Woodwalton Fen started 100 years of the Wildlife Trust

THE Wildlife Trust will be celebrating its 100th birthday later this year, but the organisation owes its existence to a hidden part of the Huntingdonshire fens.

In a peaceful corner of the Woodwalton Fen, an odd bungalow appears as if from nowhere, two metres above the ground on stilts.

Sitting amongst trees and shrubs, the conspicuous home would have looked a lot less peculiar more than 100 years ago when the Hon. Charles Rothschild first came across the Fens.

When gamekeepers and fishermen discovered the rich land beneath the waterways, the area was drained to accommodate agricultural farming which appalled Charles, a keen entomologist, as he wanted to protect the area for future generations.

In 1910, he bought a little stretch of the fens, which was still submerged from time to time, and two years later formed the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves (now the Royal Society for Nature Conservation), part of the Wildlife Trusts.

Louise Rackham, Great Fen education and community manager, explained: “Rothschild would visit at weekends and bring his friends from London to show off the moths and butterflies on the reserve.

“It was at the time where people would kill moths and butterflies to pin on boards for their collections. He thought if they kept it up, there wouldn’t be any left for future generations so he wanted to put a stop to it. He bought the land in 1910 and turned it into a nature reserve, the first in the country.”

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She added: “He loved it here as back in those days it would have been his own little oasis where he would get to his house on stilts by punt.”

His home was officially opened to visitors in 2006 and is used as an occasional venue for meetings and educational tours. There are ambitions to open it up more regularly and give people a glimpse into the past – there is still kitchen equipment, used a century ago, in place.

“We’re trying to get the area to look like it did in Rothschild’s time. We do it by checking the number of trees, shrubs and plants. Of course it’s a little different as its not submerged and there are a few more trees around,” Louise added.

“The aim of welcoming more people to the site is to try to inspire them to have the foresight to look after nature like Rothschild did. The reserve also enables visitors to look at the progress of the Great Fen Project, which will have pockets of openings with different flora and fauna in each one.”

The reserve has 25,000 visitors a year and since the start of the Great Fen Project, Woodwalton has seen the return of a lot of species that were lost over the years, including great bitterns and reed buntings. It is also a breeding ground for snipes, lapwings, skylarks and water voles.

However, despite having protected status from the Wildlife Trusts, Woodwalton Fen and the surrounding areas are suffering from the ongoing drought – the region is still officially in drought and is one of the driest areas in the country.

The drought is causing reserve partners, the Environment Agency and Middle Level Commissioners, a headache as they try to keep as much water in the reserve to prevent it drying out, as happened in the 1930s.

A reminder about how fragile the landscape is at Woodwalton and the fens in general is Holme post. The post was put in the ground in the 1850s to measure the fall in peat levels after the Fens was drained. In the 160 years since it was installed, the levels have dropped more than five metres.

This is just one of the reasons why the Great Fen Project exists – the creation of a 3,700-hectare wetland between Huntingdon and Peterborough, connecting Holme Fen and Woodwalton Fen will protect these habitats as well as opening up the area for more people to use.

Conservation and enjoyment of visitors. Charles Rothschild would have approved.

INFORMATION: To find out more about Woodwalton and the Great Fen Project visit www.greatfen.org.uk