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.