|Site of Special Scientific Interest|
|Area||2,513.6 hectares (6,211 acres)|
|Location map||Magic Map|
|Official name||Ouse Washes|
|Designated||5 January 1976|
Ouse Washes is a linear 2,513.6-hectare (6,211-acre) biological Site of Special Scientific Interest stretching from near St Ives in Cambridgeshire to Downham Market in Norfolk. It is also a Ramsar internationally important wetland site, a Special Protection Area for birds, a Special Area of Conservation and a Nature Conservation Review site, Grade I. An area of 186 hectares (460 acres) between March and Ely is managed by the Wildlife Trust for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire and another area near Chatteris is managed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust manages another area near Welney.
The site lies between the Old Bedford River in the north-west and the New Bedford River in the south-east. The Washes are a flood storage area and are often under water in the winter. It is internationally significant for wintering and breeding wildfowl and waders, especially teal, pintail, Eurasian wigeon, shoveler, pochard and Bewick's swans. The site also has rich aquatic fauna and flora, and areas of unimproved grassland.
After the last glaciation between 100,000 and 10,000 years ago the sea level in eastern England was about 30 metres (98 ft) lower than at present. As the ice retreated during the Mesolithic, the sea level rose, filling what is now the North Sea, and bringing the Norfolk coastline much closer to its present line. Coastal woodland was drowned by the returning sea and slowly degraded to peat overlying deposits of marine clays and creating the Fens.
Prior to the seventeenth century the Fens of eastern England were tidal marshland. frequently flooded and suitable for little more than summer grazing. In 1630, King Charles I granted a drainage charter to the 4th Earl of Bedford and his Adventurers, who constructed the Old Bedford River between Earith, Cambridgeshire and Downham Market, Norfolk, to facilitate drainage of the large area that became known as the Bedford Level. The Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden was engaged to complete the project and constructed the New Bedford River parallel to the old. The start of the works was interrupted by the English Civil War, but recommenced under Oliver Cromwell in 1649, and was completed in 1656.
Ouse Washes plan
The Ouse Washes are part of the system for controlling the flow of the Great Ouse when water levels in the river are high. In normal conditions, the waters of the Great Ouse run through the New Bedford River (or Hundred Foot Drain) to join the tidal stretch of the river at Welmore Lake Sluice, where another automatic system controls outflow. High water levels open the automatic sluice at Earith, thereby releasing water to the Old Bedford River, which eventually overflows onto the washland between the Bedford rivers, with the Welmore automatic sluice controlling outflow. When levels drop, the washes drain back into the Old Bedford River.
The Environment Agency sets the trigger level for the sluices, allowing higher levels in the Great Ouse in summer than in winter.The enclosed area of washland runs from Earith northeast to Downham Market where it links via the New Bedford River to the tidal Great Ouse and hence to the sea. At capacity, the site can accommodate 90,000,000 cubic metres (3.2×109 cu ft), although it only completely filled in 1947.
The washland area between the rivers is 32 kilometres (20 mi) long and about 1 kilometre (0.62 mi) wide and acts as a floodplain during the winter and, increasingly, also in the summer. The area between the outer barrier banks of the two artificial rivers covers about 1,900 hectares (4,700 acres). As the peat underlying the Fens has dried out through drainage, it has shrunk and lowered the level of the washlands, making flooding more frequent. The Washes and its banks have a total area of 2,400 hectares (5,900 acres), and newly created wet grasslands adjacent to the washes increase the total area to 2,750 hectares (6,800 acres). About 10% of the area is open water, but most of the habitat is grassland with reed canary-grass in the wettest locations, transitioning through reed sweet-grass to the creeping bent that dominates in the drier areas.
The Ouse Washes are important as one of only two remaining large regularly flooded washlands in Britain, the other being the nearby Nene Washes in Cambridgeshire. When at Cambridge University, Peter Scott, who would become a naturalist and founder of what is now the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) became a regular visitor to the washes, and in 1967 he purchased 40 hectares (100 acres) for £4000 to form the core of what is now WWT Welney Wetland Centre. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) also actively purchased large areas of land, and the Cambridgeshire and Isle of Ely Naturalists' Trust (now the Wildlife Trust for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire (WTBCN)) bought 186 hectares (460 acres) .
By 2010, the three conservation bodies owned 1,540 hectares (3,800 acres) of the site. 200 hectares (490 acres) is held by other organisations, including the Fenland Wildfowlers Association (53 hectares (132 acres), the Spalding & District Wildfowlers Association (25 hectares (62 acres) and private individuals. The wildfowling clubs work closely with the conservation bodies to protect breeding birds.
The Ouse Washes Landscape Partnership scheme (OWLP) was a £1 million, 3-year project supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund which ran from 2014 - 2017. The scheme focused on the promotion of the area surrounding the Ouse Washes, the heart of the Cambridgeshire and Norfolk Fens, and on encouraging community engagement with the area's diverse heritage. The area is mostly within 1 kilometre (0.62 mi) of the SSSI but outside the barrier walls. A survey of the ditches showed that they were important for amphibians water voles, dragonflies and damselflies. More than 100 water beetle species included five for which the Fens are their national stronghold, and the 175 drain plants included eight of conservation concern.
RSPB Ouse Washes is a nature reserve, managed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds at Welches Dam. It is signposted from Manea village which is 9.7 kilometres (6 mi) east of Chatteris on the A142/A141 between Ely and March. The RSPB facilities also cover the area owned by WTBCN.
The reserve is on the western side of the washes, south of the A1101 road. Its unstaffed visitor centre is open from 9 am to 5 pm, the car park, toilets and the reserve itself are always open, but there is no shop. There are two birds hides south of the visitor centre, the nearer, 300 metres (980 ft) from the centre, is wheelchair accessible, the further is 850 metres (2,790 ft). there are six hides north of the visitor centre, the furthest being 2,800 metres (9,200 ft) from the centre. In wet conditions, the path along the bank can be very muddy.
The 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres) of the Welney Wetland Centre is one of ten wildfowl and wetland reserves managed by the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT). It lies north of the A1101 road where it crosses the washes. It has a visitor centre and cafe, and viewing facilities include an observatory with two wing hides. There is a further bird hide south of the observatory and four to the north. All the main hides are accessible except the third to the north. There are also some two-person hides accessed by steps. Road access to the reserve car park is via Hundred Foot Bank, Welney, Norfolk.
There is an entry charge for non-members of the WWT. The visitor centre is open from 10 am to 4 pm, although the cafe closes at 3.30 pm.The centre received 29,372 visitors in 2018.
Increased summer flooding led to declines in the numbers of breeding waders from the 1970s onwards, and to counteract this areas of former farmland adjacent to the washes were acquired and converted to wet grassland. The WWT's Lady Fen is adjacent to the Welney Wetland Centre and was converted from famland between 2007 and 2013. 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres), although as of 2022 only 135 hectares (330 acres) had been acquired. The total additional area of the "new" meadows is 350 hectares (860 acres).The RSPB, WWT and WTBCN have also modified land adjacent to the RSPB reserve. The eventual aim is to expand this to
The Ouse Washes are the most important site in England and Wales for breeding snipe, and also hold good populations of lapwings and redshanks and oystercatchers. Black-tailed godwits were found breeding in 1952, and reached a peak of 65 pairs by 1972, but flooding severely reduced breeding success until the extension projects enabled up to 19 pairs to breed. Corn crakes released on the Nene Washes from 2005 as part of a reintroduction scheme found the Ouse Washes more to their liking with up to seven calling males each year, and several spotted crakes also call in the spring.
Breeding ducks include 15% of the UK's garganey. Recent colonisers include the little egret (77 pairs in 20220, great white egret and bittern, while some former breeders including ruff and Savi's warbler have been lost. Little gulls, black terns and black-winged stilts have occasionally bred. Waders breed on the extension areas at a density of about four pairs per hectare (two pairs per acre), 18 times the level on the main site. Hobbies, marsh harriers and barn owls all breed around the washes, as do yellow wagtails, corn buntings and tree sparrows, and kingfishers nest in artificial banks.
The Ouse Washes hosts Bewick's and whooper swans in winter, which feed on nearby farmland during the day, returning to the washes in the evening,where visitors can watch them being fed under floodlight near the visitor centre. More than 12,500 whooper swans wintered in 2021, about 5% of the world population. The number of Bewwick's swans reaching the UK has fallen dramatically in the current century, as milder winters encourage them to remain in continental Europe, but several hundred still visit the washes.
The washes are of international importance for six species of wintering ducks, notably more than 20,000 wigeon. High waters levels prevent wigeon grazing on grass, and the extension areas were designed with this species in mind, so that they could feed when the main site was flooded. Up to 40 tundra bean geese and 130 white-fronted geese visit annually. Gulls roost overnight, as do hen harriers, and common cranes also spend the night on the washes after foraging for maize stubble on the arable farmland. A paid of cranes bred successfully on Lady Fen in 2018.
Large numbers of migrants may seek temporary refuge on the marshes, including 2 million sand martins (1968) 5,000 common snipe (1979), 500 ruffs (1989) and 130 red-breasted mergansers (1956). Major rarities recorded include a pied-billed grebe in 1968, a falcated duck, Britain's first, in 1986, and a canvasback in 1997. More recent visitors have included a northern harrier in 2013, a Baikal teal in 2014, an isabelline wheatear in 2016 and a gull-billed tern in 2017. Scarce waders such as pectoral sandpiper, Temminck's stint and red-necked phalarope are almost annual.
Of the large mammals, Roe deer, water deer, badgers and otters are common on the washes, with brown hare on the adjacent grasslands and small numbers of water voles in the wet areas. Regularly recorded bats include soprano pipistrelle, noctule and Daubenton's bat. The large fish population includes European eel and spined loach.
There is a rich invertebrate fauna, including tansy beetle, which here feeds on water mint rather than the normal tansy. Scarce insects include the variable damselfly, scarce chaser, wall brown and clouded yellow.
Apart from the grassland, there are small patches of trees and osier, but the main interest lies in rare aquatic plants such as greater water-parsnip and fringed water lily, although the diversity and numbers of such species has reduced due to nutrient deposition by floodwater. The areas neighbouring the washland, used for intensive arable farming for 50 years, have now been reseeded with grasses and associated plants such as meadow buttercup, tufted vetch, ribwort plantain.and flowering rush.
The washes are managed for traditional grazing and hay-making using professional livestock managers to determine a regime that minimises the amount of disturbance to the breeding waders and controls water levels within the washes. There are also "scrapes", areas of bare mud situated so as to be readily visible to birdwatchers. The new areas outside the washes are kept wet through a closely spaced network of ditches filled from ground aquifers by submersible pumps, and protected by fox- and badger-proof fences.
It is anticipated that a combination of lower flows in the Great Ouse and higher sea water levels will make it harder to manage drainage, although more areas of shallow water might benefit potential colonising breeders including the glossy ibis, black-winged stilt and various heron and egret species.
Because of its importance to wildlife, the Ouse Washes is a Site of Special Scientific Interesta Ramsar internationally important wetland site, a Special Protection Area for birds, a Special Area of Conservation, and a Nature Conservation Review site, Grade I.
Cambridgeshire is a ceremonial and non-metropolitan county in the East of England government statistical region, and popularly known as one of the three counties of East Anglia. The largest city is Peterborough, followed by the county town of Cambridge. In 1974, modern Cambridgeshire was created through the amalgamation of Cambridgeshire and Isle of Ely with Huntingdon and Peterborough, which including the historic counties of Huntingdonshire and the Soke of Peterborough. A majority of the county is locally governed by Cambridgeshire County Council in combination with the lower tier non-metropolitan district councils of Cambridge, East Cambridgeshire, Fenland, Huntingdonshire, and South Cambridgeshire. Peterborough however is governed as a unitary authority with one council, Peterborough City Council. It is bordered by Lincolnshire to the north, Norfolk to the north-east, Suffolk to the east, Essex and Hertfordshire to the south, and Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire to the west.
Berney Marshes and Breydon Water RSPB reserve is a nature reserve managed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). Berney Marshes is situated south of the River Bure while Breydon water is the combined estuary of the River Waveney and the River Yare inland from Great Yarmouth in Norfolk, England.
The Wash is a rectangular bay and multiple estuary at the north-west corner of East Anglia on the East coast of England, where Norfolk meets Lincolnshire and both border the North Sea. One of Britain's broadest estuaries, it is fed by the rivers Witham, Welland, Nene and Great Ouse. It is a 62,046-hectare (153,320-acre) biological Site of Special Scientific Interest. It is also a Nature Conservation Review site, Grade I, a National Nature Reserve, a Ramsar site, a Special Area of Conservation and a Special Protection Area. It is in the Norfolk Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and part of it is the Snettisham Royal Society for the Protection of Birds nature reserve.
The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) is an international wildfowl and wetland conservation charity in the United Kingdom. Its patron is Charles III, and its president is Kate Humble.
WWT London Wetland Centre is a wetland reserve managed by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust in the Barnes area of the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames, southwest London, England, by Barn Elms. The site is formed of four disused Victorian reservoirs tucked into a loop in the Thames.
WWT Slimbridge is a wetland wildlife reserve near Slimbridge in Gloucestershire, England. It is midway between Bristol and Gloucester on the eastern side of the estuary of the River Severn. The reserve, set up by the artist and naturalist Sir Peter Scott, opened in November 1946. Scott subsequently founded the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, which has since opened nine other reserves around the country. Slimbridge comprises some 800 hectares of pasture, reed bed, lagoon and salt marsh. Many water birds live there all year round, and others are migrants on their ways to and from their summer breeding grounds. Other birds overwinter, including large numbers of white-fronted geese and increasing numbers of Bewick's swans.
The River Great Ouse is a river in England, the longest of several British rivers called "Ouse". From Syresham in Northamptonshire, the Great Ouse flows through Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk to drain into the Wash and the North Sea near Kings Lynn. Authorities disagree both on the river's source and its length with one quoting 160 mi (260 km) and another 143 mi (230 km). Mostly flowing north and east, it is the fifth longest river in the United Kingdom. The Great Ouse has been historically important for commercial navigation, and for draining the low-lying region through which it flows; its best-known tributary is the Cam, which runs through Cambridge. Its lower course passes through drained wetlands and fens and has been extensively modified, or channelised, to relieve flooding and provide a better route for barge traffic. The unmodified river would have changed course regularly after floods.
The Old Bedford River is an artificial, partial diversion of the waters of the River Great Ouse in the Fens of Cambridgeshire, England. It was named after the fourth Earl of Bedford who contracted with the local Commission of Sewers to drain the Great Level of the Fens beginning in 1630. It provided a steeper and shorter path for the waters of the Great Ouse, and was embanked to prevent them flooding the low ground of the South Fens. Throughout the project, the Earl and his Adventurers faced disruption from those who were opposed to drainage schemes. The project was deemed to have succeeded in draining the fens in 1637, but that decision was reversed in 1638. After a lull during the English Civil War, when much of the work was damaged, the Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden worked with William Russell, the fifth Earl of Bedford to complete the drainage. Disruption and unrest continued while the work was carried out, resulting in the Adventurers employing armed guards. A second river, the New Bedford River, was cut parallel to the first channel, which then became the Old Bedford River. At some point, the Old Bedford River was split into two parts, when the upper section was diverted into the River Delph at Welches Dam, and the lower section was joined to the Counter Drain. Both parts retain the name, but are not connected to each other. The area between the two Bedford rivers acts as a large washland, which holds floodwater when the river channels cannot cope with the volume of water in them.
The New Bedford River, also known as the Hundred Foot Drain because of the distance between the tops of the two embankments on either side of the river, is a navigable man-made cut-off or by-pass channel of the River Great Ouse in the Fens of Cambridgeshire, England. It provides an almost straight channel between Earith and Denver Sluices. It is tidal, with reverse tidal flow being clearly visible at Welney, some 19 miles (31 km) from the sea.
Welney is a village and civil parish in the Fens of England, and the county of Norfolk. The village is about 10 miles (16 km) south-west of the town of Downham Market, 20 miles (30 km) south of the town of King's Lynn and 45 miles (70 km) west of the city of Norwich. The county boundary with Cambridgeshire is adjacent, with the city of Cambridge 25 miles (40 km) to the south.
Nene Washes is a 1,522-hectare (3,760-acre) biological Site of Special Scientific Interest on the bank of the River Nene east of Peterborough in Cambridgeshire. It is also a Ramsar internationally important wetland site, a Special Area of Conservation, a Special Protection Area and a Nature Conservation Review site. An area of 280 hectares is managed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. The total area of the Ramsar site is 1,517 hectares.
RSPB Dearne Valley Old Moor is an 89-hectare (220-acre) wetlands nature reserve in the Dearne Valley near Barnsley, South Yorkshire, run by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). It lies on the junction of the A633 and A6195 roads and is bordered by the Trans Pennine Trail long-distance path. Following the end of coal mining locally, the Dearne Valley had become a derelict post-industrial area, and the removal of soil to cover an adjacent polluted site enabled the creation of the wetlands at Old Moor.
Fen Drayton is a small village between Cambridge and St. Ives in Cambridgeshire, England, and between the villages of Fenstanton and Swavesey.
An internal drainage board (IDB) is a type of operating authority which is established in areas of special drainage need in England and Wales with permissive powers to undertake work to secure clean water drainage and water level management within drainage districts. The area of an IDB is not determined by county or metropolitan council boundaries, but by water catchment areas within a given region. IDBs are geographically concentrated in the Broads, Fens in East Anglia and Lincolnshire, Somerset Levels and Yorkshire.
Welches Dam is a hamlet and former civil parish, now in the parish of Manea, in the Fenland district, in the county of Cambridgeshire, England. It is around 5 miles (8 km) to the north west of Ely. The parish covered an area of 2,355 acres (953 ha). Within the parish boundaries were the hamlet of the same name and the settlement of Purls Bridge. In 1951 the parish had a population of 69. Welches Dam is the site of the visitor centre for the RSPB Ouse Washes reserve.
Cley Marshes is a 176-hectare (430-acre) nature reserve on the North Sea coast of England just outside the village of Cley next the Sea, Norfolk. A reserve since 1926, it is the oldest of the reserves belonging to the Norfolk Wildlife Trust (NWT), which is itself the oldest county Wildlife Trust in the United Kingdom. Cley Marshes protects an area of reed beds, freshwater marsh, pools and wet meadows and is part of the North Norfolk Coast Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), Special Area of Conservation (SAC), Special Protection Area (SPA), and Ramsar Site due to the large numbers of birds it attracts.
Washland or washes are areas of land adjacent to rivers which are deliberately flooded at times when the rivers are high, to avoid flooding in residential or important agricultural areas. They often provide for overwintering wildfowl, and several include important nature reserves.
The Ouse Washes Landscape Partnership scheme (OWLP) is a 3-year project supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund which runs from 2014 - 2017. The scheme focuses on the promotion of the area surrounding the Ouse Washes, the heart of the Cambridgeshire and Norfolk Fens, and on encouraging community engagement with the area’s diverse heritage.
Cam Washes is a 166.5-hectare (411-acre) biological Site of Special Scientific Interest west of Wicken in Cambridgeshire.
Berry Fen is a 15.3-hectare (38-acre) biological Site of Special Scientific Interest on the western outskirts of Earith in Cambridgeshire.