Heroes and villains in a wetland wonderland

By Simon Barnes |

24/05/2014 |

The Times

We all love a good villain – and that’s a rule that counts double for writers. Grendel and his still more villainous mother, Iago, Hilter, Dick Dastardly, the ARP warden in Dad’s Army, Kevin Pietersen: find your villain and you know where you stand. Of late in these pages there have been clear and obvious villains at work: the people who illegally persecute birds of prey in the Peak District National Park. But not all conservation problems are so gratifyingly black and white.

So there I was in Sutton Fen in Norfolk, as extraordinary a place as I’ve ever stepped on. Set your foot down heavily and the ground ripples. It’s like a giant green waterbed. Every move you make has consequences all around you and yet in most places you can still stand upright and feel perfectly safe.

It’s a place of great richness. Botanists measure the diversity of a given area by taking a quadrate: a square with four-metre sides. In a healthy environment they can usually get into double figures for species. On Sutton Fen they get an average count of 30-plus. There are more than 200 plant species here, with fen orchid the superstar. It’s been assessed by Natural England as the finest example of unpolluted valley fen in Western Europe. It’s an RSPB site and it’s phenomenal. As I walked my wobbling way across its glorious expanse I could hear the bugling of cranes.

And next door, they’re sucking the life out of the place. There was water abstraction going full blast on a field of salad plants. A little further on, at Catfield Fen, owned by Butterfly Conservation and managed by the RSPB, there is clear evidence that the place is deteriorating. There are suggestions that the decline is now irreversible and that the same thing could happen to Sutton Fen.

The decline appears to be linked with water abstraction but the hydrology of fens is complex. Everything about change here is subtle and long term and elusive of proof. The farmer next door is no villain, he has a licence from the Environment Agency to take water and thinks his salad is more important than a few orchids. But Sutton Fen is the best of the best of the best: it seems to me that the Environment Agency shouldn’t wait for irrefutable proof of terminal decline before they make a decision that gives this spot a better chance of a future.