Land of hope & glory?

It s been described as the most important conservation project in the country and has the support of Prince Charles, Sir John Major and Stephen Fry. However, some people have severe doubts about the Great Fen Project and believe the scheme, which will joi

It's been described as the most important conservation project in the country and has the support of Prince Charles, Sir John Major and Stephen Fry. However, some people have severe doubts about the Great Fen Project and believe the scheme, which will join two nature reserves - Woodwalton Fen and Holme Fen - by buying up farmland in between, is a waste of arable land and almost £9million of Lottery funding. ANGELA SINGER looks at The Great Fen Debate

THE FARMERS' VIEW

GREG Bliss is the fourth generation of farmers in his family to work 1,200 acres at Holme, next to the nature reserve at Holme Fen.

His family are tenant farmers and the tenancy is protected for the next two generations. But he believes he is under pressure to sell his right to the land.


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He says: "We love it and we look after a lot of wildlife. Now they want me out of here so they can turn the land back into swamp again. It takes a long time to understand the land and get to know every square foot of it.

"At the risk of sounding like a nimby, I am not against conservation and I can see that the Government has this grand vision but it does affect me more than most people because I stand to lose my livelihood.

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"We are in negotiation and, although things can seem very pleasant on the surface, the Government uses fairly ferocious national land agents. When it comes to reaching an agreement, there will be no holds barred. We are not that far down the line but I'm saying I want to go on farming and they are saying, let's talk about it.

"It could get pushed through and we will get caught up in it. I think the scheme is a bit of a sop to all the development in Peterborough and Kettering. It has been compared with the Eden Project in Cornwall but I can't see the people of Peterborough and Huntingdon coming here to see a few extra types of beetles and birds. I think it started out as a pipedream and it has shocked people how quickly people have got on board.

"This is a bit of a millstone nagging at me. I have taken all the right advice but, if the law changed the Government could get me out earlier. You can never predict what will happen. Look at the expansion of Stansted Airport and Heathrow's fourth runway, if the Government wants something to happen, it will happen."

Mr Bliss, the national vice-chairman of the Tenant Farmers' Association, said prospects for farmers had improved since the project was started, with land prices increasing 40 per cent.

He said now would not be the time to turn his land into a nature reserve.

He said that, while it was true the land is peat and if farmed for arable it would not last for ever, he expected it to last at least two more generations.

"I expected two more generations of my family at least to farm here - I have two daughters who are interested in farming."

Mr Bliss took a degree in agriculture before taking over the farm from his parents, and his daughter Katherine, 17, is planning to take a land-based degree.

He foresees a time when the Government will change direction and call for greater production of food.

"The land would have to be drained again to put it back into production. Life tends to go in circles and they are not making any more land are they?"

Jacqueline Davies, who has farmed Eternity Hall Farm - 700 acres of arable land in Connington Fen - since 1964 and works the farm with her husband Peter and son Paul, said: "The project is not interested in our land but I have mixed feelings about it. There is a shortage of corn in the world and they are taking away arable land."

Paul said: "I don't think the project expected to get as much land as it did and now they don't know what to do with it. Access to it hasn't been thought through, so who is going to visit this site in the middle of nowhere?"

VIEW FROM THE FEN

CHRIS Gerard, project manager for the Great Fen Project, said the scheme would benefit not only wildlife, but also the people of Huntingdonshire and society in general.

The project size of 9,500 acres was set in 2001, creating and protecting habitats for rare species for generations to come.

In short, it is a conservation project of national importance and will provide a place to visit for the people of Huntingdonshire, a protected fen landscape.

According to the project's website, the Great Fen Project is home to 400 species of plant (many native to the area), including a rare Fen violet, more than 800 beetle varieties, 1,000 types of moth, and almost half the species of dragonfly found in Britain.

Then there are the birds - owls, marsh tits, grasshopper warblers and nightingales, hen harriers, bitterns and bearded reedlings.

There are also Chinese water deer, water voles, shrews, stoats and weasels.

And with support from royalty all the way through to leading conservationists - Alan Titchmarsh recently described it as the most important project of its kind in the country - the Great Fen Project has, so far, progressed quickly and has been seen as a huge success.

"We have made more progress in a short amount of time than we expected because of the number of private sales," said Mr Gerard. "Access to the site is difficult. We recognise that access has to be carefully managed in a rural project. We need to think about it carefully in future. Most people will be relying on a car to access the site.

"But on the positive side we could develop better public transport. There is a bus route and there are navigable waterways and we are thinking of putting in cycle paths. The B660 has a lot of capacity, if traffic were to increase."

Mr Gerard said the farmland being used to join the two nature reserves had a limited lifespan. "The land is peat and the impact of arable farming means that the peat will disappear. Once the peat has gone, it won't be possible to grow root crops there." Answering the challenge that visitors would disturb rather than encourage the conservation of wildlife, Mr Gerard said: "We will create habitats some of which will be accessible and others which will be rarely visited.

"There will be a benefit to society in general and Huntingdonshire in particular of creating an important wildlife site where rare species will no longer be in decline. Storing flood water is another benefit of the Great Fen Project because it will prevent the flooding of property and farmland. Woodwalton Fen is no longer big enough to provide enhanced water storage and the project will provide better protection."

Mr Gerald said the concern that some farmers had expressed about midges and the spread of the disease blue tongue in cattle was unfounded. "The midge that causes blue tongue is ubiquitous. It is already absolutely everywhere. It breeds on lawns, on piles of leaves in villages.

"It is not possible to make the risk any worse because it is already everywhere. This strain of blue tongue got into Northern Europe and farmers have been expecting it to reach Britain."

He said the fens were already full of mosquitoes and the creatures that ate mosquitoes.

"It is not surprising that with such a big project there will be a variety of views and we don't take these concerns lightly. It will be good for Ramsey to have a new focal point. In 100 years, the peat will have disappeared but the Great Fen Project will grow another type of food. We will be breeding cattle for meat. The policy for food security is not to maximise what is grown locally but to provide a balance between growing our own food and importing food.

"The Great Fen Project represents less than one per cent of the farmland of the fens and a very tiny percentage, something like 0.017 per cent of the agricultural landscape in Britain.

"Fortunately, times are better for farmers so that we might not acquire so much land so quickly in the next few years but that gives us time to work on land we have and to work alongside our neighbours on conservation. This is a 50-year vision and we may not acquire more land for decades."

Factfile:

* The Great Project is a 50-year scheme.

* It started in 2001.

* The aim is for 9,500 acres - so far, 1,800 acres have been acquired.

* Lottery funding is £8.9million.

* The vision is three stages: restoring the two fen reserves, joining them up and enlarging the acreage of the scheme.

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