Wicken Fen

Wicken Fen

Wicken Fen is a wetland nature reserve situated near the village of Wicken, Cambridgeshire, England.

It is one of Britain's oldest nature reserves, and was the first reserve acquired by the National Trust, in 1899. The reserve includes fenland, farmland, marsh, and reedbeds. Wicken Fen is one of only four wild fens which still survive in the enormous Great Fen Basin area of East Anglia: 99.9% of the former fens have now been replaced by arable cultivation.


Naturalists were originally drawn to Wicken because of its species richness and the presence of rarities. The Fen has therefore received a great deal of recording effort and huge species lists have accumulated. Many nationally rare species have been recorded. Indeed, in 1998 over 20 species new to the Fen were recorded for the first time and in 2005 another 10 were added. Many of these lists can be downloaded from the fen website (see below). It was established as a nature reserve because of its invertebrate and plant interest. Over 7,000 species have so far been identified on the fen, including more than 121 that are included in the Red Data Book of rare invertebrates.


The reserve supports large numbers of fly, snail, spider and beetle species. Damselflies found here include the emerald, azure and common blue; together with dragonflies such as the southern and brown hawkers, emperor, hairy dragonfly and black-tailed skimmer. The Lepidoptera fauna is very rich also, especially the moths, with over 1000 species. The nationally rare reed leopard moth is common at the site. Other local moths include cream-bordered green pea, yellow-legged clearwing and emperor. China-mark moths such as the small, brown and ringed are also seen here. Local butterflies include the green hairstreak, brown argus, speckled wood and brimstone.


Notable plants include fen ragwort, fen violet, great fen sedge "Cladium mariscus", marsh pea and milk parsley. There are also a number of stonewort species present in the ditches and ponds.


The site is mainly noted for its plants and invertebrates, but many birds also can be seen, and these are particularly popular with visitors as they are often easier to observe than the more elusive insects and plants. Bird species recorded living at the site include great crested grebe, cormorant, gadwall, teal, sparrowhawk, water rail, kingfisher, snipe, woodcock, great spotted and green woodpeckers; and barn, little, tawny, long-eared and short-eared owls. Visiting birds include bittern, whooper swan, golden plover, garganey, pochard, goosander, marsh harrier, hen harrier, merlin and hobby. In season, it is most unlikely that visitors will fail to hear the 'drumming' of snipe.


Wicken Fen is divided by a man-made watercourse called "Wicken Lode". The area north of Wicken Lode, together with a small area known as Wicken Poors' Fen, forms the designated National Nature Reserve of 269 hectares. These areas contain original peat fen with communities of carr and sedge. They support rare and uncommon fenland plants such as marsh pea, Cambridge milk parsley, fen violet and marsh fern. This part of the Fen can be enjoyed from a series of boardwalks.

The area south of the Lode is called "Adventurers' Fen" and consists of rough pasture (grading from dry to wet grassland), reedbed and pools.

The dykes, abandoned clay pits and other watercourses carry a great wealth of aquatic plants and insects, many of which are uncommon elsewhere.


Although it is often described as a natural wilderness, it is neither—humans have been closely involved in the fen for centuries and the reserve is managed intensively to protect and maintain the delicate balance of species which has built up over the years. Much of the management tries to recreate the old systems of fen working which persisted for hundreds of years, allowing species to become dependent on the practices. For example the Sedge plant, "Cladium mariscus", is harvested every year and sold for thatching roofs. The first recorded sedge harvest at Wicken was in 1414. Ever since then, sedge has been regularly cut. This has allowed a pattern of plants and animals to build up who depend on regular clearance of the sedge to survive. Many plants and animals are dependent upon regular management of vegetation in this way to keep their habitats going. Konik Ponies and Highland cattle have now been introduced to parts of the fen to prevent scrub from regrowing as a part of the management plan.

The present appearance of Wicken Fen is the result of centuries of management by human beings. Many of the practices now undertaken have changed little since medieval times. In surrounding areas, the landscape has changed so completely that it is almost impossible to imagine how it must once have all looked. Only a very few places survive where it is possible to experience this primitive landscape first hand—Wicken Fen is one of these.

Enlargement of the reserve

On May 1 1899 the National Trust purchased two acres (8094 m²) for £10. The National Trust has been purchasing land as it becomes available for over a century. As of 2006 the reserve is over 6.66 square kilometres (666 hectares). In 2001 a major acquisition was made with the purchase of Burwell Fen Farm (1.65 km²). In 2005, a 100ha turf farm, to be called Tubney Fen, was purchased. The National Trust proposes to continue this process and acquire up to 37 km² of farmland to the south of Wicken Fen over the next 100 years, thus extending the wetland, for wildlife and people.


The Fen has been long associated with natural history. Charles Darwin collected beetles on the Fen in the 1820s, and from the 1920s onwards the fathers of modern ecology and conservation, the Cambridge botanists Sir Harry Godwin and Sir Arthur Tansley carried out their pioneering work on the reserve. One of the world's longest running science experiments, the Godwin Plots, continues at the Fen to this day. The Fen’s long association with science, especially nearby Cambridge University, continues to the present day with scientists actively involved in the management of the reserve, and many hundreds of research papers published about the fen over more than a century. A Bibliography can be downloaded from the Wicken website and the latest Newsletter. http://www.wicken.org.uk/research.htm


At nearby Spinney Abbey Farm once stood an old priory. Local tales tell how monks can still be heard chanting in the still of the night, and that their ghosts have been seen. Strange lights are reputed to be visible, which could be either ghostly or just natural Will o' the wisp. These lights can be seen wandering from the farm to Spinney Bank, which is a bank now between Spinney Abbey and Wicken Fen. The most well-known legend is of the phantom black dog, sometimes known as Old Shuck or Black Shuck. This legend is a common one across East Anglia and is applied to many locations. The dog is said to have eyes the size of bike lamps and it is also said that, if anyone is unfortunate enough to meet the demonic dog and happens to look into its red/orange eyes, that are described as "burning like fire", then their death will soon follow.

The Fen is thought to be the resting place of PC Richard Peake, a nineteenth-century policeman who disappeared on 18 August 1855, aged 24. He went missing from his beat at Wicken in the early hours in suspicious circumstances, having earlier been involved in a disturbance. It was suspected he was murdered by a local gang and hidden on the Fen, but his body was never found [http://www.thebadger.free-online.co.uk/other_pages/in_memory_of.htm] .


The Fen is open to the public. The site is open all year round from dawn to dusk except for Christmas Day. Some paths are closed in very wet weather, and some areas are inaccessible. There are hides and trails for visitors to follow. There is a visitor centre and café. The visitor centre has a permanent exhibition of information about Wicken Fen, its history and ecological importance.


*Friday, L.E., ed. (1997). "Wicken Fen: the making of a wetland nature reserve". Harley Books, Colchester.
*Friday, L.E., Harley, B. (2000). "Checklist of the Flora and Fauna of Wicken Fen". Harley Books, Colchester.
* [http://www.spinneyabbey.co.uk/ Spinney Abbey website]

External links

* [http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-vh/w-visits/w-findaplace/w-wickenfennationalnaturereserve.htm Wicken Fen National Nature Reserve information at the National Trust]
* [http://www.wicken.org.uk/ Wicken Fen website]
* [http://www.defra.gov.uk/rural/ruraldelivery/bill/wicken-fen.htm DEFRA page on enlarging the reserve]
* [http://www.ghosts-uk.net/modules/news/article.php?storyid=604/ Article on Wicken Fen Haunting.]

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