At first glance the Fens landscape surrounding the Ouse Washes does not feel like a place that is rich in wildlife, indeed it is has a strong farming heritage and is well known in the UK for growing salad crops, root vegetables and wheat in the low lying fertile soils. However, I was to learn something different as I was to meet Cliff Carson the Environmental Officer for the Middle Level Commissioners, the organisation that manages the flood defence and water levels in the Ouse Washes area and beyond.
As I drove down a narrow fen road to meet Cliff I passed by several half – built and now derelict bungalows which for some untold reason had been abandoned by the owners before they were completed and they looked a real mess and blot on the landscape. I met up with Cliff and we drove off in his truck to survey work he has done over the last five years for the Middle Level Internal Drainage Board Biodiversity Action Plan. Essentially wildlife improvements for the most threatened plants and animals that require some conservation help along the way, both to increase their numbers and the places where they live.
Over the length of the day we visited pumping stations to inspect on bat boxes and barn owl boxes that Cliff had constructed over the last five years. In fact, 92 barn owl boxes to be exact, erected in barns and on the sides of pumping stations – these boxes are well used and are really important for the breeding success of the owls as there is precious little natural nesting sites for the birds.
The reason for meeting Cliff was as part of my Elements in the Landscape project to photograph people who live and work in the Ouse Washes landscape and who have some connection with it – and Cliff certainly fitted my criteria as he spent over 30 years with the RSPB at the Ouse Washes reserve and more recently 10 years with the Middle Level Commissioners.
Under a road bridge Cliff showed me the difference between otter spraints and mink scats, with the former apparently having a strong musky smell, not that I noticed that much on the cold February morning! It is good to know the otter is holding its own in the area, although some are being found drowned in the illegal eel nets as eel numbers begin to increase. Cliff has helped the otter population too with constructing over 70 otter holts along the banks of the drains with the help of funding from Landfill Community Fund grants.
The Kingfisher is another species that has had a helping hand – here Cliff has bored over 150 holes at over 80 locations in the metal revetments to create artificial nest sites and during our trip around the Washes Cliff got busy deepening the holes to get the right angle so that the Kingfishers can fly up from just above the water into the nest.
Our day finished, we drove back and Cliff joked that he is sometimes referred to as the wildlife property developer of the fens as so much of his time is spent constructing homes for wildlife. It is more than likely that much of his wildlife home making will last for decades and will a great legacy for wildlife, which is more than can be said for the property developer of the decaying bungalows I passed on my way home.
PJ.elements have been awarded a small grant by the Ouse Washes Landscape Partnership Scheme to deliver Elements of the Landscape, a project to photograph people living and working in the Ouse Washes landscape and document their story through images. The people captured in the portraits will have a connection to the land or water, farming, biodiversity crafts or community life.
The Ouse Washes Landscape Partnership Scheme is a 3-year project largely funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. The scheme focuses on the promotion of the area surrounding the Ouse Washes, the heart of the Cambridgeshire and Norfolk Fens, and on encouraging community engagement with the area’s diverse heritage.