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RSPB commend Environment Agency for protecting rare Broads wildlife

Last modified: 11 May 2015

Swallowtail butterfly on lilac

Catfield and Sutton Fen are home to large populations of rare swallowtail butterflies

Image: John Markham

The RSPB commends the Environment Agency’s decision to refuse two water abstraction licence renewal applications that were threatening rare wildlife found on two sites of international and national importance found in The Broads.

In November 2014, the Environment Agency announced that they were minded to refuse the abstraction licenses, after which followed a 28 day public consultation.  During the consultation period, local individuals and organisations were invited to submit their views to the Environment Agency for consideration in advance of a final decision.

The RSPB supported the decision to refuse the licences and presented significant evidence that strengthened the case for refusing the licences. The evidence presented was scrutinised by Natural England who agreed that refusing the licences was the only option available to the Environment Agency.

Butterfly Conservation's Catfield Fen nature reserve and the RSPB’s Sutton Fen nature reserve are internationally recognised for their special wildlife. The sites are fully protected as an important part of the Ant Broads and Marshes Site of Special Scientific Interest, which also forms part of The Broads Special Area of Conservation and Broadland Ramsar site. Catfield Fen is exceptionally rich in wildlife, and is one of the most important UK sites for water beetles and wetland plants. The site is a stronghold for UK species such as the rare fen orchid, which have now disappeared from the majority of the UK.

Together, Catfield and Sutton Fen support over 90 per cent of UK fen orchid populations, and are home to large populations of swallowtail butterflies, water voles and Norfolk hawker dragonflies.  The nature reserves are also used by rare UK species including cranes, bitterns, marsh harriers and otters.

Water has been abstracted adjacent to Catfield since 1986 to irrigate arable crops. Recent evidence indicates that the site has become more acidic, and drier, and this is threatening some of the country's rarest species.

Tim Pankhurst, Regional Conservation Officer with Plantlife, the lead organisation for the conservation of fen orchid, stated: “The importance of Sutton and Catfield Fens for the conservation of fen orchid cannot be overstated.  Not only will damage from water abstraction threaten the years of conservation work we have been undertaking with our partners but the very survival of fen orchid as a UK species.”

Phil Pearson, RSPB Senior Conservation Officer for the Eastern region, said: “We are delighted that the Environment Agency has taken action to protect crucial wildlife habitats and wholeheartedly support their decision.

“Catfield Fen and Sutton Fen are the 'best of the best' within one of Europe’s most important wetland sites and as a result are protected by the EU Habitats Directive for their rare fenland wildlife.”

“The RSPB and other organisations presented a significant body of evidence to the Environment Agency that demonstrated refusal of the abstraction licences was the only option. Our evidence is supported by nationally and internationally renowned ecological and hydrological experts, who agree that the changes in site condition are likely to be due to water abstraction.  No evidence has been presented to demonstrate that the proposed water abstraction is not contributing to the declining condition of Catfield Fen or that the risk to Sutton Fen will be avoided.

“Failure to address factors adversely affecting the site now will simply make achieving restoration of the site more costly in the long term. Should deterioration be allowed to continue unchecked, restoration could become impossible. There is a real risk that the point of no return for Catfield Fen is nearly being reached.

“Today’s decision is a significant milestone in the restoration of Catfield Fen. The Environment Agency’s decision illustrates their commitment to protecting the natural environment from deterioration caused by taking water from the environment.”

“We are, of course, not advocating that there should be no water dependent agriculture within the Catfield Fen area. However, we are advocating the need for water to be managed responsibly. These sites are the last refuge for some of our most threatened species, and whilst today’s decision is a fantastic outcome, it is by no means the last challenge faced by these precious sites.

“The RSPB will continue to fight to ensure the right decisions are made to protect these sites for the future.  We are committed to working with individuals and organisations in the area to balance the needs of agriculture, water companies, councils and local residents, whilst protecting nationally important wildlife.”

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