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RSPB commends Environment Agency for protecting rare Broads wildlife

Last modified: 17 November 2014

Sutton Fen

Sutton Fen, in the Norfolk Broads, is home to rare wildlife like the Norfolk hawker dragonfly.

Image: Ben Hall

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

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.

The applicant has applied to continue abstracting up to 68 million litres of water per year from a borehole close to Catfield Fen, and up to 22 million litres from a second borehole located between Catfield and Sutton Fen. 

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 one-grooved diving beetle Bidessus unistriatus, and the rare fen orchid Liparis loeselii, that 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.

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 considered by conservationists to be the 'best of the best' within one of Europe’s most important wetland sites.”

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 would 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 added: “The UK’s wetland environments have undergone a dramatic decline in the last 100 years, which is having a devastating effect on the wildlife that relies on this habitat. It is unacceptable to allow the condition of wetland sites of this quality to continue to deteriorate and risk the loss of even more species, some of which are only found at these two sites in the whole of the UK.”

“Nationally and internationally renowned ecological and hydrological experts have expressed concern that the changes in site condition are likely to be due to water abstraction. The Environment Agency’s decision illustrates their commitment to protecting the natural environment from deterioration and damage 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.

“We would urge people to encourage the Environment Agency to continue to support important sites such as Catfield and Sutton Fens by voicing their support for the decision during the 28 day consultation that begins today.”

To help to protect the wildlife found at Catfield and Sutton Fens, you can find out how to share your views on the recent Environment Agency decision by visiting

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