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Creating a new wet farming system in the Great Fen

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Starring role for sphagnum

Great Fen wet farming trials preparation. Picture: Henry Stanier (29658610)
Great Fen wet farming trials preparation. Picture: Henry Stanier (29658610)

After many months in the planning, with enthusiasm and input from scientists, engineers, growers and construction experts, the Wildlife Trust in Cambridgeshire have taken the first steps in creating a new wet farming system at the Great Fen.

As part of a pioneering two year Water Works project (a partnership project, see more below), diggers and bulldozers are working on a precision operation to create 10 planting beds and a water storage pool which will become home to hundreds of thousands of plants plugs of flowers, grasses and mosses which thrive in moist soil. The moisture in the soil will protect it from being lost through chemical reactions and erosion, offering a new way to reduce the carbon footprint of farming.

As soon as the first planting bed is complete it will be filled with bulrush – an amazing super hungry plant which will strip the incoming water of impurities and feed clean water to the rest of the beds.

Great Fen wet farming trials preparation. Picture: Henry Stanier (29658651)
Great Fen wet farming trials preparation. Picture: Henry Stanier (29658651)

This crop can be turned into fuel, building materials, animal feed and cavity wall insulation. The other beds will be planted with reeds, future grain crops, and flowers which could be the next thing in medicine or flavourings – think tasty beer or a new gin botanical!

The final beds will be laid down to moss in the summer with the star of the show: sphagnum moss. An amazing plant, it could be one of the answers to climate change gas release from farming.

This wonder plant has special qualities which already has a rich history of use - and could become a common sight on peaty farmland across the UK.

Sphagnum moss. Picture: Brian Eversham (29658655)
Sphagnum moss. Picture: Brian Eversham (29658655)

Sphagnums are a group of beautiful mosses that grow naturally on bogs in the UK, simple plants with lots of tiny pores that suck up water from their surroundings. As well as absorbing 10 times more fluid than the same volume of cotton wool, they are naturally antiseptic – used in bandages and nappies in the First World War.

The moss gathers moisture from the air in misty weather, collects rain water, and draws up soil water to where it is needed.

Once it grows into a continuous lawn, Sphagnum can out compete weeds and doesn’t need fertiliser; the soil beneath is protected by remaining moist and, as the sphagnum grows, it can trap additional carbon and actually grow soil. One of the other key benefits of this moss is that the top can be harvested (it grows right back) then dried and milled to create a substitute for peat compost for growing seedlings. This means growing our own ‘compost’ for vegetable producers and horticulturalists to use – so peat need no longer be harvested from wild, natural bogs and wetlands, and transported from as far away as New Zealand or China.

Sphagnum moss. Picture: Brian Eversham (29658668)
Sphagnum moss. Picture: Brian Eversham (29658668)

Those in the know say Sphagnum is a contender for the longest lived plants on the planet: each strand of moss grows ever longer, with the bottom turning slowly into peat, as many of our bogs have been forming since the ice age some of the individual strands may have been alive for as long as 8,000 years. Research bursaries are being given by the People's Postcode Lottery to develop medicinal uses and technology to use living sphagnum walls to purify air in cities. There really is no end to the potential of this future wonder crop!

Read more about wet farming/Water Works project and the partners involved www.greatfen.org.uk/big-ideas/wet-farming

Great Fen wet farming trials preparation. Picture: Henry Stanier (29658629)
Great Fen wet farming trials preparation. Picture: Henry Stanier (29658629)

Watery challenges and choices

The Wildlife Trust works on a number of important watercourses across the region, including large main rivers such as the Great Ouse, the River Cam and tributaries, on projects protecting and enhancing the natural environment, including protecting and monitoring water voles, invasive species removal, and river restoration. All water supplies – from drinking water to our household supplies to those used for recreational pursuits – are precious, and as the environment alters we have to make changes to adapt.

The Environment Agency (EA) are seeking views on the challenges that the water environment faces - and the choices and changes we all need to make to help tackle those challenges. The ‘Challenges and Choices’ consultation is to help them to formulate and update current river basin management plans. The EA is asking essential questions about the water environment: its use, protection, and who pays. They are looking for as many people across the country to respond, so that they can accumulate the widest range of views possible.

Lewis Dickinson, Wildlife Trust water for wildlife officer explains: “The water environment in the UK has an impact on us all. At the most fundamental level, around 60% of the adult human body is water! Many of us use water for recreation, be it swimming, fishing, or kayaking; of course it is used to help grow the food we eat and support businesses, too. Many additional 'ecosystem services' that the water environment provides mean the whole system is worth billions to the UK economy. The EA recognises that we urgently need to protect and improve our waters and find a better balance that meets the needs of people and nature.

Great Fen wet farming trials (29658682)
Great Fen wet farming trials (29658682)

“Importantly the freshwater environment is home to thousands of species, at least 4,000 invertebrates alone. Many of these species depend on good quality water and associated habitats to thrive, and with just 17 per cent of England’s rivers recorded as in ‘good’ health, it's more important than ever to make sure our rivers and freshwater ecosystems are improved and protected for people and wildlife.

“Extra stress is being exerted on freshwater ecosystems due to unpredictable and increasingly extreme weather patterns because of climate change. This ranges from fish that are struggling to cope in too warm waters to lack of rain that is preventing our groundwater and watercourses from recharging properly. Climate change is having a big impact on our river systems with our chalk rivers suffering the most, and completely drying up in areas.”

The end date for consultation is 24 April: read and respond to the consultation here https://consult.environment-agency.gov.uk/environment-and-business/challenges-and-choices.

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