Posted by: Ross Gardner | May 25, 2012

Woodwalton Fen

The warm spring weather finally arrives.  A fine time for my first visit to Woodwalton Fen in Cambridgeshire.  This National Nature Reserve is a 209 hectare remnant of the once extensive fens of East Anglia.  Where so much has succumbed over the last few centuries to drainage and the plough, Woodwalton (which was still being excavated for peat until the 1920s) has survived, preserving a vibrant relic of the landscape of the past.  Maybe also it is blueprint for the future, as one of the key areas comprising the Great Fen Project, an initiative that seeks to recreate something of this lost landscape by linking Woodwalton and nearby Holme Fen to create a 3750 hectare nature reserve for the generations to come.

Woodwalton Fen, Cambridgeshire. Ross Gardner 2012

It was a very warm and calm day for my visit, and I was pleased to be getting out of the car, crossing the bridge that spans the Great Raveney Drain that marks the dead straight (the fen is pretty much a perfect rectangle) eastern boundary of the reserve and into the embrace of the wet woodland and the springy turf beneath my feet.  Places like this, on a warm mid-spring day, exude that sense of copious life before you even lay eyes on it.  There is that bristling quality that transmits an air of busy, abundant existence.

Soon enough the large red and azure damselflies lift this obviously into the sense, as they drift along the vegetation of the ditches that seem to edge all of the paths in the reserve.  Birdsong song ripples through the trees and across the reedy swathes; blackcap trilling sweetly from the concealment of the willow scrub; the song of willow warbler cascades from some distant station; reed warblers chur excitedly from stands of their eponymous grasses.

Larger Red Damselfly (Pyrrhosoma nymphula). Ross Gardner 2004

The most remarkable visage of the abundance of the fen came not from the music of the birds and the vivid tone of the damselflies, but from others far less, if ever observed as the stuff poetic muse.  E. A. R. Ennion painted a wonderful and sincere picture of the fens in his celebration of another fen in another part of Cambridgeshire.  In is book ‘Adventurers Fen’ he wrote of many things that struck a chord as I read it.  Not least of these was his description of the ditches in his fen that in the summer were “yeasty with small life“.  I understood what he meant by this, but never before had I witnessed such a graphic expression of this than at Woodwalton Fen on this day.  I was intrigued to come across one the long pathside ditches with its water tinged orange/pink for some 20 metres along its length.  I was astonished to discover that this was caused by thousand upon thousand, millions I wouldn’t doubt, of tiny crustaceans – the assorted Daphnia, Cyclops and the like, that will often be refererred to as water fleas.

“Yeasty with Small Life”. Ross Gardner 2012

One ditch, full of small life encapsulated the whole mood of the place.  How many other places was such productivity taking places – productivity that underpins so much of the great wealth of life tha thrives at Woodwalton?  How many millions… billions of water fleas were swarming in waters out of sight?  And what of the equivalent process taken place on land?  The mind indeed begins to boggle.

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