I have a love/hate relationship with the Fens. On the one hand I have fond memories of spending several holidays on the edge of those flat plains with a good friend in the dim and distant past. We stayed with her grandmother in a small bungalow in a small village where half a mile to the west we could sit and watch scores of house martins at their nests on a bridge spanning the Little Ouse. We could listen to hosts of reed and sedge warblers chunter their rhythmic song from the thick growth of reed lining the channel and were seldom out of earshot of the soporific purring of turtle doves. The sun baked fields of deep, dark peat stretched to the horizon, unbroken by woods or the slightest deviation in altitude. I was 19, it was a long hot summer and all was good with the world. We could then walk a mile eastwards towards the Breck edge and enjoy heath and woodland covering the gently rising land where spotted flycatchers, yellow wagtails and tree sparrow were common fare.
On the other hand, I have memories of bleakness. Decades later. Mile after dreary mile of grey, murky flat regularly assaulted me as my train rattled and toiled endlessly through the featureless gloom en route to some pathetically meaningless meeting that nobody knew much about and cared for even less. And as for that bloody A17......
But of course that’s not really what the Fens should be, not quite what they’re all about. Drainage and subsequent farming has rendered them the godforsaken wilderness we see today. Thankfully there are one or two oasis that show us something of the wetland richness that could once, and maybe in future times will again, be enjoyed. One such is the WWT reserve at Welney, a truly inspiring place if ever there was one. I visited today with a mate of mine, great company, knowledgeable and a wader fanatic. We were approaching the reserve, chatting away about the usual stuff, music, birds, movies, when an explosion of silver and gold from the field to our right accompanied by various exclamations of delight from my chum forced me to bring the car to a halt. We were momentarily mesmerised by the sight of over 1000 golden plover and 100s of lapwing sprinkling the still winter air with their frantic paper chase. They flighted over the car, decorating the brooding clouds with sparkling waves as they twisted and turned to confuse and elude some predator, unseen by us, before gracefully dropping once more to the blackness of peat where their spangled gold was consumed. A rather encouraging start to our day.
Once we’d imbibed a warming cup of coffee from the very comfortable Visitor Centre we spent a couple of hours sitting in the hides watching the antics of a throng of wetland birds roosting, feeding, courting, bathing, preening, jousting and hunting. The small islands of raised ground were covered in ranks of black tailed godwits, now stripped of their summer finery, presumably roosting between the tides. Another wader fest for my Waderquest mate (have a look at their website - it's excellent). A few redshank, dunlin and the odd snipe added variety. Most of these birds were simply loafing around having a nap leaving the energetic wildfowl to provide the entertainment. Mallard were courting, swimming in groups, the drakes head bobbing in an attempt to impress the girls. Skirmishes were frequent, creating a frenzy of churning water as the brightly bedecked fellas tussled for dominance. Pochard, mainly drakes but with the odd duck in tow, were busy diving into the shallows to find some overlooked morsel whilst numbers of their brethren dozed on the grassy bank. Cantankerous little buggers and I couldn’t help grinning as one grabbed hold and vigorously shook the tail feathers of a whooper swan that blocked its path to the snooze zone.
Back at the cafe for lunch just in time to see a pair of short eared owls, disturbed by low flying buzzards, spiral high together before heading south to a less molested roosting spot. The day proved to be somewhat notable for birds of prey for not only did we espy the aforementioned species, but also saw marsh Harrier, kestrels aplenty, a couple of sparrowhawks as well as a fly over goshawk as we skirted Thetford. The marsh harriers we’re trying their luck with the massed waterfowl, stooping low over the shallows in an attempt to surprise some unwary individual, but these birds seem too slow and cumbersome to have much success. Certainly today the ducks and godwits scattered long before any harrier got close enough to strike providing another wader spectacular as tight flocks of birds wheeled over the flood. My mate was in wader heaven, and you know what, I think I was there with him.