, Wicken Fen


Doubling Nature

Cambridgeshire and Peterborough have some wonderful wildlife sites, but these occupy but these occupy about 8% of the area which is a very low proportion by comparison with other English counties.

But we need nature to help improve air and water quality, combat climate change, and to increase the quality of life and public health that access to nature brings.

Although there are now many superb projects helping to reverse declines in nature in the county, as one of the fastest growing economies in the UK it also needs one of the fastest nature recovery programmes.

Therefore, Natural Cambridgeshire (The Local Nature Partnership) has set a vision to Double Nature in both quantity and quality by 2050, to ensure that we have an environment in which both nature and people thrive, and businesses prosper.

Achieving this vision will require even more focused effort to enhance existing areas of rich wildlife habitat and accessible green-space and create new ones, to which the proposed Fens Biosphere will be a key contributor.
Roger Mitchell, Cambridge Conservation Forum & Natural Cambridgeshire.

Photo by Markus Spiske

The Fens RSPB Priority Landscape

The Fens is one of 37 ‘Priority Landscapes’ around the UK where the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds will focus its conservation work. Our vision is to safeguard and restore the natural values that the Fens are renowned for. The core sites of this landscape will be the RSPB reserves at the Ouse and Nene Washes, internationally important for their breeding waders and wintering wildfowl. We will work to safeguard and improve these sites and aim to expand the network of priority habitats like wet grassland and fen mire in the surrounding landscape with landowner partners. We will work with land managers to improve the prospects of key farmland species like Turtle Dove and Corn Bunting. We will also work with partners and communities to try to address long term issues surrounding water management and carbon emissions.
Daniel Pullan, RSPB

Godwits by Helen Calver

Build the Fantastic Fens

For full competition details visit the Build the Fantastic Fens website page

Build the Fantastic Fens out of Lego bricks and win a £75 Lego gift card. The competition is open to all ages.

Competition details plus Lego build videos from our partners in famous fens wildlife & heritage sites here. Here is a taster…..

Who is “Fascinating Fens”?

Who is “Fascinating Fens”?

Saturday 20 June was the first ever Celebrate the Fens day, organised by “Fascinating Fens”.  Fascinating Fens is the Twitter name for Karen Merrison, a Fens resident who really loves where she lives.  Karen works full time as an occupational therapist and in her spare time she works hard to share her appreciation of the fens with everyone.

As Fascinating Fens, Karen has a large Twitter following but she does so much more;  she has a website, written and illustrated a series of books for children featuring her fens characters –  Eeli Eel and Muscovy Duck (and other animals) who teach children about the fens including the history and tradition of the area.  The books area available from Ely Tourist Information, Babylon Arts and Soham Bookshop. Karen has also produced a video about her love of the Fens:

Celebrate the Fens Day

Fascinating Fens latest venture is Celebrate the Fens Day, a day to promote the Fens through celebrating heritage, creativity, nature, well-being and accessibility. Fens venues, groups and individuals enthusiastically lined up a range of activities, which then had to be converted to an online format due to Covid-19 restrictions. The day was a great success with live music, virtual tours, blogs, podcasts, quizzes, and crafts all organised through Twitter, Facebook or websites with a wide range of partners taking part.   

Karen was very pleased with how the day went and told us:

The first Celebrate the Fens day was a wonderful day. I’m overwhelmed by the amount of people and groups who got involved in the day, all sharing the same love of the fens. I’d like to say a huge thank you to everyone who got involved”.

The Fens Biosphere took part in Celebrating the Fens and asked people to send photos to illustrate the question “What do the Fens mean to you?”. This is the video of the answers:

Next year’s Celebrate the Fens is set for 18-21 June 2021 – see you there!