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


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 700 hectares or 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 460 hectares (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, double the total amount of fen habitat left before the project began, thus restoring a small part of the Fens to its former glory.


  • To work in a close and highly-effective partnership with Hanson UK to create 700 hectares, 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 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 contribute to an Ouse Valley strategic visitor access and engagement point, for which Ouse Fen provides a site 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.
  • 2003: First land forming restoration works
  • 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: A 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. 
  • 2018: Reserve appeared as the main feature in BBC Countryfile in the Cambridgeshire episode in February watched live by c. 7 million viewers.
  • 2019: Restoration diversifies with restoration of a cell to a fen type habitat for the first time.
  • 2019: The reserve’s first pair of European Crane chose to breed close to an area formerly known as Crane’s Fen.
  • 2020: New water control structures were installed to provide more efficient water management.
  • 2021: Another land transfer from Hanson increased Ouse Fen to 300 hectares (420 football pitches) in size.
  • 2021: The new entrance was officially opened providing a new short access-for-all path to a viewpoint and picnic area, with onward routes to new trails and connections to long-distance public rights of way. 
  • 2021: The reserve now supports a record 12 booming male bitterns as well as important populations of marsh harriers and bearded tits. The iconic reedbed 'Big Three' are regularly joined by a pair of crane, a growing assemblage of breeding heron species, otter, water vole and 22 species of dragonfly.

Planned Work

Work is underway on opening the next phases of the project’s 20 miles (32km) of public access routes including plans for a causeway providing a reed high view through Lockspits Mere with access from the new visitor entrance.

We are in the process of installing the next phase of water control structures. This will enable more efficient water management on Lockkeepers Mere and Low Grounds and will mean that we can slowly raise the water level in Long Holme, Crane’s Fen and Lockspits Fen.

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.


  • Key species are moving into the newest restoration; Long Holme, Crane’s Fen and Lockspits Mere.
  • Bitterns are booming throughout the reserve.
    12 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.
  • 8 marsh harrier nests in 2021
  • European Cranes return to Crane Fen.
    These rare birds (c 50 pairs in the UK) have chosen to attempt to breed close to an area known historically as ‘Crane’s Fen’. 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 have 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.



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

It is also supported by Cambridgeshire County Council.



Coast on a stormy day

Jonathan D Taylor

Ouse Fen Project Manager, RSPB

Coast on a stormy day

Charlotte Mulderrig

Ouse Fen Project Officer, RSPB


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