The wetland wizard

Meet the pioneer who can turn a carrot field into a home for kingfishers and bitterns.

 

I know it’s polite when you go to someone’s house for the first time to tell them that their home is lovely, but Graham Hiron’s home in Cambridgeshire really is worth remarking onIt backs onto the River Great Ouse, and from the jetty at the bottom of his garden, he tells me, you can see seals 

Seals, in Cambridgeshire?

“They breed here every July,” Graham says. “I saw two pups the other day.”

We meet in July during the heatwave and sit in his garden in the shade of a big parasol drinking elderflower cordial. A noisy flock of oystercatchers starts up close by, and then two little egrets fly over, heading towards Ouse Fen – an RSPB and Hanson wetland reserve nearby that Graham designed. Because that is what Graham does best: creating nature reserves.

 

Reclaiming the Fens

In the 31 years since Graham started his career at the RSPB, he has had a hand in the management of every one of the RSPB’s 200-odd nature reserves. Some of them he has midwifed from seed. His speciality is creating wetlands – reedbeds, marshes, wet meadows – playgrounds for water voles, marsh harriers and wading birds. Over the next few hours we talk about lots of wetland projects he’s been involved in, but he keeps returning to Lakenheath Fen in Suffolk.

Soaring juvenile marsh harrier

 

What’s so special about Lakenheath? 

“At the time, it was the biggest habitat creation project the RSPB had ever been involved in,” he says. “The scale of it was so ambitious. 

 

Graham remembers his first visit to Lakenheath, back in 1995, when the 200-ha site was carrot fields. The place had once been part of the great 1,300 square miles of East Anglian Fenland, but had been drained over the last 400 years, along with the rest of the Fens. 

Graham explains that he and the rest of the RSPB team wanted to make a new home for bitterns in Eastern England to help save them from UK extinction. At the time, there were fewer than 20 pairs left in the whole of the UK 

And the team succeeded, big time. Lakenheath Fen is a spectacular vista for all the senses – great sweep of reeds that rustle as gusts of wind roll across the flat landscape. From within, reed warblers sing in enthusiastic bursts. Overhead, marsh harriers perform their spectacular skydance mating display. Myriad dragonflies patrol the open waterAnd yes, there are bitterns too –nine booming males at last count. It’s hard to imagine that there were once rows of carrots growing there. How did Graham stand there, almost 30 years ago when it was a field, and see this place holding bitterns one day?  

I closed my eyes and I imagined what it could be like,” Graham says. “I spent a lot of my life working as a researcher. You get to know the ways birds think and how habitats function. It’s imagination and vision tempered with realism.”  

The creation of Lakenheath was an amazing feat of engineering. Re-wetting the site involved digging out at least half a million tonnes of earth, pumping in up to 25,000 cubic metres of water (and keeping it there), and hand-planting a third of a million reed seedlings.  

The knowledge that Graham and the team gained during the process paved the way for an even more audacious undertaking.  

Making Wallasea Island

Back in 2001, the RSPB identified an opportunity to create a huge new reserve on the Essex Coast. At the time, just about all that was there was a crumbling sea wall and wheat fields for as far as the eye could see. But Graham and his team could see the site’s potential.

“If we breached the sea wall,” Graham says, “and allowed the sea to flood the fields in a managed way, we could create 668 ha of saltmarsh, mudflats and lagoons.” All of which would be terrific for wildlife. “The problem was, the fields were over a metre lower than sea level. "If we breached the wall and allowed the sea to flow in, we wouldn't be able to control the flood and it'd have knock on affects for the surrounding area.”

The solution came from an unlikely source: the bowels of London.  

Just 50 miles away, Crossrail were digging out millions of tonnes of earth from beneath London to create the new underground rail line. What if the RSPB could use it to raise the level of the land at Wallasea Island? 

 

And so began the biggest wetland creation project the UK had ever seen, dwarfing Lakenheath Fen in scale and ambition.   

“Altogether, we shifted almost 3 million tonnes of soil,” Graham says. “It took 1,528 barge trips over 2.5 years.” Just to help you imagine that, three million tonnes of soil is more than enough to fill Wembley Stadium 1.5 times!  

Today, Wallasea Island is complete. What used to be a fairly quiet area of arable land is now a thriving wetland, erupting with life. Winter brings tens of thousands of wading birds, including golden plovers, lapwings and dunlins. And in spring, the marshes ring with the calls of mating waders, including the UK’s biggest breeding colony of avocets. 

Wallasea Island was designed to create ideal conditions for wildlife, but also for people. Walking trails help you get close to the wildlife without disturbing it. “We wanted people to be able to visit an iconic wild landscape – a short hop from London but a complete world apart,” Graham says.  

The team behind the pioneer

 

Since the early days of Lakenheath Fen, RSPB habitat creation has evolved massively, and Graham has been one of the main pioneers, pushing forward what’s possible, doing what, from the outside, looks like magic.

For decades, Graham has held a bold vision for what a wetland can be, the kind of wetlands that haven’t existed in Britain since Cromwell’s time, and he has dedicated much of his adult life to making that vision a reality.

And that’s where you come in.

It’s people like you that helped Graham bring his vision to life. None of this would have been possible without the RSPB members and volunteers who provide the time, energy and funds it takes to turn an idea into a terrific home for nature. It’s truly a team effort, and the bigger the team, the more we can achieve together.

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