Fens are spooky places, especially in a dusky light like this. Standing on the side of a narrow, pockmarked road a warm wind blows into our faces out of the drama of the western sky. The road is dead straight, slicing through hundreds of acres of rough pasture swaying waist deep with rushes and meadowsweet, spangled with vetches, willow herb and knapweed. Flanking the road on both sides are deep, slow flowing rhynes (ditches), the water scummed over with duckweed and the strange three-petalled flowers of frogbit. As I lean over the bank to examine one the ground quakes, threatening to tip me in. I am reminded that this landscape rests entirely on a gigantic sponge of peat. Six mallard arc across the enormous sky and splash into some unseen waterway leaving us isolated in an overwhelming sense of space and quiet.
This area of Somerset, known as the Levels and Moors, was once covered by the sea; Glastonbury Tor and nearby hills were marine islands. As sea levels dropped over the millennia it became salt and then freshwater marsh where the annual growth of vegetation layering into the sodden ground formed incremental depths of peat. We know from analysis of the pollen preserved in these layers that a matrix of open water, reed swamp, marshland and damp woodlands formed here. From medieval times people began to drain these peatlands to exploit their potential as fertile crop and grazing land, thus gradually creating a landscape of fields and pastures set in an intricate grid of ditches which took the water away into the rivers and out to sea. Over time these fields became fringed with hedges, alders and pollarded willows planted along the ditch banks and lodes (tracks) to provide stock barriers and wood for fuel and basket making.
Now this landscape is evolving once again. The new priority is to prevent the flooding of homes and settlements – which happened so disastrously on the Levels south of here, two years ago. In the area where we are standing, which is known as the Avalon Marshes, many of the winter fields are now deliberately flooded with surplus water which, incidentally, attracts thousands of waterfowl and wading birds. The intricate series of rhynes, sluices and pumps are overseen by the Environment Agency, which is the primary authority here in terms of flood prevention. The other important landscape influence has been peat extraction. Peat has been cut for fuel locally throughout history but by the mid twentieth century extraction had accelerated to an industrial scale to supply the horticultural trade. Once the peat is dug out the underlying, infertile clay is exposed and the land becomes useless. This is when it becomes particularly interesting to wildlife conservationists because, if you flood the worked out diggings and plant them with reeds you can, in twenty years or so, create wonderful nature reserves for wetland wildlife; particularly birds such as bittern, egrets, marsh harriers and bearded tits.
Earlier in the day we had visited one of these reserves with its acres of rustling head-high reeds and half glimpsed pools edged with yellow bladderwort flowers. Dragonflies zipped back and forth rustling on the turn as they grabbed at smaller insects. The rasps and burps of Iberian marsh frogs amplified the feeling of immersion in a hidden world. This Spanish species was somehow introduced here and seems to be thriving. “Good food for egrets” was the unconcerned comment I got, when I asked about them. From one of the hides we saw the hunched brown shape of a bittern fly slowly past, like an old man in an overcoat. Two marsh harriers lazily quartered the reed beds – I never see them catch anything and wonder how they live. Most thrilling was being eye to eye with a great white egret right in front of the hide. This tall, perfectly elegant bird with its bridal white plumage was impossibly rare when I started bird watching. I went all the way to the Danube Delta in Romania to see some. Now they are breeding right here in Somerset. As it stalked carefully through the water, barely making a ripple, it was easy to see how precisely it was adapted to its environment: stilt-long legs and splayed toes enable wading through water and soft mud, a yellow dagger of a bill in a head barely wider than the sinuous neck – which can flick into the water in a blink. It had an odd habit of leaning sideways apparently looking up at the sky with one eye, as if watching out for rain. Then its head shot into the water to spear a morsel and I realised it had been looking down – with the other eye.
Agriculture here is still based around family farms rather than the agri-business that is widespread on the east Anglian fens. It seems that, after some initial resentment, the farming community on the Avalon Marshes is adapting to the often complementary needs of wildlife conservation and flood prevention. Now rather than growing crops, which is difficult when winter water levels need to be high, farmers are keeping cattle, which graze the pastures in summer and over-winter in barns on the farm. Some are even specialising in renting out their stock to graze the land of conservation organisations to keep the wildlife pastures in good condition. All of this is under written financially by government/EU funded agri-environment schemes, which enable farmers to work in wildlife friendly ways and still make a living. What has gradually developed is a matrix of reserves and wildlife rich farmland where nature is thriving. This is conservation on a landscape scale, which is proving beneficial to a community that is not affluent and wouldn’t previously have benefitted from tourism – the brown signs here now point to nature reserves. These agri-environment schemes seem to be an admirable example of ‘public goods for public money’ and I only hope that post Brexit the Westminster government continues to provide the taxpayers’ share of this good news story.