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.
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 – a 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 water. And 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.