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 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.
RSPB Ouse Fen is an exemplar site, 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. 


  • 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
  • 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 people and the local economy. 

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.

Planned Work

To date, 85 hectares of brand-new reedbed are among 218 hectares of land now under RSPB management. The reedbed alone will be three times bigger than RSPB Minsmere’s. The reserve will be accessible via a network 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.


  • Six marsh harrier nests on the reserve in 2015 (2% of the British breeding population at the time)
  • 24 pairs of bearded tits on the reserve in 2014 (4% of the British breeding population at the time)
  • 10 “booming” male bitterns on the reserve in 2015 (7% of the British breeding population at the time).


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


Coast on a stormy day

Jonathan D Taylor

Ouse Fen Project Officer, RSPB

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