In October 2001, a major purchase by Huntingdonshire District Council supported by a substantial donation by The Friends of Paxton Pits Nature Reserve, extended the Nature Reserve to 75 hectares. The land is now being managed to benefit wildlife as part of a Countryside Stewardship Scheme funded by Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs).
Three areas of the Reserve are being managed under the Countryside Stewardship Scheme. One of these is the Great Meadow which runs along the River Great Ouse and can easily be viewed from the the Ouse Valley Way.
Before World War II, the Great Meadow alongside the River Great Ouse was wet grassland. More recently it has been under arable cultivation and set aside. Now work is underway to restore the field to wet meadowland, characteristic of the Ouse Valley flood plain. This habitat is a Biodiversity Action Plan Priority Habitat for Cambridgeshire, and successful restoration should provide a home for a wide range of insects, plants and birds characteristic of the Ouse Valley.
What is happening now?
The ditches on Great Meadow are already becoming established and plants and insects have began to colonise them. They have been holding a level of water at the same height as the river which has been very low each summer since we put the ditches in due to very low rainfall. We found a gravel layer running through the ditches which we expect is causing water to leak out. We hope that over time the banks will become covered with more soil and vegetation that will help to keep more water in the ditches. However, shallow flooding in January 2007 gave us an idea of what it could look like (though we want to use freshwater, not polluted river water).
In autumn 2005, contractors arranged through Bardon Aggregates removed the remainder of the soil that was taken out of the ditches. The soil is being stored temporarily in the fenced area just inside the gates to the Heron Trail. A contractor worked with volunteers to install a fence along the edge of the Ouse Valley Way that runs all along the edge of Great Meadow. This is a stock-proof barbed wire fence with gates to divide up the fields so that sheep can graze.
What will happen next?
Achieving a sustainable wet grassland habitat on Great Meadow is proving to be a lengthy process because of the unpredictability of water levels across the site. Using funding from Defra, the Aggregate Levy Sustainability Fund, and with additional contributions from The Friends and Aggregate Industries (the latter by moving the earth), a network of ditches has been excavated and profiled. These are linked to the river through sluices and serve three purposes:
- to keep the meadow wet – only feasible when river levels are high
- to be a wetland habitat. They will hold at least some water throughout the year, resulting in 1 km of valuable linear wetland in the previously arable desert that has characterised Great Meadow in the last 25 years
- to act as ‘wet fences’ to retain the cattle in the four individual fields that make up Great Meadow. Grazing will bring the grassland and ditch margins into the right condition to support the target wildlife.
For more than two years, the ditches remained stubbornly dry due to low rainfall and especially low river levels. That is until January 2007 when flooding gave us a glimpse of what Great Meadow needs to look like each winter once a sustainable wetland has been achieved! For now, let’s just marvel at the natural power of the river to create superb wetland habitat, albeit when our unpredictable weather deigns to cooperate!
In order to channel the water into different fields we will create one very shallow ditch (grip) initially running along a contour so that the bottom of the ditch is completely level. We will then see where water is tending to lie over the field so we can create more grips in the drier areas. This will mean we will gradually achieve a wetter meadow excellent for insects, particularly dragonflies, as well as wetland plants and waders.
Digger ditching the Great Meadow (David Cobham)
Jim Stevenson introduces the sheep to Great Meadow
In addition to work on the ditches, we hope to make the ground surface in Great Meadow wetter by abstracting water from an old well. The Rangers have done some exploratory work in the well to establish whether we may be able to pump water from here. This is the start of a feasibility study for a wind pump that could be used to lift the water to the surface, as is used on Old Hall Marshes RSPB Reserve in Essex.
Grazing was introduced to the area in 2006 for the first time in many decades. 13 pedigree Border Leicester sheep are part of the Countryside Stewardship Scheme for the paddock just south of Dodder Fen. These shearlings (last year’s female lambs, after their first haircut) are on loan from a farmer in Catford. Rangers and volunteers provide water for them and a daily feed ration. The sheep join the cattle (for details of how to buy Paxton-produced beef, click here) as livestock managers of our grassland habitats.