They are among the most enchanting habitats and landscapes the UK has to offer. They can come as grazing marshes dotted with cattle; or raised bogs home to whortleberries; reedbeds from where the haunting boom of a bittern may bewitch passers-by; and fragile fenland oozing with dragonflies, water voles, eels and unusual bird song.
But wetlands have historically had a hard time of it. A drip-drip loss to enclosures and changing agricultural practices over the centuries has been accelerated in recent decades by drainage to accommodate housing developments, roads and farming. Today, Britain has just 10 per cent of the wetlands that were so abundant around the time the Domesday Book was written.
Fixing this will take some time, but a large step on the road to recovery has come with a £4m Wetland Vision project backed by Natural England, the government’s conservation advisory body. Restoration projects will be stepped up in the East Anglian fens, Humberhead Levels, Midlands Meres and Mosses, Morecambe Bay Wetlands, the Somerset Levels (above) and the River Till in Northumberland.
Announcing the plan, which supports nearly 2,000 hectares of wetland recovery projects, Dr Helen Phillips, Chief Executive for Natural England, said: “Healthy wetlands are a unique and vital habitat for wildlife and provide fantastic places for people to visit.”
Wetlands matter for several reasons, apart from the fact they are easy on the eye and wonderful paces for wildlife. They can be important natural flood defences, help to filter and clean our water supplies; while peat bogs are increasingly appreciated to be vital carbon stores, locking up greenhouse gas emissions which contribute to climate change.
The RSPB welcomed the funding as “a real boost” to the need to restore wetlands. “Wetland habitats are very special places because not only are there many species which rely on them, but they will also play an important role in helping us adapt to climate change,” said Sue Armstrong-Brown, RSPB head of countryside conservation.
The development is part of wider moves to improve water quality not only in the UK, but across Europe. A major pan-European drive, known as the Water Framework Directive, is seeking to improve water quality, and improvement the health of water catchments and river basins. The Wildlife Trusts, the Environment Agency and English Heritage are also involved in schemes to restore wetlands.
The restoration schemes will help several areas, including the Humberhead levels, an area spread over 2,000 square kilometres across Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire. The levels are distinguished by wetlands and, for the most part, arable farmland criss-crossed with rivers and dykes. Since the 17th century, large areas of the wetlands have been lost to drainage schemes and extraction of peat and coal.
In the Morecambe Bay wetlands, the focus is on restoring grazing marsh and lowland raised bog and promoting it to tourists who visit Lancashire seaside resorts and south Cumbria.
Moves to restore peatlands will also play a key role in the UK’s efforts to mitigate climate change, according to Clifton Bain, Director of the Peatlands Programme, which seeks to improve Peatlands in the UK. “In the UK, damaged peatlands are a major source of emissions but no account is taken of the positive benefits of peatland restoration,” he said. “Peatland restoration reduces carbon emissions from the damaged peat carbon stores and brings wider water management and biodiversity benefits.”