Catfield Fen

Tagged with: Casework status: Open Casework type: Water Site designations: Ramsar site Site designations: SAC Site designations: SPA Site designations: SSSI
Swallowtail butterfly caterpillar Papilio machaon, perched on fennel, RSPB Strumpshaw Fen, Norfolk


We must fight to protect Catfield Fen and Sutton Fen because the reserves are the 'best of the best' within one of Europe’s most important wetland sites.

Butterfly Conservation's Catfield Fen nature reserve, which we manage on their behalf, is right next to RSPB Sutton Fen nature reserve within the Ant Broads and Marshes Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), part of The Broads Special Area of Conservation (SAC).

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 among the 'best of the best'. Since 2010, the Environment Agency has been considering applications to renew two water abstraction licences in the area.  

Water has been abstracted adjacent to Catfield since 1986 to irrigate arable crops. Concerns have been voiced about drying of the fen since the early 1990s. Since 2012, surveys of the plants, animals, water and soil indicate the site has become more acidic and drier. This is threatening some of the country's rarest species, including more than half of the UK's fen orchid population.

Our interpretation of the evidence - that changes in site condition could be due to water abstraction - is supported by ecologists and hydrologists, including nationally and internationally renowned experts.

Protecting Catfield Fen from ecological impacts

After reviewing the available evidence, Natural England agreed that water abstraction is a potential threat to maintaining the habitat and species on Catfield Fen. The Environment Agency, having taken on board concerns about the ecological impact which water abstraction was causing to Catfield Fen, decided it could not safely allow the water abstraction licences to be renewed. In May 2015, they therefore refused to renew the licenses; a decision fully supported by the RSPB.

However, the Environment Agency's decision was appealed by the landowner. In April and May 2016, a public inquiry was held in Norwich with the Environment Agency robustly defending its decision to refuse including presenting evidence from NE and having the RSPB act as an expert ecological witness for it. The RSPB, Natural England and the Environment Agency all presented a significant body of evidence to the inspector which demonstrated refusal of the abstraction licences was the only option to help safeguard this vulnerable place and the species which depend on it.

The inspector has now confirmed, based on the available evidence, that she considers water abstraction has the potential to be causing Catfield Fen's plants and wildlife to be harmed and has agreed with the Environment Agency's decision to refuse licences. She has therefore dismissed the appeals concluding that there are no reasons which would allow her to accept the appeals "when weighed against the conservation interests that would be harmed".

This is a fantastic outcome and a significant milestone in the work to restore Catfield Fen. This decision highlights the need to maintain strong protection for our finest wildlife sites in the future.

However, it is by no means the last challenge faced by this precious site. The RSPB will continue to fight to ensure the right decisions are made to protect the site for the future. We are committed to working with individuals and organisations in the area to balance the needs of agriculture, water companies, councils and local residents, whilst protecting nationally and internationally important wildlife. 



Why is it worth fighting for?

Catfield Fen and Sutton Fen are two of the most important fens in Europe and some of the best fens in the Broads SAC.

They are protected by the EU Habitats Directive for their rare fenland wildlife, and the last refuge for some of our most threatened species.

  • Catfield Fen has more than 2,500 species recorded on the site
  • Catfield and Sutton are two of only four UK sites supporting the fen orchid. Catfield Fen alone holds over half of the UK population, and together they hold around 90 per cent 
  • Catfield Fen is the most important UK site for water beetles, with 22 Red Data book species; many of these species also occur at Sutton Fen
  • Catfield Fen is one of the most important UK sites for wetland plants with 18 Red Data book species; many of these species also occur at Sutton Fen
  • Catfield Fen is one of only three UK sites of the one-grooved diving beetle
  • Catfield Fen is one of only two UK sites of the wasp Trogus lapidator

The reserves also support large populations of swallowtail butterflies, water voles and Norfolk hawker dragonflies, and are used by cranes, bitterns, marsh harriers and otters.

We must fight to protect Catfield Fen and Sutton Fen because the reserves are the 'best of the best' within one of Europe’s most important wetland sites. The UK’s wetland environments have undergone a dramatic decline in the last 100 years and it is unacceptable to allow the condition of wetland sites of this quality to deteriorate for any reason. 

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A view of the loch at Abernethy

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Swallowtail butterfly on lilac

Our position

Regular reviews of abstraction licences are the mechanism by which the Environment Agency is required to protect the natural environment and other water users from deterioration and damage caused by taking water from the environment.  

Any licence posing a potential risk to our finest wildlife sites should be subject to intense scrutiny using the best available science. Where the risk of abstraction causing environmental deterioration has been identified then the RSPB considers that the Environment Agency should take a precautionary approach and abstraction licences should not be renewed. 

Water abstraction licence renewals in the Catfield area

The concerns regarding impacts from water abstraction on Catfield Fen have been long debated. The RSPB has been collecting and collating ecological evidence over the past year, and our interpretation of the evidence is that the site is becoming more acidic. 

There also remain concerns that the site is drying out. This is of serious concern as many of the rarer species have very limited tolerances to changes in acidity and/or reduced water availability. This poses a real threat to the existence of such species at this site. The RSPB also has concerns that there is potential for Sutton Fen to be impacted in the future, but has received limited monitoring to date.

As important components of The Broads Special Area of Conservation (SAC), the evidence gathered by the Environment Agency (EA) to date has not been able to demonstrate that water abstraction is not causing a damaging effect on Catfield Fen. Indeed, Natural England (NE) have highlighted that key features of the Ant Broads and Marshes Site of Special Scientific Interest are vulnerable from water abstraction in the wider area. 

The importance of Catfield Fen

Given the significance of these wetlands and their relationship with wider fen habitat (eg Sutton Fen), we need to ensure activities in the wider area use water responsibly and do not threaten these important wetlands.

In both a UK and European context, Catfield Fen and Sutton Fen are important for the vegetation communities they support, as well as the rare and sensitive plant and invertebrate species for which the sites form a stronghold. Of particular concern is having more than 40 per cent of the fen subspecies of fen orchid on Catfield Fen. This is a huge responsibility for the RSPB and Butterfly Conservation, as well as the wider community. 

In the Catfield area, some effort to improve water storage and reduce reliance on water abstraction has taken place, but more is needed to provide greater certainty that adverse effects to The Broads SAC and Ant Broads and Marshes SSSI are avoided. A greater push towards water storage when water is more available is essential. Coupled with this is a need to consider the appropriateness of the crops grown near to Catfield Fen; those which have greater water requirements risk a greater impact on sensitive fen communities. 

In making this comment, it is important to recognise that very small changes in water level or water chemistry within the root zone can result in significant effects to the vegetation communities and plant species supported on the fen. Changes may not be immediate and may only manifest themselves many years down the line, when reversing the damage is extremely challenging, and, in some cases, may be impossible.  

What next?

The objective now must be to avoid any further deterioration and to reverse any damage which has been set in motion.

The issue being debated is complex, but the process that should be followed is straightforward:

  • Is there a likely significant effect from water abstraction on Catfield Fen which needs more detailed assessment? The Environment Agency, Natural England and Broads Authority have all agreed this is the case.
  • Can an adverse effect on The Broads SAC be ruled out? The Environment Agency evidence has not been able to demonstrate that it can safely be concluded that an adverse effect on the integrity of the site can be avoided. This is the position of Natural England and Broads Authority, and the RSPB strongly supports this position based on the currently available evidence.
  • Where an adverse effect on The Broads SAC site integrity cannot be ruled out, the specific activity should not be permitted. The RSPB recognises there is a lot of information that has been collected to date. However, the available evidence remains uncertain. Independent experts have highlighted a number of serious failings in the EA’s groundwater model, which mean that it is not sufficiently sensitive to be used to determine individual abstraction licences in special cases like Catfield. The ecological evidence is indicating Catfield Fen is being adversely affected and it is not possible to exclude water abstraction as a cause of the change. In these circumstances, the Precautionary Principle has to be adopted.

We are not advocating no agriculture within the Catfield Fen area. However, we are advocating the need for water to be managed responsibly in the future to ensure that features of The Broads SAC and Ant Broads and Marshes SSSI are protected into the future (and enhanced where possible). 

While the RSPB is seriously concerned by the impact of water abstraction in its current form, we would be happy to investigate options that would enable maintenance of the internationally important wetlands and appropriate agriculture in the adjacent area. Working together this does seem achievable, but this will require positive partnership work in the future. 

There is therefore a need to make responsible decisions about the future of Catfield Fen and Sutton Fen by all interested parties.

RSPB Sutton Fen nature reserve, Norfolk


  • 16 September 2016
    The Planning Inspector has dismissed the appeals. The Environment Agency's decision to refuse to renew the water abstraction licences is upheld.

  • April 2016
    Public Inquiry starts in Norwich.
  • June 2015
    The landowner has appealed the Environment Agency's decision to refuse to renew the water abstraction licence.
  • May 2015
    Environment Agency have refused to grant the water abstraction licences given the potential harm they may be having on Catfield Fen.
  • 31 March 2015
    EA have now delayed their decision until mid-May

  • December 2014 - February 2015
    EA consider public consultation comments before making final decision, anticipated to be March 2015.
  • 15 December 2014
    Public consultation ends
  • 17 November 2014
    EA release their 'minded to' decision to refuse the abstraction licences and launch a 28-day public consultation

  • October 2014
    EA due to make their final decision
  • September 2014
    EA to make 'minded-to' decision and allow public comment through its website for 28 days

  • May 2014
    NE submit formal response to EA ‘Appropriate Assessment’ requesting greater information be presented by the EA to clarify the ecological implications of water abstraction on Catfield Fen. Broads Authority submits formal response to EA 'Appropriate Assessment', raising many serious concerns
  • Jan to Jul 2014
    RSPB and Catfield Hall Estate continue to collect data demonstrating change at Catfield Fen, now showing loss of important habitats and species and strongly suggesting a damaging change of water chemistry that needs to be reversed
  • March 2014
    EA release ‘Groundwater summary report’ using data from their hydrological model. Widely criticised by ecologists, hydrologists, Natural England and Broads Authority
  • December 2013
    RSPB sends second formal objection letter to EA
  • 2012-2013
    RSPB and Catfield Hall Estate carry out independent ecological surveys which confirm change of vegetation to drier more acidic communities, away from the more neutral to alkaline conditions favoured by the current vegetation communities and rarer plant species. Both sent separate and various comment to NE and EA

  • December 2012
    EA release 'conceptual model' of local hydrology and abstractions. Widely criticised by ecologists and hydrologist as being inadequate. RSPB send formal objection letter to EA
  • September 2012
    RSPB invited to Catfield Hall Estate and made aware of the abstraction renewals for the first time
  • 2012
    Two local water abstraction renewals expire, but are temporarily renewed for two years to allowed the EA to gather additional evidence to make their final decision
  • 2011
    Natural England informs EA that there is evidence of long-term drying at Catfield and it is not possible to rule out abstraction as the cause
  • 2010
    EA Review of Consents concludes no abstractions are considered to be having an adverse effect on the Ant valley SSSI. RSPB first raises concerns about falling water levels at Sutton Fen (adjacent to Catfield)
  • 2008
    Owners of Catfield Hall estate (adjacent fen site with same water system) first raise concerns about falling water levels