Hugh Harris: MBAN Abroad - Wicken Fen, part 2


Managing Habitats in Wicken Fen

Key to the maintenance of this diversity is the management of habitats, a human intervention that has been happening for centuries. At the edge of the fen, the Cottage Museum depicts how life may have been for workers on the fen before it became a nature reserve. The vegetation was cut for thatching local houses, and as bedding and feed for domestic animals. Tools such as this were used to cut peat for fuel. The result is a landscape stamped with centuries of rural culture-- physically, in the peat diggings, paths, ditches, and dykes, and ecologically, in the plant and animal communities that have developed over time. 

Wicken Fen was given to the National Trust in 1900, since when it's been run as a nature reserve. Tasks, such as hay cutting, used be part of people's livelihood. Today, they are continued as a means of conservation. The driving force behind much of the Trust's activity is managing a natural process known as succession.  

If woodland were the only habitat here, then biodiversity would plummet. And if succession were allowed to proceed naturally, much of the fen would be covered by bushes or trees. It's only by halting the process of succession, at various stages, that so many habitats can be maintained.  This idea of conserving habitats by managing succession was first explored in the early 1900s. Wicken was one of the first sites at which the effects of management on habitat diversity were explored. An early exponent of this was Harry Godwin, a pioneer of plant ecology. 

Even as little as one year difference between cutting periods has a significant impact on the species that are able to grow. This difference can be attributed to succession. 

The trees and bushes of the control plot, which hasn't been cut at all, represent the final stage of succession in this area. The plots illustrate the process of succession from an open meadow to woodland. The different stages are entirely a result of how frequently each plot is cut.