Fens 2 Wicken Fen

Our exploration of the Fens continues from Fens 1.

Next day we drive south, circle around Ely, and across to Wicken Fen National Nature Reserve – the National Trust’s first nature reserve, established in 1899. With some of the largest unspoilt areas of Fenland, this seems a good place to begin our explorations. The site is well marked, with a good range of information boards on wildlife and Fen history.

Unspoilt fen

We learn a lot about fen life – the great abundance of eels as a staple food, the techniques of mass murder used to capture much of the then-abundant birdlife; plover netting and a huge shotgun called a punt gun, both of which could kill or capture many birds in one go. They must have seemed wonderful wheezes, but of course this was never going to be sustainable.

The edge-of-fen area around Wicken is criss crossed by manmade watercourses called lodes, created during the Middle Ages primarily to prevent flooding, all draining into the River Cam.

Fen Cottage, a pretty, historic cottage and garden, suggest a glamour to the Fen life that I’m sure wasn’t always there. Information boards are more realistic about what life was really like in the Fens. After all, they were living in a large bog. But there was always lots of wildlife providing free food to those who could catch it.

The boardwalk (featured image) around the large reedbed is not accessible to dogs, so we take turns. But there are miles of other walks for dogs on stone tracks. Immersed in nature, we see a dragonflies, damselflies, butterflies and birds, and listen to invisible warblers.

In the 18C the Fens were for some years drained by windpumps, inspired by Dutch experience; one of the few remaining specimens is here at Wicken Fen.

Back at base, the greylag family has enlarged, and the dog enjoys trying to chase geese, goslings and ducks, prevented by a short leash.

Finally, another fen sunset.

Fens 1 Whittlesey

I’ve written about the Fens on this blog previously in My Fens and about Tasmanian historian James Boyce’s story of the formation of the Fens in The Fight for the Fens. This was all a bit at a distance, so earlier this year we decided to spend some time there on a trip in our motorcaravan, really get the feel for the area. This is the first part of the story of our trip.

I was on a mission to understand the Fens better. I was brought up in Lincoln, less than a mile from the River Witham, one of the great Fen rivers. At the time I saw myself as a townie, not strongly associating with the Fens, which were ‘the sticks’ where my grandma and several cousins hailed from. In a sense, this trip was an exploration of my roots, inspired by Boyce’s book Imperial Mud, where he outlines the history of drainage and enclosure of the wild fenlands.

We drive in our ‘van with the dog from Cheshire, past Derby, over the rolling hills of the East Midlands. Picking up the Great North Road we skirt Peterborough and turn east. Suddenly, the land is flat as a pancake. We’re stopped by roadworks at Whittlesey, just by what is labelled the King’s Dyke, clearly a drainage channel. Welcome to the Fens!

Our first base is a campsite called Fields End Water, near the village of Doddington, which is right out in the sticks of the Cambridgeshire Fens. The drive there is like one long chaussée déformée, often with drainage waterways alongside. The land is flat, skies are huge, the wind is strong.

It turns out that all this is pretty typical of the Fens.

The campsite is very quiet, home to several families of greylag geese who wander fearlessly around the place – it’s evidently their home.

The flatness and big skies mean you can see the weather coming (featured image).

The sunset is quietly spectacular, and highlights a sprinkling of windmills.

To be continued.

Greylags up close

Greylag geese are pretty common in UK. These two have taken up residence on Knutsford’s Moor Pool.

The background of clouds and blue sky was fortuitous. You can see from the patterns on the water that one goose is turning while the other is stationary.
Close up you can see the bird has a ruff, and the beak is coloured not only orange but also pink, as is the eye liner.
From above the feathers are attractively patterned.

Greylags

One of the benefits of a small town such as Knutsford is that it you can relatively easily walk out into the countryside. Here we came across hundreds of geese in a grassy field, all feeding away.

The greylag geese in the foreground were somewhat outnumbered by the Canada geese in the background. According to the RSPB, these birds are probably resident, although there are migrant populations up in Scotland. These large birds have characteristic pink legs, orange bill and interestingly patterned plumage.

Pink footed migration

One of the marvels of autumn is the great bird migrations, some of which we can see in the UK. We were lucky enough to go to WWT Martin Mere in Lancashire a couple of weeks ago for a late evening opening to see thousands of migrating pink footed geese coming in for the night. We spent a happy couple of hours in bird hides, as the light gradually faded, watching skein after skein of geese, some going in different directions, come in to land or splash, until lake and banks were covered.

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goose-greylag
Greylag

The most easily visible geese were the greylags that are at Martin Mere all year round.

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Pink footed

The migrating pink footed geese were more difficult to see close up as they keep their distance. These are darker than the greylags, but easily confused as both have pink feet! These geese use Martin Mere as a staging post and move further south after a few weeks.

It’s not just about the geese. In the quiet of evening we also saw hares, a kingfisher, a marsh harrier, a murmuration of starlings, many lapwings, shelducks and others. Martin Mere also has enclosures containing birds from many parts of the world, and otters.

Martin Mere is also really child oriented, with things to do and a really good children’s play area. Granddaughter loves going there so that she can feed the great variety of ducks from the supplied bags of seed (small fee).

WWT Martin Mere is well deserving of support for all the conservation work they do, not only in UK but across the world – birds do not know of coountry boundaries.