Wicken Fen is a 254.5 hectare biological Site of Special Scientific Interest west of Wicken in Cambridgeshire. It is also a National Nature Reserve, and a Nature Conservation Review site. It is protected by international designations as a Ramsar wetland site of international importance, and part of the Fenland Special Area of Conservation under the Habitats Directive.
A large part of it is owned and managed by the National Trust. It is one of Britain's oldest nature reserves, and was the first reserve cared for by the National Trust, starting in 1899. The first parcel of land for the reserve was donated to the Trust by Charles Rothschild in 1901. The reserve includes fenland, farmland, marsh, and reedbeds. Wicken Fen is one of only four wild fens which still survive in the enormous Great Fen Basin area of East Anglia, where 99.9% of the former fens have now been replaced by arable cultivation.
Although Wicken Fen is often described as if it were a natural wilderness, it is neither natural nor wild; humans have been closely involved in the fen for centuries, and the reserve is still managed intensively to protect and maintain the delicate balance of species which has built up over the years.
Much of the management tries to recreate the old systems of fen working which persisted for hundreds of years, allowing species to become dependent on the practices. For example, the sedge plant, Cladium mariscus, is harvested every year and sold for thatching roofs. The earliest recorded sedge harvest at Wicken was in 1414, and ever since then, sedge has been regularly cut. The sedge-cutting has allowed an array of plants and animals to colonize the area that depend on regular clearance of the sedge in order to survive. (Many plants and animals are dependent upon regular management of vegetation in this way to keep their habitats intact.) As part of the management plan for Wicken Fen, Konik ponies and Highland cattle have been introduced to some areas in order to prevent scrub from regrowing.
The present appearance of Wicken Fen is the result of centuries of management by human beings. Many of the practices now undertaken have changed little since medieval times. In surrounding areas, the landscape has changed so completely that it is almost impossible to imagine how it must once have all looked. Only a very few places survive where it is possible to experience this primitive landscape first hand; Wicken Fen is one of these.
Wicken Fen features the last surviving wooden windpump in the Fens. It is a small smock wind pump, which was probably built about 1912 at Adventurers' Fen for land drainage. The pump was moved to its present site and restored in 1956 by the National Trust. The Windpump now pumps water from the drainage channel up into the Fen to maintain a high water table. The nearby museums, Stretham Old Engine and Prickwillow Museum tell the story of how windpumps were succeeded by steam engines in the nineteenth century and diesel engines in the twentieth century.
Wicken Fen provides a window on a 'lost landscape' - a unique remnant of un-drained fenland which once covered the vast lowlands of East Anglia. Today Wicken Fen, is one of Europe's most important wetlands home to over 9000 recorded species including many rare species of plants, birds and dragonflies. Throughout the year there's an amazing array of wildlife to see and hear, from booming bitterns and cuckoos in spring, rare orchids and dragonfly's in summer, to hen harriers and short-eared owls in winter.
At the heart of the reserve is the ancient Sedge Fen, which can easily be explored via the all weather Boardwalk trail.
In 1999, the National Tust launched the Wicken Fen Vision, an ambitious landscape-scale conservation project to extend the reserve from Wicken south towards the outskirts of Cambridge, providing new wetland habitats for wildlife, and recreational areas for humans to enjoy. You can explore the fen with this virtual tour where you can see the iconic mill and the surrounding nature reserve.
Naturalists were originally drawn to Wicken because of its species richness and the presence of rarities. The Fen has therefore received a great deal of recording effort and as a result, huge species lists have accumulated. Many nationally rare species have been recorded. Surveys continue to the present day. In 1998 over 20 species new to the Fen were recorded for the first time and in 2005 another 10 were added. Wicken Fen was established as a nature reserve because of its invertebrate and plant interest. Over 8,500 species have so far been recorded on the fen, including more than 125 that are included in the Red Data Book of rare invertebrates.
The reserve supports large numbers of fly, snail, spider and beetle species. Damselflies found here include the emerald, azure, large red, red-eyed, variable and common blue; together with dragonflies such as the southern and brown hawkers, emperor, hairy dragonfly and black-tailed skimmer. The Lepidoptera fauna is very rich also, especially the moths, with over 1000 species. The nationally rare reed leopard moth is common at the site. Other local moths include cream-bordered green pea, yellow-legged clearwing and emperor. China-mark moths such as the small, brown and ringed are also seen here. Local butterflies include the green hairstreak, brown argus, speckled wood and brimstone. There are a range of freshwater and land snails including the Red Data Book species Desmoulin's whorl snail.
Notable plants include the fen violet, great fen sedge Cladium mariscus, marsh pea, greater spearwort, marsh orchids and milk parsley. There are also a number of stonewort species present in the ditches and ponds, along with flowering rush, water millefoil, and yellow and white water lilies.
The site is mainly noted for its plants and invertebrates, but many birds also can be seen, and these are particularly popular with visitors as they are often easier to observe than the more elusive insects and plants. Bird species recorded living at the site include great crested grebe, cormorant, gadwall, teal, sparrowhawk, water rail, kingfisher, snipe, woodcock, great spotted and green woodpeckers; and barn, little, tawny, long-eared and short-eared owls. Visiting birds include bittern, whooper swan, golden plover, garganey, pochard, goosander, marsh harrier, hen harrier, merlin and hobby. In season, it is most unlikely that visitors will fail to hear the 'drumming' of snipe.
Wicken Fen is divided by a man-made watercourse called "Wicken Lode". The area north of Wicken Lode, together with a smaller area known as Wicken Poors' Fen and St. Edmunds Fen, forms the classic old, undrained fen. The designated national nature reserve of 269 hectares also includes the area around the Mere, to the south of Wicken Lode. These areas contain original peat fen with communities of carr and sedge. They support rare and uncommon fenland plants such as marsh pea, Cambridge milk parsley, fen violet and marsh fern. This part of the Fen can be enjoyed from a series of boardwalks (made from recycled plastic).
The area south of the Lode is called "Adventurers' Fen" and consists of rough pasture (grading from dry to wet grassland), reedbed and pools. The dykes, abandoned clay pits and other watercourses carry a great wealth of aquatic plants and insects, many of which are uncommon elsewhere.
** – Seasonal Highlights – **
Spring : -
•Bitterns booming deep in the reedbeds, drumming snipe & woodcock roding.
•Arrival of summer migrants, swallows, sand martins, swifts, warblers and cuckoos.
•The dawn chorus which reaches its peak in early May.
•Hobby's taking mayfly on the wing along the Lodes.
Summer : -
•Marsh harriers can be seen feeding over much of the fen.
•Dragonflies, emperor, broad-bodied chaser, common darter, banded demoiselle hawking up and down the waterways.
•Wildflowers including orchids, yellow rattle, meadow rue. devils-bit scabious.
•Butterflies including meadow brown, small & essex skipper.
Autumn : -
•Large congregations of swallows and martins gathering prior to their migration south.
•Winter wildfowl, particularly wigeon arriving from the their northern breeding grounds.
•Winter thrushes, redwing and fieldfares feasting on the plentiful supply of juicy berries around the reserve.
•Hen harriers returning from their summer breeding grounds in Northern Britain.
•Mumurations of starlings over the reedbeeds towards dusk.
Winter : -
•Large flocks of wigeon, teal and shoveler on the wet grasslands and mere.
•Hen & marsh harriers coming into roost of Sedge Fen at dusk.
•Barn, short-eared, little & tawny owls can be seen or heard around the reserve.
•Bewick & whooper swans, pink footed & white fronted geese.
•Flocks of waxwings in periods of really cold weather.
•Bitterns around the open water margins in periods of cold icy weather.
** – Wicken Fen Vision – **
The Wicken Fen Vision is a project of the National Trust to, over a 100-year period, expand the fen to a size of 56 km2 (22 sq mi). It was launched in 1999 to mark the 100th anniversary of the first acquisition. In 2001 a major acquisition was made with the purchase of Burwell Fen Farm (1.65 km2). In 2005, a 100 ha turf farm, to be called Tubney Fen, was purchased. Other purchases include Hurdle Hall Farm and Oily Hall Farm in 2009, and St Edmunds Fen in 2011. The National Trust aims to acquire further land as it becomes available, paying the market prices. As a result of the increased area of wetlands, the populations of skylarks, snipe, grey partridge, widgeon and teal have all increased with a major increase in barn owls and short-eared owls. Buzzards, hen and marsh-harriers have returned, and bitterns began breeding by 2009 for the first time since the 1930s.
The Wicken Fen Vision has great support from many people and organisations. Large sums of money have been raised from grant-awarding bodies, and from individual donors. Enlargement of the reserve has faced criticism from some residents of nearby settlements. An on-line petition entitled 'SaveOurFens' stated "We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to Stop the National Trust flooding or junglefying our Cambridgeshire Fens!". Concerns centred on the issues of loss of agricultural land and increases in levels of local traffic and mosquito populations. A petition named 'wickenfenvision', in favour of the scheme, was also held. The two petitions ended in 2010, with a two to one vote in favour of the Wicken Fen Vision.
As part of the Vision project, the National Trust, in conjunction with Sustrans, opened a sustainable transport route connecting Wicken Fen with Anglesey Abbey
and Bottisham. Work on the paths and bridges began in 2008 and was scheduled for completion in 2011. The new walking, cycle and horse riding route is 9 miles (14 km) long, and includes a number of minor roads as well as new paths and bridges to link the gap in the existing Sustrans National Cycle Route 11 between Cambridge and Ely. The project, originally called the Wicken Fen Spine Route, includes the construction of a series of new bridges over the man-made waterways known as Lodes. In July 2008, the new Swaffham Bulbeck Lode bridge and a half-mile cycle and bridleway path across White Fen were opened. Upgrades to the crossing of the River Cam at Bottisham Lock and the bridge over Burwell Lode are planned. A new bridge over Reach Lode was opened in September 2010 and an upgraded cycle way across Burwell Fen is nearly complete.
** – Visiting – **
There are nine wildlife hides across the reserve. The two hides on the Boardwalk Trail, Baker's hide overlooking Baker's Fen and the hide on Tubney Fen are equipped for wheelchair users. Check the sightings book in the Visitor Centre to catch up on the latest wildlife sightings reported by their visitors and rangers. Don't forget to record your own sightings in the book.
** – Wicken Fen Boardwalk Trail – **
A short walk around Wicken's ancient Sedge Fen, a unique remnant of un-drained fenland. Offering the chance to see hen-harriers in winter; rare fen flowers in spring and summer, and amazing fenland sunsets year-round. Suitable for active families. There is an optional extension to the Tower Hide along a grassy footpath. The climb to the top of the Tower Hide involves a steep wooden staircase, which may not be suitable for some. Classified as Easy, the walk is just und thrre quarters of a mile, is dog friendly and should take less than an hour.
Start: Wicken Fen Visitor Centre.
1. Starting from Visitor Centre turn right onto the boardwalk trail, heading towards the wind pump.
As the sun dips lower in the sky you may be lucky and witness a magnificent fenland sunset. From late autumn and throughout the winter, look out for hen harriers, Britain's rarest bird of prey, flying low over the russet sedge as dusk approaches, looking for a safe place to roost overnight.
2. Follow boardwalk in the direction of the wind pump.
The wooden wind pump was originally situated on nearby Adventurers' Fen, where it was used to drain peat workings. It was moved to its current location and restored in the 1960s. Today it is the last working wooden wind pump in the fens.
3. From the wind pump continue on the boardwalk and then turn left through the carr (wet woodland consisting mainly of willow and alder), eventually crossing the vast open expanse of Sedge Fen.
Acres of russet-coloured sedge and reed gently sway in the breeze. Sedge Fen is one of the last remnants of undrained fen. It once formed part of the Great Fen basin, covering the lowlands of Norfolk, Suffolk, Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire. Sedge has been harvested at Wicken continuously since 1419.
4. Here you have the option of turning right and following the grassy track along Wicken Lode to the Tower Hide, which provides aerial views of Sedge Fen and the mere and reedbeds on Adventurers' Fen. Alternatively turn left and continue following the boardwalk trail.
5. Follow the trail back to the Visitor Centre.
** – Wicken Fen - Monk's Lode and Wicken village walk – **
Starting at the Wicken Fen Visitor-centre this walk takes you along Monk's Lode through areas of new wetland habitat and up into Wicken village. A very short detour will bring you to the Maids Head Public House. In summer look out for Kingfishers and dragonflys; wildfowl and short-eared owls in winter. Ideal for families. Classified as Easy, this walk is just over two miles long and should take a little more than one hour. It is dog-friendly and has very good disabled access.
Start: Wicken Fen Visitor Centre.
1. Take a look in the Visitor Centre to find out more about the wildlife and history of Wicken Fen. As you exit retracing your steps, Wicken Lode is on your right. Follow the path keeping the water to your right. Edmund's Fen & Wicken's Poor's Fen is on your left. Traditionally local villagers had the right to harvest sedge and peat from here.
2. Cross Monk's Lode at Norman's Bridge. Turn left after the bridge and follow the path. On your right is Baker's Fen, a good place to see wildfowl, lapwings, short-eared owls and Wicken's herds of konik ponies and highland cattle. When the gravel path comes to an end keep walking along the riverbank.
Keep an eye open for short-eared owls. They can sometimes be seen in this area.
3. You will come to a footbridge over Monk's Lode. Cross this bridge and continue along the hard path across a field towards Wicken village.
4. As you enter Wicken village the footpath turns to the left and the road straight ahead of you is Cross Green. If you would like to stop off for some refreshment at the Maid's Head P.H. take a short detour at this junction and go straight on along Cross Green until you come to the High Street (A1123), cross the road and the P.H. is directly ahead of you. If, however, you do not want to visit the Maid's Head P.H. take the footpath to the left, which passes Wicken Windmill. The footpath runs into Back Lane and eventually joins Lode Lane.
5. THIS STEP ONLY APPLIES TO THE DETOUR TO THE MAID'S HEAD P.H. After leaving the Maid's Head P.H. return to the High Street and cross over, then turn right.
6. THIS STEP ONLY APPLIES TO THE DETOUR TO THE MAID'S HEAD P.H. Walk along the High Street (ignore the first turning on the left which leads to Wicken Windmill), turn left into a small lane with a footpath sign for King's Way.
7. THIS STEP ONLY APPLIES TO THE DETOUR TO THE MAID'S HEAD P.H. After a short distance a footpath crosses the side street. Turn right onto the footpath which runs into Back Lane eventually meeting Lode Lane.
8. Turn left onto Lode Lane and follow the lane down to the Wicken Fen Car Park and Visitor Centre.
** – Wicken Fen Adventurers Trail – **
This trail explores a varied landscape of reed-beds, open water and wet grassland. Look out for Dragonflies in summer, the Wind-pump and of course their herds of Highland cattle and Konik ponies. Classified as Moderate the walk is nearly three miles long and should take one and a half hours. Please take care near waterways and ponds. Not suitable for wheelchairs, especially in Winter when sections of the route can get wet & muddy, there is also a slight incline which would be difficult for wheelchair users. Dogs on leads are welcome. Please clean up after your dog.
Start: Wicken Fen National Trust Visitor Centre.
1. Take a look in the Visitor Centre to find out more about the wildlife and history of Wicken Fen. As you exit, Wicken Lode is on your right. Follow the path keeping the water to your right. You will pass some ash trees and Wickens Poor Fen on your left. This is common land. Traditionally local villagers had the right to collect sedge and peat from here.
2. Cross Monks Lode at Normans Bridge. Look out for plants like arrowhead and water lilies. Turn left after the bridge.
With a life span of just under a year, Brimstone are some of the longest-living British butterflies. It is said that Charles Darwin collected bugs here in the 1820s he certainly rummaged through boats of sedge harvested in the fens as they arrived in Cambridge.
3. Walk along Monks Lode, then turn right through the lower set of gates.
4. Note the two hides on your right. Look out for birds like wigeon, teal and shoveler in winter and lapwing and redshank in summer on the flooded fields; and for Konik ponies and highland cattle.
They use konik ponies and cattle to graze the scrub, preventing the formation of woodland on the fen and the loss of this unique wetland habitat. Roe and muntjac deer, hares, grass snakes, water voles and common lizards can also be spotted at Wicken.
5. Turn right along the next path, and on your right is the site of Norman's Mill. Originally used to drain the turf (peat) pits. Spot the windpump which is now restored on Sedge Fen. On your left, roe deer can often also be seen. During the Second World War Dig for Victory campaign, the war office turned the fen into arable land. Restoration of the area is now being carried out.
Most of East Anglias fens have been drained for farmland. In 1899 the Trust bought its first piece of land here for £10. Now, we are leading the Wicken Vision, an ambitious habitat creation project, which plans to extend these historic wetlands by 1000% over the next 100 years.
6. Note the reedbeds on your left and the many birds and insects inhabiting them. Turn right again to walk alongside Wicken Lode. There is a squeeze gap and path on the right leading to West Mere Hide, used to overlook the meres west end and the island.
In winter, spot wildfowl and wading birds in marshy areas, plus flocks of fieldfare and redwing on farmland. Lapwing, redshank, wigeon, bearded tit, heron and marsh harrier live here year round. Woodpecker nest in birch trees and barn owls hunt over the fen and grasslands. In spring, listen out for the loud boom of the highly secretive bittern. They faced extinction in the UK in the 1990s but are now on the up, thanks to conservation efforts.
7. Continue on to a hide which has views across the whole mere.
Over 4000 insect species are found at Wicken Fen including Britains largest dragonfly, the emperor. Rafts of whirligig beetles skim over the surface of the ditches. See fenland plants like great fen sedge, hemp agrimony, meadowsweet, marsh pennywort, and the beautiful purple marsh pea. The ponds and ditches are home to yellow flag iris and greater bladderwort a carnivorous plant that feeds on water fleas.
8. Cross back over Normans Bridge and return towards the Visitor Centre.
End: Wicken Fen National Trust Visitor Centre.
** – Wicken Fen Octavia Hill Trail – **
Starting from the original area of Wicken Fen, acquired in 1899, head along the Lodes Way and out on to Burwell Fen. This Fen is a piece of land acquired in 2001 as part of the Wicken Fen Vision, a project to create a nature reserve to protect the original fen and create more space for people and wildlife, meeting the aspirations of Octavia Hill more than a century ago. Suitable for active families.
The walk is classified as Medium and will take at least 2 and a half hours. It is six miles long and is dog friendly. The whole area is a great place to see birds of prey in winter, and it’s not unusual to see buzzard, marsh-harrier, short-eared owl, barn owl, sparrowhawk, peregrine falcon, and occasionally hen-harrier.
Start: Wicken Fen Visitor Centre.
1. Starting at the visitor centre, Wicken Lode will be on your right. Following the path (National Cycle Network 11), keeping the water to your right and Wicken's poor fen to the left. This is common land from where, traditionally, local villagers had the right to collect sedge and peat.
2. Cross Monks Lode at Normans Bridge then turn left and continue on NCN11 with the Lode on your left.
3. Turn right to follow the cycle track; you're now walking across Bakers Fen. Look out for Highland cattle and Konik ponies.
They use Konik ponies and cattle to graze the scrub, preventing the formation of woodland on the Fen and the loss of this unique wetland habitat. They're free to roam across a large area, but you should be able to spot them somewhere out on the Fen.
4. Pass Priory Farm on your right and when you reach Burwell Lode, use the concrete footbridge to cross over the Lode to Burwell Fen - look out for herds of Roe Deer on the Fen. Continue on the cycle path (NCN11).
The NT acquired Burwell Fen in 2001 as part of the Vision Project. To assist the re-creation of wetland habitat a low level clay bund has been constructed to enclose 183 acres (74ha) of the Fen. The bund will help retain water taken from Burwell Lode during the winter months. Raising the water table will lead to the creation of flood-plain grazing marsh, which will provide an important wintering habitat for birds such as wigeon, snipe, teal, and a breeding habitat in spring for lapwing and waders, including redshank and avocet.
5. Cross over Reach Lode Bridge. Turn right after the bridge and walk along the river bank with Reach Lode on your right.
Opened in 2010, the bridge was the key link in the Lodes Way Cycle Route, a joint project with Sustrans to create a cycle route from Bottisham to Wicken.
6. Follow Reach Lode past Pout Hall Corner, the triangular pond where Reach Lode and Burwell Lode meet, and then continue on to Upware.
In the nineteenth century, a building called Pout Hall stood where the trees now are.
7. At Upware use the road to cross over the Lode and walk back down the other side until you reach the wooden ‘Cock-up Bridge’.
The name ‘Cock-up’ gets its name from the cock horse of ‘Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross’ fame. A cock horse is a trace horse, as would have been used for towing boats on the Lodes. The old wooden bridge would have provided a vital crossing point for those on horseback.
8. Cross Cock-up Bridge and turn left, following Wicken Lode on your left. Here's a good place to see the height difference between the undrained land on the opposite side of the bank compared to the land on the side on which you're walking, which has been drained - the peat has shrunk much lower than the Lode Bank.
9. Continue walking along Lode Bank, you will pass Tower Hide on the opposite bank and eventually arrive back at Normans Bridge. Cross over Normans Bridge and turn left to return to the Visitor centre, café, and the end of your walk.
End: Wicken Fen Visitor Centre
** – Facilities – **
• Visitor centre.
• Shop - selling wildlife books, local crafts and gifts.
• Café - homemade, seasonal food.
• Parking, 120 yards - £3.00 (pay & display).
• Dogs on leads please.
• Suitable for school groups.
• Baby-changing facilities.
• Children's quiz/trail.
• Children's activities in visitor centre.
• Pushchairs and baby back-carriers admitted.
• Family events throughout year.
• Boardwalk suitable for pushchairs.
• Mobility parking - visitor centre, 20 yards.
• Visitor centre - level entrance, all ground floor.
• Fen cottage - limited access by arrangement.
• Adapted toilets - Wren Building and car park.
• Grounds - ¾ mile level boardwalk route, two wheelchairs available for loan.
Read the National Trust full access statement (PDF). Assistance dogs are welcome. For a full list of the many wonderful, fun events at Wicken Fen (try traditional mud oven cooking) please click here.
Location : Wicken Fen, Lode Lane, Wicken, Ely, Cambridgeshire, CB7 5XP
Transport: Ely (National Rail) then taxi (9 miles). Bus routes: 117 stops close by.
Opening Times : Dawn Till Dusk; Visitor Centre 10:00 to 17:00.
Tickets Whole property: Adults £7.30; Children £3.65.
Tel: 01353 720274