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A wader’s wonderland

The valley in which I work has a lovely river running through it. It is also blessed with decent woods, good hedges, a network of small to medium-sized fields and quite a few ponds. What it does lack, though, is boggy areas. They were still here in the 1960s but had mostly disappeared 10 years later, and with them went most of the species associated with them. We have a wood called The Bogs, which no longer floods (one of my neighbours once lost a cow there), and places where the older estate staff remember walking-up for snipe, woodcock and the odd wild pheasant. There were still a few pheasants and the occasional woodcock in these forgotten corners, but the snipe had all but disappeared. It was this lack of snipe and a general reduction in numbers of lapwing and curlew that led to my employer and me coming up with the idea of trying to recreate a bog or wetland.

I suppose the most difficult thing was picking a suitable piece of ground. Finding a fairly flat field was quite easy; but finding one with a suitable water source that was away from farms, houses and footpaths, and out of sight of the road, was a little harder. Then one of our farming tenants gave notice of his retirement and, as luck would have it, the field we had our eye on just happened to be on his farm. This made things easier as we were then able to make decisions about the future uses of the field before the farm was re-let. Trying to convince someone who farmed for a living to turn 12 acres of wheat into a bog would have been a tough sell! The field in question was ideal so we decided to take it back in hand, which gave us control over both its use and management in the future.

Action planning

The list of people involved in the planning process for the creation of this wetland was long. An approach was made to Natural England (NE) ? an
organisation that occasionally attracts criticism from people who farm or shoot ? for single project funding (which pays a percentage of total costs). My experience was entirely positive, with the man in charge of our application being extremely helpful. He didn?t shoot, but didn?t have a problem with the ground being shot over once we?d finished. We drew up plans, ran them past him without any problems, then contacted the Environment Agency (EA). The EA was consulted as we planned to flood the area by tapping into a spring-fed ditch a few hundred yards away. We were allowed to tap into the stream as long as we didn?t interrupt or stop the flow completely. As well as the EA and NE, our land agents were briefed and they moved the field back in-hand. DEFRA was informed of the arable reversion; the Forestry Commission approved the licence to pollard some willow trees; the contractors dug the holes; the estate woodmen re-fenced the field; and my employer and I made sure everything went according to the plan.

The idea was to create a pool at the top of the field, which sloped slightly, and then attempt to re-wet the remainder of the field below. The first and probably most important thing we did was to find all the field drains and block them off. Typically, there was no drain plan, so the contractors dug across the site, identified any drains and blocked them off. The two ditches that ran down the edge of the field were blocked and diverted on to the site, adding more water when it rained. The original plan was to have the overflow from the pool running down the field, but we were worried that we?d end up with a pool and a stream rather than a pool and a bog.

We decided to place all the spoil from the excavation of the pool in a series of low banks along the width of the field. These banks were only 1ft high but as wide as the bulldozer, 14ft across the top. The idea was for any surplus water from the pool to head downhill from the overflow, back up against these earth banks, then in turn, overflow to the next one and so on until they were all filled. The water from the last one would then run downhill and back into the stream. The sections between the earth banks now fill with water with depths varying from 2in to 1ft, when the pool?s full, providing prime probing ground for snipe and woodcock and lovely splashes for teal and mallard. The middle of the pool (roughly 20 per cent of the total area) was excavated to a depth of about 5ft, which is ideal for any diving duck, while the edges are only 6-12in deep? great for dabblers such as mallard. The water flow in the ditch depends, to a degree, on rainfall, so in the summer there’s little or no water coming on to the site. The result is that the periphery of the pool dries out slowly and the pool recedes into the deeper middle. This gradual shrinking is where the place comes into its own and offers something different from an ordinary pond ? mud. The presence of mud all year round is a huge boost to many different birds and insects and it?s no coincidence that most of our nesting lapwing are within a few fields of the area we?ve created.

A wetland is born

The re-fenced area is now grazed by cattle from September to March. Having cows on there makes a huge difference. They spend the winter eating, defecating (the manure is good for encouraging invertebrates) and making the place even muddier. They don?t graze as closely as sheep and are keener to eat any self-seeded willow, alder or bramble. We take them off when the ground gets too wet and keep popping them back on until spring, when the ground is left quiet for the nesting season.

We?ve built a stilt hide, which is accessed from the next field so we can just sit and take it all in. In the spring it?s nesting and displaying birds; on summer nights it?s barn owls hunting on the dry banks, hobbies catching dragonflies and ducklings chasing each other about in the shallows. In autumn it?s the place to be for a duckflight, and in winter we push the whole area through as a drive when roughshooting. Snipe, mallard, woodcock, teal and pheasants have all been shot off a little patch of ground that, five years ago, was just another field of wheat.

It?s worth remembering (and reminding anyone who doesn?t know) that projects like these are driven by people?s sporting interests, maintained and managed at their own expense and wouldn?t be successful without a concerted effort to control predators.