Mud, glorious mud: Restored ditches bring birds back en masse to Norfolk wetlands | Preservation

FFrom the driver’s seat of his van, Jake Fiennes points to the strips of dark green grass that betray the location of a dried up saltwater stream system on the Holkham Estate in Norfolk. If the rains in early fall permit, a rotary trench dragged by a tractor will soon dig shallow channels in the sandy soil to dig many old streams. Fiennes, the estate’s conservation director, and his caretakers, Andy and Paul, will then fill them with standing water from the site’s limestone aquifers, as part of a plan to turn dozens of fields into wetlands of grazing on the 10,000 hectare (25,000 acre) farm and nature reserve.

Fiennes is certain that next spring will see even more lapwing, avocets and other rare wetland birds thrive in the mud on the edges of the canals – known as field drains – in the habitat than they share with a herd of about 800 cattle.

Jake Fiennes, Director of Conservation at Holkham in Norfolk. He has spent over two decades managing estates in the county. Photograph: Si Barber / The Guardian

“It’s all about wet mud,” Fiennes says from his desk before heading out to the fields, using his finger to trace the labyrinth of old streams he wants the machinery to uncover on a Google Earth map. “I’m known for borders and hedges, but it’s just as much about the length of water adjacent to the mud. All those little black flies: that’s food for chicks.

Fiennes, whose five siblings include actors Ralph and Joseph, is a maverick well suited to the environmental reform of British agriculture after Brexit. With slicked back white hair interrupted in places by alopecia, he speaks in monologues about the potential for change in farming, scanning the impact of his words with piercing cerulean eyes.

He took over Holkham almost three years ago, after more than two decades managing the Raveningham Estate in south Norfolk, maintaining the yields of the 2,200 acre farm while devoting large areas to nature. . Early in his career he worked on the Knepp Estate made famous by Isabella Tree’s book Wilding.

In Holkham, Fiennes wants to show that his approach is accessible to all, as farmers wait for the continuation of the EU’s common agricultural policy, which could see them paying for their management of biodiversity. It is a bridge between agriculture and conservation: a regional environmental representative of the National Farmers Union and member of the RSPB England Advisory Board. Last year it was the subject of a profile in the New Yorker, where, commenting on the uniqueness of the 51-year-old, former journalist Julian Glover, who led a review of England’s national parks system, said “there’s an element of Jake that seems to have been able to engage in agriculture or heroin ”.

Contrary to the warnings of many, Fiennes insists that the natural world in Britain is “not as fucked up as everyone is saying”. He shamelessly breeds wild animals in the nooks and crannies of unproductive land and adapts the methods in place. In just three years, the Holkham lapwing population has returned to the number last seen at the turn of the millennium. In 2020, the cattle guard of the West successfully bred in Norfolk for the first time on the estate.

This year, Fiennes imposed new rules on hundreds of thousands of dog walkers on Holkham Beach – one of Britain’s most beautiful – which is visited by nearly a million people each year (” 800,000 people in 500,000 cars with 300,000 dogs “), to counter the decline in the number of nesting shorebirds.

Lapwing - Winter flock in flight Venellus venellus Welney, Ouse Washes Norfolk, UK BI006981 2F44KP8 Lapwing - Winter flock in flight Venellus venellus Welney, Ouse Washes Norfolk, UK BI006981
The Holkham lapwing population has returned to numbers last seen at the turn of the millennium. Photograph: Bill Coster / Alamy

“We just had a record spoonbill breeding season. It’s the biggest colony in the UK, ”he beams as we tour the fields. “We take him out of the park. “

Fiennes invited me to north Norfolk to see the rotary ditch in action, the only one in the country, as it weaves its way along a 50km stretch of coast at eight locations, from Cley next to the sea to the 1,600 hectare Ken Hill rewilding project. . It spits mud high in the sky as it is dragged by a tractor, digging canals in the dirt.

Despite the cost of hiring specialized machinery at £ 25,000 per 100 hours of work – paid for by a grant from the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for agriculture in protected landscapes – it digs the canals at an impressive speed. The new foot drains, once a feature of wetland management on farms, are perfect breeding habitat for lapwing, king prawns and their chicks, which feed on invertebrates in the mud, according to RSPB Research. Expanding wetland habitat at the sites will help more wetland birds breed successfully on the north Norfolk coast, Fiennes hopes.

Laughter throws mud while digging a canal in the ground under a glowing sky
Use of a ditch to recreate ancient streams on the Holkham estate. Photograph: Si Barber / The Guardian

“The lowlands are not very cultivable. You’d better try to fit it into those kinds of projects and get more for nature and wildlife, ”says Martin Fox, the rotary ditch operator, before following Fiennes’ instructions on the next step. ” We go out [from nature] all the time, but we have to put something back in it.

The machine has been used on large-scale projects such as Wallasea Island in Essex, Europe’s largest coastal habitat restoration project, where an expanse of salt marshes, lagoons and mudflats have been created using more than 3 million tonnes of London clay quarried from the Crossrail Tunnel.

Typical of his approach to choosing which farmland to leave to nature, Fiennes uses signs in the landscape to indicate where to place the canals. “See that darker green stripe,” he said, gesturing to an adjacent field as we walked back to his office. “It tells me that’s where the water wants to go. This is where you want your foot drain to go.

Later in the day, Fiennes scheduled meetings on beaver reintroductions, restoration of chalk streams, and improving hybrid jobs in ecology and agriculture. He tells me that I have chosen a bad time of year to visit, despite the recent arrival of up to 60,000 Greenland Pink-footed Geese.

“Come back in May” to see the results of the rotary ditch, he said, once again insisting that it will be another great year for the lapwing, spoonbills and birds of the Holkham wetlands.

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