Wildlife charities Butterfly Conservation, Plantlife, and the RSPB, have welcomed a decision to refuse two water abstraction licence renewal applications that threatened rare wildlife at Butterfly Conservation's Catfield Fen nature reserve, in Norfolk.
The Broads reserve is one of the UK's most important wildlife sites, with nationally and internationally significant populations of some the country's scarcest plants and insects.
The announcement comes after an earlier decision by the Environment Agency not to renew the water abstraction licences, in light of evidence that abstraction was having a detrimental impact on the condition of the protected wildlife site, was appealed by the applicant.
During the appeal, the RSPB acted as an expert ecological witness for the Environment Agency at a public enquiry held in April and May this year, and presenting evidence that the Fen has become drier and more acidic, and that this poses a threat some of the rare species that depend for their survival on the very specific conditions found in the Fen. Plantlife were also invited to provide evidence by the Inspector, as the lead organisation in the UK's fen orchid recovery strategy.
Water has been abstracted adjacent to Catfield since 1986 to irrigate arable and salad crops, but there have been concerns about the effect that abstraction has been having on the site for a number of years. The new licences would have allowed the applicant to continue abstracting millions of litres of water each year from two boreholes close to the reserve.
The Environment Agency's original decision to refuse the abstraction licence renewal application followed an earlier consultation, during which Natural England advised the Environment Agency that based on the available evidence water abstraction was a likely contributing cause to the site's deterioration.
Catfield Fen nature reserve is part of the Ant Broads and Marshes National Nature Reserve. It is owned by Butterfly Conservation and managed in partnership with the RSPB. It is one of the most important sites in the country for water beetles and wetland plants. The reserve is internationally recognised for the exceptional richness of special wildlife it supports.
Together with nearby RSPB Sutton Fen nature reserve, Catfield Fen supports over 90 per cent of the UK fen orchid population. The two sites are home to large populations of swallowtail butterflies, water voles and Norfolk hawker dragonflies, as well as being used by rare birds such as cranes, bitterns, and marsh harriers, and by otters.
As a result, Catfield Fen is protected both nationally as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and internationally as part of The Broads Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and Broadland Ramsar site.
Tim Pankhurst, Regional Conservation Officer with Plantlife, the lead organisation for the conservation of fen orchid, said: "The importance of Catfield Fen for the conservation of fen orchid cannot be overstated. Not only would damage from water abstraction threaten the years of conservation work we have been undertaking with our partners, it would put the very survival of fen orchid as a UK species at risk."
John Davis, Head of Reserves for Butterfly Conservation explained: "We are very relieved to hear the Inspector's conclusion; Catfield Fen is our highest profile reserve in terms of overall conservation importance. The international significance of its features are a major responsibility and it has been a huge concern to see a gradual deterioration continue with something we were warned about over 20 years ago but have had no means of controlling or mitigating. Our collaboration with the RSPB has been the only way of tackling this difficult issue."
Phil Pearson, RSPB Senior Conservation Officer for the Eastern region, added: "We are very happy with the positive outcome of the appeal. The Inspector's decision ensures protection for this crucial wildlife habitat and marks a significant milestone in our work with Butterfly Conservation, Plantlife and other partners to restore Catfield Fen to the best condition. Failure to address the adverse impact of water abstraction on this site now would have been disastrous for its longer term protection and management.
"Catfield Fen, along with nearby Sutton Fen, is the 'best of the best' within one of Europe's most important areas of wetland. Strong legal protection for the site has been an important factor in achieving a positive outcome, and highlights the need to maintain such protection for our finest wildlife sites in the future.
"While we hope a line has been drawn under the current case, this is by no means the last challenge faced by this precious site and we can't afford to be complacent. Should deterioration be allowed to continue unchecked, restoration could become impossible, so we must act now to avoid the real risk of reaching the point of no return for Catfield Fen."Together with our partners, we remain committed to working with individuals and organisations in The Broads and elsewhere, and will continue to strive to ensure the right decisions are made to protect Catfield Fen and other such important wildlife sites."
1. Over 2,500 species have been recorded on the site to date, but it is likely that there are many more species that have gone unrecorded to date.
Catfield Fen is the most important UK site for water beetles, with 22 Red Data book species; many of these species also occur at Sutton Fen. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species founded in 1964, is the world's most comprehensive inventory of the global conservation status of biological species.
It is also one of the most important UK sites for wetland plants with 18 Red Data book species; many of these species also occur at Sutton Fen.
It is one of only three UK sites of the one-grooved diving beetle and one of only two UK sites of the wasp Trogus lapidator, a natural parasite of the Swallowtail butterfly.
2. Catfield Fen is one of the most important fens in Europe. As such it is afforded national, European and International protection:
National: The sites are found within the Ant Broads and Marshes Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, (Britain's domestic legislation to implement the Birds Directive) the Government has a duty to notify as an SSSI any land which in its opinion is of special interest for its flora, fauna, geological or physiographical features. SSSIs are thus Britain's best sites nationally for wildlife and geology.
European: As part of the Broads Special Area of Conservation (SAC), they are protected by the EU Habitats Directive for their rare fenland wildlife.
International: They form part of the Broads Ramsar. The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands is an intergovernmental treaty that provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources.
3. Catfield, along with nearby Sutton Fen, is home to some 5,000 fen orchid plants, and are two of only four UK sites supporting the fen orchid. Catfield Fen alone holds over half of the UK population, and together they hold over 90 per cent; the remaining proportion of the UK population is confined to one other site in the Norfolk Broads and a single site in Wales. The number of suitable sites for the species is reducing, making sites like Catfield and Sutton fen crucial to the plant's survival.