Hanson-RSPB Wetland Project

The Hanson-RSPB Wetland Project is an ambitious partnership project that will deliver the RSPB Ouse Fen nature reserve in Cambridgeshire.

Hanson - RSPB project

Overview

The Hanson-RSPB Wetland Project is an exemplar project, leading the way for landscape-scale conservation. The project brings industry and conservation together in a way never seen before on this scale. The RSPB and Hanson have found an innovative and inspiring solution to some of the issues facing our natural environment today. 

RSPB Ouse Fen will become an expansive mosaic of wildlife-rich wetland habitat which will be over 980 football pitches in size by 2030.

Over 28 million tonnes of sand and gravel will be excavated at Needingworth Quarry during this 30-year project, which began in 2001. The quarry is being worked in defined sections which are progressively restored by Hanson before being handed over to the RSPB for future management.

The project is the largest planned nature conservation restoration scheme following sand and gravel extraction in Europe. When complete, it will include the UK’s biggest reedbed. This will cover 4.6 square kilometres (or 644 football pitches), recreating some of the lost wetland habitat that once dominated the entire Fenland landscape.  

The black peat Fens used to cover 1,300 square miles across most of East Anglia. Once complete, Ouse Fen will cover around 2.5 square miles, thus restoring a small part of the Fens to its former glory.

Objectives

  • To work in a close and highly-effective partnership with Hanson UK to create the equivalent of 980 football pitches of open water, reedbed and grassland habitat, rich in priority wildlife. This will create RSPB Ouse Fen nature reserve which will make a substantial contribution to achieving the UK Government’s Biodiversity Action Plan targets for reedbeds and bitterns and support the characteristic assemblages of plants and animals which were once widespread in the Fens.
  • To demonstrate how partnerships between the commercial and nature conservation sectors can lead to high-quality habitat creation, on a landscape-scale, with significant benefits for society and the local economy. 
  • To provide informal recreational opportunities for the benefit of local communities and visitors, including 32 km of public access.
  • To make Ouse Fen a strategic visitor access and engagement point from which the landscape and wildlife of the Great Ouse Wetland may be accessed via a network of long-distance cycle, walking and possibly boating routes. The visitor experience to be developed with the engagement of the local communities is of an open wetland landscape providing significant opportunities for quiet recreation and for close encounters with wetland wildlife from land and water.

Key Dates

  • 1999: Cambridgeshire County Council granted ARC-Hanson permission to quarry minerals from 700 hectares of farmland. Needingworth Quarry became the UK’s largest ever sand and gravel consent. It was bigger than a new town!
  • 2001: The County Council had initially approved a restoration scheme to return the land to a mixture of agriculture, leisure and conservation. However, as part of the planning consent, Hanson was asked to prepare a feasibility study to look at restoring the site to wetlands and, working closely with the RSPB, designed a substantial nature reserve with public access. The Hanson-RSPB wetland project had begun.
  • 2007: The site’s first-ever bittern was seen in new reedbed that was cropland only 10 years before.
  • 2011: By this time, a total of around 130,000 reeds had been planted by hand on the reserve.
    The first-ever bittern feeding flights were seen over the reedbed, which proved nesting bitterns on the reserve for the first time.
  • 2015: There were 10 “booming” male bitterns at Ouse Fen in 2015 - just one fewer than the entire UK count in 1997.
  • 2016: The latest land transfer from Hanson increased RSPB Ouse Fen to 218 hectares (320 football pitches) in size.
  • 2016: There were six marsh harrier nests on the reserve, which raised eight young between them.
  • 2018: A female little crake heard in May was the first county record in 154 years. 
  • Reserve appeared as the main feature in BBC Countryfile in the Cambridgeshire episode in Feb watched live by c. 7 million viewers.
  • 2019: Restoration diversifies with restoration of a cell to a fen type habitat for the first time.
  • The reserve’s first pair of European Crane chose to breed close to an area formerly known as Crane’s Fen.

Planned Work

In 2020 approximately 80 hectares of newly restored land is due to be transferred to RSPB Ouse Fen after which some 300 hectares of land will be under RSPB management.

Work continues on providing improved public access to the reserve.  Plans are underway for a new visitor entrance to be opened in 2020 complete with two new visitor trails into the heart of the reserve.  The network of public access routes continues to grow towards the 2030 goal of 20 miles (32 km) of paths. 

The wildlife aspirations of the site are to have at least 20 booming male bitterns on the reserve by 2030. The target for nesting pairs of bearded tits on the reserve by 2030 is 100 pairs. If this is achieved, it would represent 25% of the UK’s entire population in 2000. 

By 2030, when the project finishes, Ouse Fen will include the UK's largest reedbed restoration following mineral extraction.

Results

  • Key species are moving into the next phase of the reserve.
    Our key species bittern, marsh harrier and bearded tit have all been seen in the 80ha tranche of land restored by Hanson and due to handed over to RSPB Ouse Fen in 2020.  Turtle doves have also been seen in that area on several occasions too – no doubt making use of the sparse conditions and weedy seeds plants still present
  • Bitterns are booming throughout the reserve.
    9 booming males were confirmed this year. Reassuringly almost half of these birds found suitable habitat in some of the youngest reedbeds on the site demonstrating its suitability.  This year our wardens managed to find 4 bittern nests but they are very difficult to find and the actual number could be higher.
  • Four marsh harrier nests this year. 
    Slightly down on six nests on the reserve in 2015 which was 2% of the British breeding population at the time.

  • European Cranes return to Crane Fen.
    These rare birds (c 50 pairs in the UK) have chosen to breed close to an area known historically as ‘Crane’s Fen’. We believe they did hatch young but ultimately were unsuccessful in fledging chicks. For such large birds they are very elusive and it’s unusual to be able to follow them closely. There is good reason to expect they will return again next year.
  • Norfolk Hawker dragonfly is the 22nd species of dragonfly found on the reserve.

  • Water Voles and otters have established themselves across the reserve.

  • Nodding Bur-marigold –Botanists recently discovered what is probably the largest population of this plant in Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire. This species is thought to be present at only 7 sites throughout the entire Fenland Area.

 

Partners

This is a partnership project between the RSPB and Hanson UK.

It is also supported by Cambridgeshire County Council.

Video: Our work at Ouse Fen

By 2030, Ouse Fen will have the UK's largest reedbed. Find out how we're going to do it.

In 2001 the RSPB and Hanson UK embarked on an ambitious plan, combining gravel extraction with conservation to create a major new wetland habitat around the size of 980 football pitches. 

Gravel and sand speed along a conveyor belt and fall onto a big heap.

Over a 30 year period, 28 million tonnes of sand and gravel will be excavated, and the quarried areas profiled for restoration. Lorries take away loads of soil for landscaping. 

People plant young reeds at the edge of a lake. Staff and volunteers started the first reed planting in 2004, and by 2013, over 130,000 reeds had been planted. Birds sing from a mosaic of reeds and water.

Lakes, reeds and islands stretch away into the distance. 

By the start of 2017, the new wetland habitat covered the size of 245 football pitches, and it's already providing homes for wildlife, including reed warblers, bearded tits, marsh harriers and bitterns. A bittern flies up from the edge of the reedbed.

Large areas of land have been reprofiled to form small islands and wetlands, providing habitat for wildlife.

The Hanson-RSPB Wetland Project continues, and by 2030 Ouse Fen will be the largest conservation project following mineral extraction in Europe. It will contain Britain's biggest reedbed. The huge wetlands shimmer in the sun and skylarks sing. 

Play video

Contacts

Coast on a stormy day

Jonathan D Taylor

Ouse Fen Project Officer, RSPB

jonathand.taylor@rspb.org.uk

Further reading

Tagged with: Country: England Habitat: Wetland Species: Bearded tit Species: Bittern Species: Marsh harrier Project status: Ongoing Project types: Site protection Project types: Species protection