If it’s winter, it must be time for the annual second year undergraduate field trip to Wicken Fen, a yearly pilgrimage that’s been run by my colleague Dr Janet Jackson for many years now. The purpose of the trip is to show our ecology and environmental science students an example of large-scale habitat conservation and restoration in action, at one of England’s oldest nature reserves. I try to go along and help out when I can, though I missed it last year because of my trip to Brazil. It was more than a fair swap, though there’s something about Wicken’s stark winter beauty that always makes for a memorable day.
The National Trusts’s nature reserve at Wicken Fen is one of the few remaining patches of the wetland habitat that once covered most of East Anglia. There’s little of it left (less than 1% of the original area) but large-scale, long-term initiatives such as the Great Fen project and the Wicken Fen Vision are trying to increase this by restoring the farmland surrounding the remaining patches. This is important landscape-scale conservation because the fenland habitat is rich in biodiversity. Wicken Fen alone is reckoned to host more than 8,300 species of macro-organisms, most of which are invertebrates, including more than a thousand each of flies and beetles. There’s also an impressive list of birds that use the site either for breeding or over-wintering, and on our day trip we managed to see 31 species*, highlights of which were a pair of Hen Harriers, a lone hunting Barn Owl at dusk, and a huge flock of Lapwing and Golden Plover that provided a backdrop to our guided tour.
Another great highlight which impressed both students and staff was a close encounter with some Konik Polski ponies which were curious and friendly, and yet more or less wild, as they stay out on the Fen all year round with no shelter and the minimum of human intervention.
Everyone was enchanted by these hardy little horses and it was a struggle to get the students to move on with the tour!
As Carol Laidlaw, conservation grazing warden at Wicken Fen explained to us, these ponies, together with the tough highland cattle, are a vital part of Wicken Fen’s ecology. Their grazing prevents woody plants from colonising, and this, together with their physical presence in the landscape, leaving hoof marks and dung piles, opens up both small patches and larger areas for colonisation by plants. For anyone interested in reading more about the grazing animals I can recommend Carol’s excellent article on the project.
Although the day was cold it was not the frozen landscape we normally encounter and there were even a few plants still in flower. It’s been a mild winter so far – how long will that continue? If you’ve never visited Wicken Fen I can recommend it as a day trip whatever the season or weather, there’s always fascinating wildlife to see.
*Bird list for the trip was: Collared Dove, House Sparrow, Blackbird, Kestrel, Fieldfare, Goldfinch, Cormorant, Grey Heron, Magpie, Lapwing, Golden Plover, Carrion Crow, Snipe, Hen Harrier, Wigeon, Great Tit, Blue Tit, Feral Pigeon, Starling, Wood Pigeon, Robin, Chaffinch, Wren, Shoveler, Tufted Duck, Coot, Mallard, Common Gull, Herring Gull, Jackdaw, Barn Owl. Plus chickens being kept in the garden of one of the local cottages!