Marsh Harriers ‘skydance’ as large wetland creation project celebrates first anniversary

Just one year in and a project to expand wetland habitat for wildlife at RSPB Lakenheath Fen is already proving very popular with once endangered Marsh Harriers. As RSPB Senior Site Manager Dave Rogers remarked: “We’re on the cusp of something magnificent here.”

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A Marsh Harrier, with wings outstretched, ready to land.
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New hope for rare species

It’s just one year since work on the large-scale habitat creation project began. Together with our partner, the Morgan Sindall Group, we’re turning more than 86 football pitches of land into wetland habitat at RSPB Lakenheath Fen on the Norfolk/Suffolk border.  

This will greatly extend the fenland, creating more habitat for wildlife to live, breed and feed in, and we’re hopeful that the new wetlands will see the return of other rare wildlife such as Cranes, Bitterns and Water Voles.  

Lakenheath Fen wetland view.

Creating vital wetlands 

At one year into the project, we’re still in the early stages of establishing vegetation and attracting wildlife. So far, the land has been 're-wetted' by raising water levels through the installation of a series of water control sluices and dams, and a series of flooded ditches and land reprofiling. This in turn triggered a transition from drained arable land to wetland, helped by higher-than-average rainfall this year. The new wetlands are already proving a hit with Marsh Harriers, a once endangered bird of prey.  

The habitat provides fresh hunting territory for these impressive birds of prey. Good numbers already nest and rear their young on existing reedbeds within RSPB Lakenheath Fen. Males can be seen regularly patrolling over the new wetland, looking for prey such as small mammals and birds to feed their young. More food means more chance of survival, helping to bolster Marsh Harrier populations here for years to come. 

Marsh Harrier, bringing in material to its reedbed nest.

“We’re on the cusp of something magnificent” 

Marking the first year since work began, Dave Rogers, RSPB Lakenheath Fen Senior Site Manager said: “It’s amazing to look back over the past year and see what has been achieved already for nature here and what is still to come, particularly as UK wildlife is becoming squeezed into ever smaller pockets of land. To witness the transformation of this area from dry arable land that had little value to wetland wildlife, to this blossoming wetland which is already luring in some of the most fascinating species you can see in the UK, including the Marsh Harrier, is something to behold.  

“We’re on the cusp of something magnificent here and we can’t wait for more wildlife to discover it when the site becomes more established. We thank Morgan Sindall Group for their dedication and enthusiasm for this wonderful project which will create a long-term legacy for the site and the local environment.” 

Male Marsh Harrier. Males have distinctive black wing tips.

Helping Marsh Harrier populations recover 

In the UK, Marsh Harrier numbers were drastically reduced to only one breeding pair just over 50 years ago. Back then it was Britain’s rarest breeding bird of prey as a result of habitat loss, persecution and pesticide use. In recent times numbers have steadily increased, with the last UK count in 2021 putting the population at 400 pairs. However, this is still a relatively low number, and it is hoped that habitat creation efforts such as at RSPB Lakenheath Fen will continue to bolster populations of this amazing bird of prey.  

Spectacular aerial displays 

Marsh Harriers are known for their spectacular aerial ‘skydancing’ courtship routines where the male displays sky-high acrobatics to impress a prospective mate. The birds touch talons in mid-air to test their compatibility and whether the male is capable and willing to pass food to the female. While nesting and raising young, the adults can often be seen passing food to each other in the air. The male drops freshly caught prey in her direction and she swoops in to catch it. Freshly caught prey is regularly delivered by both adults to help feed their young once hatched. 

Marsh Harriers. The males passes food to the female mid-air.

Working in partnership for nature 

Morgan Sindall Group, a leading UK construction and regeneration group, has provided significant support to enable the acquisition and restoration of additional land next to RSPB Lakenheath Fen. This will result in more habitat for wildlife to flourish, and it will also help reduce carbon emissions due to the re-wetting of peat soil. Staff from Morgan Sindall Group have also been hands-on at the nature reserve, helping with habitat management and learning more about the project. 

It is hoped in future that once the new wetland is more established, it will entice other species such as Cranes, Bitterns, Lapwings, Redshanks, Yellow Wagtails and Skylarks. It’s also expected to benefit endangered Water Voles, as well as many invertebrates and other bird species.  

Graham Edgell, Group Director of Procurement and Sustainability at Morgan Sindall Group said: “For the RSPB Lakenheath team to achieve such remarkable results in just one year is truly incredible. The transformation from dry arable land to a thriving wetland, with the return of the once endangered Marsh Harrier and the establishment of reed beds, is a testament to their hard work.  

We are honoured to have been able to support this significant project alongside the esteemed RSPB. Our commitment to this partnership is unwavering, and we eagerly anticipate the rewards that nature will undoubtedly reap in the years and decades to come.”

Adult male Marsh Harrier in flight.

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