The History

‘For the entomologist who is not afraid of work, and who is no mere dilettante, The Fens probably afford the richest of all localities for Lepidoptera in this country. Amongst the fen-lands Wicken still retains its virgin soil and flora, unspoilt by drainage or cultivation’

Carrington 1880

the-national-trustWindpump.gif (28298 bytes)Wicken Fen is Britain’s oldest nature reserve and in 1999 it celebrated its 100th anniversary. On May 1st 1899 the National Trust purchased its first two acre strip for £10 – 55 conveyances later the reserve is over 800 acres. The Fen has been managed traditionally for centuries by sedge cutting and peat digging which has produced a unique fenland habitat rich in wildlife particularly invertebrates – Wicken is a top site nationally for molluscs, caddis flies, aquatic beetles, rove beetles, bees, flies and spiders. For example 29 species of mammal, over 200 species of birds, 1000 species of moth and butterfly, 1000 species of beetle, approaching 2000 species of fly and 25 species of dragonfly have been recorded from the Fen. The Fen therefore is a refuge for a very large number of UK Biodiveresity Action Plan priority species, Red Data Book, National Scarce and National Notable species. Although a number of important species have been lost of the years Wicken is still a very special and important place.

The Fen is a National Nature Reserve, a Site of Special Scientific Interest (both national designations), a Special Area of Conservation (a European designation) and a RAMSAR site (international wetland designation).

The nature of the Fen has been shaped by topography, hydrology, and in particular, by centuries of use by man. The wetland has played an important role in the social and economic life of the area. It provided materials for thatching local houses, bedding and feed for animals, fish and fowl for food, and peat for fuel. Such uses have all left their mark – ecologically, in the plant and animal communities that have developed over time, and physically, in the peat diggings, paths, ditches and dykes which were created for the ancient exploitation of natural resources. The result is a landscape where centuries of rural culture are stamped on the Fen. This historical resource has been well utilised in the study of the cultural importance of wetlands.

The Fen has also been long associated with natural history. Charles Darwin collected beetles on the Fen in the 1820s and at the turn of the century the fathers of modern ecology and conservation, the Cambridge botanists Sir Harry Godwin and Dr. Arthur Tansley carried out their pioneering work. The Fen’s long association with Cambridge University continues to the present day.

Wicken Fen is one of only four ‘wild’ Fens which still survive in the enormous Great Fen Basin: 99.9% of the former Fens have now been replaced by arable cultivation.

Wicken Fen is well used and enjoyed by local people and visitors from further away:

40,000 visitors per annum visit the Fen.
More than 6000 school children come to take part in our formal education programmes.
Events for families and individuals attract a further 3500 visitors each year.
500 people each year stay in our Basecamp accommodation to help manage and learn about the Fen.

The boardwalk is central to the visitor facilities. It allows barrier free access for all to the wetland areas, without affecting any of the heritage values described above. It makes Wicken Fen the primary site to experience a wetland ‘wilderness’ with relative ease.

As a result, the Fen is an important visitor and tourist attraction in East Cambridgeshire and plays a valuable role in the local economy by attracting people to the District and providing local employment.


Wicken, which is situated 12 miles north-east of Cambridge, became known to entomologists in the early decades of the 19th century but no records survive from these early collectors and it was not until 1850 that Frederick Bond began to compile the first lists of moths and butterflies. From then on Wicken became known as a mecca for lepidopterists. ‘Eddystone lighthouses’ (an early type of moth trap) were a common sight on the Fen and some accounts describe them as lighting up the place at night like a small city.

In the 1890s the sedge (used for roofing and animal bedding) and peat (a fuel) economies collapsed being replaced by more efficient alternatives and there were major concerns that the Fen would be drained as had happened elsewhere in the Great Fen Basin. A number of the early entomologists (particularly G.H. Verrall and The Hon. N.C. Rothschild) played a vital role in ensuring Wicken’s survival by acquiring major parts of the Fen and donating them to the National Trust.

Much has changed in and around Wicken Fen since their gifts. If they were to return today to Wicken Fen four issues would probably deeply shock them.

They would find 70% of Sedge, Verrall’s and St Edmunds Fens covered in scrub – when they donated them they were practically all open sedge / fen meadow communities.
Adventurers’ Fen as they knew it had been lost – gone are the areas of peat digging and Fen habitats -replaced by wet grasslands, a large Mere and monoculture reed beds.
In summer the whole Fen would appear much drier – no longer almost inaccessible to the naturalist.
There would also be no sign of the swallowtail butterfly – that icon species so familiar to the Victorian and Edwardian naturalists.

They would surely ask whether the National Trust were the worthy guardians of their beloved Fen. As mentioned above there indeed have been many changes at Wicken Fen but as the story unfolds throughout the 20th century it would become apparent to Verrall and Rothschild that it was not only Wicken that had changed – the whole world had changed and left Wicken Fen high and dry struggling to survive in an otherwise largely unsympathetic landscape.

Habitat changes – the collapse of the local economy

However once the economic value of the Fen was lost there was no longer anyone to cut the sedge or dig the peat, as a result natural processes occurred – scrub invaded and much of the open nature of the Fen was lost.

In these early days the ecological principles of succession were not understood (indeed it was not until the 1920s when Professor Harry Godwin carried out his pioneering work at Wicken that it was) and even if it had have been the National Trust only employed one person – the Keeper of the Fen – George Barnes. One person could not do the amount of work the local community had done before and as a result the open habitats tumbled into scrub. The Barnes family (George and his three sons – Henry, William and Wilf) played a huge part in the management of the Fen for most of the century all worked for the Trust as wardens with Henry amassing 50 years continuous service and Wilf working for 51 years until his retirement in 1987.

The Trust’s policy has been to keep as large an area as possible of open Fen on Sedge and Verrall’s Fen, harvesting sedge and litter (hay) on a cyclical basis, to encourage the huge diversity of animals and plants. Indeed in 1965 the Ganges Basecamp was constructed to accommodate navy cadets (from H.M.S. Ganges at Ipswich) to came to the Fen to clear scrub. The Basecamp is still used today but now accommodates ‘Acorn Camps’ – National Trust working holidays whose participants help the permanent wardening staff manage the Fen.

Digging for victory

Adventurers’ Fen was partially drained in the 1840s but this was not very successful and as a result by the end of the 1900s it consisted of rich Fen habitats and extensive areas of peat cuttings. It was very rich in wildlife being renowned particularly for its bird and beetle communities.

However during the Second World War the land was requisitioned by the War Office, drained again by Alan Bloom and successfully converted to arable cultivation – his account of this undertaking was published in 1944 in his book A Farm in the Fen. Indeed an earlier suggestion had been that area be used as a bombing range, but this was successfully resisted.

After the war the land was handed back to the National Trust and the Mere, reed beds and wet meadows were created, most recently using funding from the Ministry of Agriculture under the Countryside Stewardship initiative. Today it is a very valuable area for wildlife and is a key part of the Site of Special Scientific Interest – however the loss of the rarer and arguably more valuable Fen habitats is most regrettable.

Today with the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act in place it is difficult to imagine internationally important wetlands owned by conservation bodies being confiscated and drained by government departments. In 1940 though Britain was fighting a war and was being blockaded by U boats, nature conservation was operating without a legal framework and environmental matter had a much lower priority than today. Despite this, the Local Committee fought very hard to halt the destruction of Adventurers’ Fen but against overwhelming odds.

Draining the Fens – dying of thirst

Once the drainage of the Great Fen Basin began the peaty soils shrunk considerably. This had a profound effect on Wicken Fen leaving it higher than the surrounding landscape. As a result there was an inevitable tendency for water to flow from the Fen into the surrounding but lower ditches.

In addition the drainage of the Fens led to the development of a very sophisticated pump drainage system and sets of sluices. This tamed the various rivers – the effect on Wicken Lode was profound once an efficient pump was installed at Upware in 1940. These engineering works stopped the natural cycle of flooding at Wicken Fen, especially during the summer months.

To exacerbate matters further the drained Fens around and upstream of Wicken Fen are very high quality and are used to grow crops such as carrots and salad vegetables which need to be watered via spray irrigation from the Lode that feeds Wicken Fen. Wicken is in the most over abstracted catchment in the UK and as a result of the water abstraction licences already issued there is no surplus water available to allow the Fen to be watered during the summer months.

Chalk water from Wicken Lode is vital to the survival of the biodiversity at Wicken Fen and although the Fen is wet and often flooded in winter this is mainly from rain water which is more acidic in nature.

The loss of wet conditions on the Fen particularly in May, June and July is a serious problem for the Fen and one which must be resolved if the habitats are to be restored. Some steps have already been taken to improve this problem; for example an impermeable liner has been installed along the entire northern length of Sedge and Verrall’s Fens. There are also some sluices on the reserve which hold winter Lode water in the ditches well into the summer and therefore keep adjacent land saturated.

The Government have recently announced that all wetlands (this includes Wicken Fen) which have been designated under the European Habitats Directive as Special Areas of Conservation must have their Water Level Management Plans reviewed by the Environment Agency to ensure that an adequate provision of suitable water throughout the year is available. This offers great hope for Wicken in the future.

Ebbing and flowing biodiversity

Naturalists were originally drawn to Wicken because of its species richness and the presence of rarities. The Fen has therefore received a great deal of recording effort and huge species lists have accumulated. In diversity terms Wicken Fen is Britain’s version of a tropical rain forest.

However now that the Fen is so isolated natural local extinctions tend to become permanent because immigration from other similar sites is very low on account of their remoteness. This list of extinctions includes some of the Fen specialities such as the swallowtail and the marsh moth. Others such as the Common Hawker are acid water species lost with the abandonment of peat digging.

It is possible in the future if the Fen can be satisfactorily restored in terms of its habitats and its hydrology that certain species may be re-introduced. However great caution will be needed over this in light of the successive failures involving the swallowtail.

Drawing conclusions from the first 100 years
The decline of traditional management practices, the threat to the reliable water supplies, the isolation of sites and the loss of biodiversity are not phenomena unique to the Wicken Fen – all the other surviving Fen sites in East Anglia have suffered in similar ways. But as the century draws to the a close there is much hope for the future. We now understand the problems facing our wetlands and in most cases know what we need to the do to the reverse them. Fortunately now sufficient money and legal backing is available to the actually implement the restoration plans.

As we embark on the next 100 years of Wicken Fen’s history under National Trust stewardship plans are well advanced to the restore the Fen and halt the declines.

Restoring Sedge and Verrall’s Fens

This project must be viewed as the priority – it will involve the creation of new areas of sedge and fen meadows following the clearance of scrub. In addition new ditches will be excavated to the allow water to the be brought into the heart of the Fen making it more feasible to the retain higher water levels during the summer months.

In the past all the scrub clearance have been conducted manually, indeed a dozen staff and volunteers working for a couple of months only manage to the clear and remove around an acre. However we have managed to the acquire a mechanical digger which speeds the work considerably. A recent trial at Wicken Fen demonstrated that the machine could clear, remove stumps and tidy up in 3 days and area which would have taken volunteers and staff working manually 150 people days.

Once the scrub has been cleared we need to have management strategies in place which will keep the fen open. To the this end we proposed to the continue but expand the unique cutting regime on the Sedge Fen which dates back to 1400. We also propose to re-introduce the strip cutting regime practised on the site last century.

On Verrall’s Fen which is currently 87% scrub we propose to introduce low density grazing by wild horses – konig ponies. This decision has not been taken lightly as Wicken represents the only surviving fen site where traditional cutting is the management technique. However the past 100 years have shown us how difficult it is to the keep the open areas open.

New reed beds on Adventurers’ Fen

Not all the arable land created during the last war has yet been returned to wetland habitats, 70 acres still remains under cultivation. This area along with an additional 25 acres of improved grassland will be turned into reedbed.

This project will be the National Trust’s contribution to the UK Biodiversity Action Plan targets for reedbed creation. It is hoped that once completed these new reeds along with the existing ones will prove suitable for breeding bitterns. This habitat creation project is an extension of a project commenced in 1996 using funding from the European Union Bitterns LIFE fund to restore our existing reed beds which were drying out and scrubbing up.

The next 100 years
The National Trust is currently exploring whether over the next 100 years it wishes to acquire up to 15,000 acres of land that formally made up Adventurers’ Fen and Burwell Fen so that new areas of wetland can be created for wildlife. The aim would be to the try and ensure that these large new areas of land would be managed largely by ‘natural processes’ such as grazing animals and high water tables and not by intervention management such as reed cutting and mowing.

The Local Management Committee of Wicken Fen and the East Anglian Regional Committee of the National Trust have approved a paper which outlines these concepts and have asked them to be explored in more detail. In addition a recent ‘Citizen’s Jury’ held in Ely in 1997 on this topic the panel very much supported the idea of a large new created wetland nature reserve.

In order to the implement such a land acquisition policy there are a number of key issues which need to the be addressed. The most important of these involves the perception of such a policy by local people and landowners. If not handled correctly many local landowners will feel we are attempting to the acquire their land against their will and will therefore be hostile and unco-operative. It is also possible that once our intentions are known this could affect land prices. It is therefore essential that this is avoided. This is best achieved by stating from the outset that these are ideas are long term in their outlook and of course are not compulsory.

‘My personal feeling about Wicken is a complicated one: a mixture of enjoyment of fenland plants and animals (both aesthetically and scientifically), glimpsing the past and sensing the passage of time, while all the time enjoying the great open fen landscape under its vast skies. Of course I have little vignettes of special memory. For example watching swallowtails emerging from their pupae, looking at Adventurers’ Fen in 1940 knowing it was soon to be destroyed and more recently the enjoyment of being part of a very special endeavour to understand Wicken and conserve it. To me Wicken is the first English Nature Reserve, a very special wetland and the most famous fen.’

Norman Moore – one of the founding fathers of nature conservation and a former Chair of the Wicken Local Management Committee.