June 23rd 2021 Update - RSPB Position on the Environment Agency’s statement describing changes to abstraction licences in the Ant Valley
The RSPB fully supports the Environment Agency’s proposal to review, reduce and cease water abstraction close to the Ant Broads and Marshes SSSI. This is a welcome step being taken towards responsible and sustainable water management for both farming and the natural environment.
Allowing continued abstraction at previous levels would have undoubtedly meant the end for many species which call the Broads their home, including many which are found in only a handful of sites throughout the UK.
The Ant Valley is not only an internationally important site for rare wildlife, the fen habitat itself also works to store and capture carbon emissions, an essential part of the fight against climate change.
The RSPB also recognises this announcement will have implications for farm businesses and we want to continue to work with and support the NFU and farmers to find solutions which seek to provide a sustainable source of water for their needs.
It is equally important to realise that we all have a role to play in safeguarding our water resource from home, to farm, to nature reserve. Water is such a critical resource and we need to respect it and follow initiatives such as Anglian Water’s ‘Love Every Drop.’
There is an urgent need to bring stakeholders together and ensure the transition to revised abstraction is managed effectively to ensure no further delays and ensure deterioration of SSSI’s is properly arrested. Effective monitoring of how groundwater and vegetation respond to these licence changes will enable all to show a meaningful improvement in the hydrology of the relevant SSSI’s.
The Ant Broads and Marshes Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) has been described as the best example of unpolluted valley fen in western Europe. It forms part of The Broads Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and lies in the north-eastern part of the Broads close to the town of Stalham. The RSPB’s Sutton Fen reserve and Butterfly Conservation's Catfield Fen reserve both sit within this SSSI.
The Broads SAC is one of the UK and Europe's most important wetland areas, supporting over a quarter of the UK's rarest species. Catfield and Sutton Fens are exceptional sites for wildlife and are nestled within the wider landscape where both the surface water and groundwater resources are a scarce commodity and need careful management and apportionment.
In 2015 the Environment Agency refused to grant two agricultural abstraction licences due to the potential harm they may be causing Catfield Fen. The landowner holding the licences appealed the decision but in September 2016 following a Public Inquiry the inspector upheld the decision. In 2018 the Environment Agency made it known that a further 41 time-limited abstraction licences adjacent to the Ant Broads and Marshes SSSI were being reviewed.
Water continues to be abstracted adjacent to the Ant Valley to irrigate arable crops. Starting in 2012, RSPB staff conducted surveys of the plants, animals, water and soil and the results indicated the site has become more acidic and drier. Since 2012 these changes have become more pronounced and pose a real threat to some of the country's rarest species, including c40% of the UK's fen orchid population.
Our interpretation of the evidence – which is that changes in site condition could be due to water abstraction - is supported by ecologists and hydrologists, including nationally and internationally renowned experts.
It is also supported by real and tangible evidence. In 2016 when the inspector upheld the decision not to grant 2 abstraction licences Catfield Fen held c50% of the UK population of the fen variety of fen orchid. In 2019 this number had dropped to 40%. It is important to note that many species are being adversely affected in addition to fen orchid and the very nature and makeup of the fen itself is changing.