Wicken Fen ‘worth more as nature reserve than farmland’ according to new report

Wicken Fen

Wicken Fen - Credit: Archant

New research has calculated that each hectare of land at Wicken Fen is worth almost £130 more per year as wetland than as arable farmland.

Geoffrey Woollard

Geoffrey Woollard - Credit: Archant

The study, published by the journal Ecology and Evolution, claims that, compared with its former use as intensively farmed arable land, restored wetland can reduce flood damage, reduce carbon emissions into the atmosphere, increase recreational and tourism use, and increase the availability of grazing land.

Dr Francine Hughes, of Anglia Ruskin University, is co-author of the new research, which looks at 479 hectares of restored wetland adjacent to Wicken Fen National Nature Reserve.

The Wicken Fen Vision project, which is intended to grow over the next 100 years to cover 5,300 hectares of wetland, is being carried out by the National Trust.

The researchers studied data from 2011, and in this year each hectare of restored wetland was worth £129 more than if it had remained in arable cultivation.

Although restoration has led to an estimated loss of arable production of £1,324 per hectare per year, the costs of managing wetland compared with arable land are also lower by an estimated £860 per hectare per year.

When combined with estimated gains of £435 per hectare per year in nature-based recreation and tourism, £78 from grazing, £31 from flood protection, and a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions worth an estimated £47, the total increase in value for the 479 hectares of land surveyed was £61,964 for 2011.

Most Read

Dr Hughes, said: “Our study at the Wicken Fen Vision project gives us evidence that restoration of wetland habitats not only helps wildlife but also provides benefits for many people both locally and further afield.

“Under arable production, a small number of landowners and their employees gain the majority of the benefits.

“Under restoration a much broader range of people benefit, including many more visitors as well as the global community through reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

“Yet many of these benefits do not accrue to the landowner who is therefore encouraged to continue undertaking arable production rather than considering the possibilities of restoration.

“More generally, we hope that our approach for rapidly evaluating a broad range of services under contrasting land uses can inform a wider debate about the purpose and scope of publicly funded incentives, such as carbon payments, to landowners.”

The research was carried out using the Toolkit for Ecosystem Service Site-based Assessment, an initiative between Anglia Ruskin University, BirdLife International, RSPB, Tropical Biology Association, UNEP-WCMC and the University of Cambridge.

Retired farmer, Geoffrey Woollard, of Soham, said: “Any idiot can produce ‘research’ that is based on estimates. This ‘research’ is all estimates and no real evidence.

“For example, the estimated loss of arable crop production is put at £1,324 per hectare per year whereas I know for a fact - and I have checked the figures with a real expert - that a good average crop of Maris Piper potatoes on good fen farmland is producing right now about 50 tonnes per hectare and that those 50 tonnes are worth on average £130 per tonne.

“My calculator tells me that this works out at £6,500 worth of actual production per hectare. People who know anything about potatoes know that Maris Piper is a popular and productive variety.

“And it’s no wonder that Maris Piper potatoes are valued so highly, much more highly than is the proliferation of hemlock, ragwort, thistles and stinging nettles running riot on the former fen farmland that the National Trust now controls.

“No ‘research’ based on estimates and few facts will ever convince me and other critics of the wasteful Wicken Vision that it is other than lunacy.

“Our country has an ever-increasing population and this population can’t eat lunacy or weeds: it needs food in abundance.”