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Pioneering study shows Fens are a hotspot for rare wildlife

(Photo: Fen Ragwort Brian Eversham)

Wed, 07 Nov 2012

A pioneering study by the University of East Anglia has revealed that the Fens are home to 25 per cent of Britain's rarest wildlife and 13 globally rare species.

The Fens Biodiversity Audit, published today, is the first complete assessment of the biodiversity of the Fens. It shows evidence of 13,474 species from plants to insects, birds, fish and mammals.

But much of this wildlife is rare - and 100 species including birds, bees, and butterflies have been lost from the area altogether.

Researchers from UEA's School of Environmental Sciences, in association with the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Environmental Records Centre and the Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire Wildlife Trust, spent 12 months studying more than one million records collected by scientists and dozens of amateur enthusiasts since 1670.

They investigated a 3800km² area spanning the Fenlands of Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire.

This research area included many well known fen sites such as Chippenham, Woodwalton and Wicken Fens, as well as less known sites such as Holme, Baston and Thurlby Fens, the Nene, Ouse and Stallode Washes and gravel pits such as Dogsthorpe Star Pit.

The audit reveals the area is of global importance - as home to 13 Global Red Data Book species including Black-tailed Godwits, Otters, Barbastelle bats, Desmoulin's Whorl Snail, White-clawed Crayfish, and the European Eel.

Researchers also found 82 species which are special to the Fens - including 20 which are found virtually nowhere elsewhere in the UK. These purely 'local' species include the flowering plants Fen Ragwort and a subspecies of the widespread Heath Dog-violet, the Rosser's sac spider, feather-winged beetles, a snail-killing fly and Cambridge Groundling moth.

Among the species recorded were 2,630 species of fly, including 30 rare hoverflies, 2,159 beetles of which 92 were rare water beetles, 1,521 moths and 1,531 plants.

The audit raises concerns that much of the area's important biodiversity has been lost. A total of 504 rare species have not been seen in the last 25 years. And of these, 100 species have been lost from the Fens altogether, either due to local or UK extinction, including 30 flowering plants, 10 beetles and 17 moths.

The research also reveals six butterflies are now extinct in the region. Many of these were lost more than 50 years ago, but the list also includes the Large Copper, which had been subject to a reintroduction scheme.

Chris Panter from UEA's School of Environmental Sciences, said: "We were really astonished by the incredible biodiversity and rare wildlife supported at just a few key sites within the large agricultural landscape."

The report identifies which specific wetland habitats were most favoured by wildlife in the Fens. It also shows how management could be improved for wildlife and where new management techniques could be introduced.

"Our study provides vital evidence to support current restoration to help secure this important biodiversity for the future," said Chris Panter.

"Conservation management must be based on sound evidence. And this study gives an understanding of the ecological requirements of hundreds of rare species so that conservation can be cost effective."

Work is now underway to restore the wetland complex at both existing and new sites. The 'Fens for the Future' project aims to provide vital expertise in the restoration of the area and a yardstick to judge its effectiveness.

A recent success has been the successful breeding of Cranes at the recreated Lakenheath Fen, sited on former arable land. The Cranes breed at only a few other sites in the UK, but had not bred in the Fens for 400 years.
Martin Baker from the Wildlife Trust in Cambridgeshire said: "This information on the most important wetland habitats for wildlife will help all those involved in nature conservation in the Fens to refine and improve their management for wildlife. There are also some promising ideas for creating new habitats within the various landscape-scale fenland restoration projects now underway, such as the Great Fen."

Mark Tarttelin from the South Lincolnshire Fens Project, added: "This work details for the first time the surprising diversity of the wildlife remaining in the Fens - and its rare and perilous state. We have to act now if we are to protect this for future generations."

The report was funded by Natural England, the Environment Agency, the National Trust, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Biodiversity Partnership and the Norfolk Biodiversity Partnership, and supported by the RSPB and Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust.

(Photo: Fen Ragwort, Brian Eversham)