Bitterns and construction industry booming in harmony at Ouse Fen nature reserve

LPO_Botste 023Building materials company Hanson and RSPB (BirdLife in the UK) work together to create a large wetland reserve a few kilometers from bustling Cambridge. A heaven for bitterns and other rare wildlife is shaping up amidst intensive farmland, thanks to creative restoration work following extraction of gravel.

Mining companies are now required to present restoration plans for their green field projects before permission for extraction is granted. And this makes a lot of sense, as ecological restoration should be part of project design to allow provisions for resources to be made parallel to production and revenues. The design, time table and stakeholder involvement for restoration work is a complex task. Quarry operators can rely on partnerships with external organisations to assist them in the planning and implementation of more ambitious restoration projects, delivering higher standards of restoration.

The Hanson (HeidelbergCement in UK) Needingworth Quarry is one good example of this new approach.  Located in the vicinity of Cambridge, a city with remarkable growth in construction in recent years, Needingworth is one of the largest sand and gravel extraction sites in the UK. The license area covers an area of approximately 975 ha of intensively farmed crop land adjacent to the Great Ouse River. Mining began in 1995 and will continue for at least 30 years, during which time 28 million tonnes of sand and gravel for the construction industry will be extracted.

Cambridgeshire County Council had initially approved a scheme to return the land to a mixture of agriculture, leisure and conservation uses. Soon after, the UK’s Biodiversity Action Plan identified reed bed as priority habitat for conservation. Several conservation bodies including English Nature (now Natural England), and the RSPB, spotted the opportunity for reed bed creation at Needingworth and asked  Hanson to prepare a feasibility study for the restoration of the site to a wetland nature reserve.


Bittern, taken at RSPB Minsmere (c) Jo Garbutt

The revised proposals were approved by the county council in 2001. They included a unique arrangement whereby Hanson would work the site for sand and gravel, restore it progressively in phases and then donate the land to the RSPB to be managed as a nature reserve.

In 2012 the first phase of the new Ouse Fen reserve comprising 60 acres of wetlands was opened for public access under the ownership and management of the RSPB. By the end of the planned period the restoration project will create Britain’s biggest reedbed area (460ha),  within a 700 hectare reserve containing 32 kilometres of footpaths and other valuable habitats such as fen, wet scrub and grassland.

Reserves like this one are needed to secure the future of threatened species, such as the Eurasian bittern (Botaurus stellaris), and to provide new habitat to offset projected future losses of internationally important coastal wetlands through coastal erosion.

Photos taken in 1945 and 2014 of the same area and scale (courtesy Google Earth)

Aerial photo taken in 1945 (courtesy to Google Earth)

Photo taken in 2014 (courtesy Google Earth)

Restoration stages

At present the area restored after gravel extraction covers a total area of approximately 148 ha. The main habitats within the site can be divided into wetlands, composed of open water, reedbed and marshland vegetation, and a mixture of grassland and developing scrub.

Habitat management

About half of the area covered by grassland is being managed by grazing during spring and summer. Other parts are mown occasionally to control thistles and other dominant plants. Roughly 10% will remain as ungrazed grassland with the aim of eventual succession into scrub.  The remaining area of open water, reedbed and other wetland vegetation will be managed rotationally  by a combination of bespoke reed harvesting machinery, grazing and commercial reedcutting

Information sources:

One thought on “Bitterns and construction industry booming in harmony at Ouse Fen nature reserve

  1. Pingback: Good British bittern news | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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