Blogger: Lotte Large, RSPB Conservation Team

In the East of England, water is a major issue.  It’s fundamental to the environment, the economy, our health, agriculture... to life on earth.  What some people don’t realise however is that the East of England is the most water-stressed region in the UK, meaning there isn’t always enough to go around. 

An example of this would be at a site called Catfield Fen in Norfolk.  The site has an incredibly delicate ecology that is extremely sensitive to any changes in water management.  The habitat relies on the perfect balance of acidic rainwater and alkaline ground water to maintain the intricate web of life that exists within the fen. 

The habitat is so unique that many species are only found in the very particular conditions of water level and water chemistry found at Catfield Fen and nearby reserves.  Therefore, if there is a reduction in the amount of water available from the aquifer underneath the site, the ecology will shift towards more acidic conditions.  This could be catastrophic for a lot of the rare and declining wildlife that lives at Catfield Fen.

What is really worrying is that once this change begins it becomes harder and harder to rectify until eventually the habitat is so altered that it will never be the same again.  This would lead to a whole array of species finding themselves in an inhospitable environment with very few places they can relocate to. For this reason, the RSPB is seriously concerned about water abstraction in the area adjacent to this jewel in the crown of the UK. Two abstraction licence renewals are currently being assessed by the Environment Agency.

Please do not see this as a black and white conservation vs. agriculture issue; this is about finding an acceptable balance between the protection of an incredibly important and irreplaceable site for wildlife, whilst enabling appropriate cultivation in the adjacent area. Some farmers are already developing water storage reservoirs and we support this work. However, there also needs to be a review of crops that are grown in particular areas to ensure that they are compatible with the wider environment. Salad crops may be profitable, but they can exact a terrible impact on wetland sites if they are grown in the wrong area due to the amount of water required to cultivate them.

However, the issue of sustainable water management is much bigger than this one case alone.  The demands on our current supply are many and sometimes those demands come into conflict with one another.  We all have a responsibility towards looking after natural resources such as water.  We can choose to have showers rather than baths, install water butts instead of hoses and build water reservoirs on land for agricultural needs – these are just a few simple ways we can conserve water.  The real key is to manage water for the needs of everyone rather than each interested party competing for their ‘bit’.   

We are working with statutory agencies, environmental organisations and local landowners and communities to try to find a way of ensuring that Catfield Fen doesn’t suffer this awful fate.  It’s not simple, but it is achievable. 

You can do a lot to help, from making choices that save water, to ensuring that others are aware of the issues wildlife is facing from poor water management.  The needs of wildlife, agriculture, communities and tourism can all be met, they just need to be managed holistically to ensure that no one loses out.  Let’s get the conversation started and start heading towards a solution for all.