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How torrential rain has prevented birds from nesting at Cambridgeshire nature reserve

There are no nesting birds or grazing cattle at a Cambridgeshire nature reserve after a wet winter and a series of torrential storms that saw “a month’s rainfall in one day” and left the area under water.

The land at RSPB Ouse Washes, near Manea, is usually an important nesting ground in summer for many species of birds including snipe and black-tailed godwits.

Flooded Ouse Washes. Picture: Jonathan Taylor
Flooded Ouse Washes. Picture: Jonathan Taylor

But this year there have been no nests built as the grassland that normally dries out enough to support the birds has remained under water.

And the 2,000 cattle that graze the area in the summer months have had to be sent elsewhere.

Jonathan Taylor, site manager at RSPB Ouse Washes, says: “This is a direct effect of the warming climate that leads to severe storms with heavy rainfall – sometimes up to a month’s rain in just a few hours.

“Just as we have a few days of sun when the land starts to dry out there is further heavy rain – you can get two or three inches in one storm. We flooded in late September last year, the land has been under water since then.”

The Ouse Washes were built 400 years ago to drain the Fens and the area has now become an important flood defence.

Jonathan explains: “When it was designed, the floodplain was coping with a lot less water. But then we came along and development changed the demands of the floodplain, so a lot more water now comes down to us, and it comes down much quicker. We get rapid run-off because of all the buildings and warehouses and modern drainage systems which have now been installed in the upper catchment. Flooding has increased because of that as well as climate change.”

Now farmers are being encouraged to sell their land to create new habitats for birds and cattle around the edge of the floodplain.


Some of the birds – snipe, shoveler and garganey – have moved onto the two sites nearby, but others including redshank and lapwing have not returned. Whereas usually there are 200 nesting pairs of snipe, this year there are only 80.

Jonathan said: “The cattle help the ecology by grazing the land in summer to keep the grasses short, which the birds rely on. The grasses grow very quickly in the summer because the floodplain is very nutrient rich.

“We spend the summer time, traditionally, getting the grasses eaten off by the cattle or via haymaking, which is very important for the ecology, but also it’s very important for the functioning of the floodplain, because the water also has to flow, and if it’s obstructed by a jungle of vegetation that causes problems for the flood defence function. If it stays flooded, the vegetation can become rotten and affect the water quality too.

The flooded Ouse Washes Pictures: Jonathan Taylor
The flooded Ouse Washes Pictures: Jonathan Taylor

“Sometimes you get large fish kills because of the deoxygenated water running off the floodplain.”

There is some hope that if the weather now remains dry, some of the birds may return to nest by the end of July.

Jonathan says it is hoped the Environment Agency will “deliver more habitat” around the edge of the floodplain “which is good for the birds and also means the cattle have places to go early in the season.”

This would allow wildlife experts to manage the area with more certainty and be able to plan for the future as, he warns, it is “going to be wet often.”

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