In October 2001,

In October 2001, a major purchase by Huntingdonshire District Council supported by a substantial donation by The Friends of Paxton Pits Nature Reserve, extended the Nature Reserve to 75 hectares. The land is now being managed to benefit wildlife as part of a Countryside Stewardship Scheme funded by Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs).

Three areas of the Reserve are being managed under the Countryside Stewardship Scheme. One of these is the Great Meadow which runs along the River Great Ouse and can easily be viewed from the the Ouse Valley Way.

Before World War II, the Great Meadow alongside the River Great Ouse was wet grassland. More recently it has been under arable cultivation and set aside. Now work is underway to restore the field to wet meadowland, characteristic of the Ouse Valley flood plain. This habitat is a Biodiversity Action Plan Priority Habitat for Cambridgeshire, and successful restoration should provide a home for a wide range of insects, plants and birds characteristic of the Ouse Valley.

The ditches on Great Meadow are now established and plants and insects colonise them. They have been holding a level of water at the same height as the river, however this tends to be low due to quite consistently dry summers. We also found a gravel layer running through the ditches which we expect is causing water to leak out. We hope that over time the banks will become covered with more soil and vegetation that will help to keep more water in the ditches.

Using funding from Defra, the Aggregate Levy Sustainability Fund, and with additional contributions from The Friends and Aggregate Industries (the latter by moving the earth), a network of ditches has been excavated and profiled. These are linked to the river through sluices and serve three purposes:

  • to keep the meadow wet – only feasible when river levels are high
  • to be a wetland habitat. They will hold at least some water throughout the year, resulting in 1 km of valuable linear wetland in the previously arable desert that has characterised Great Meadow in the last 25 years
  • to act as ‘wet fences’ to retain the cattle in the four individual fields that make up Great Meadow. Grazing will bring the grassland and ditch margins into the right condition to support the target wildlife.

In order to channel the water into different fields we will create one very shallow ditch (grip) initially running along a contour so that the bottom of the ditch is completely level. We will then see where water is tending to lie over the field so we can create more grips in the drier areas. This will mean we will gradually achieve a wetter meadow excellent for insects, particularly dragonflies, as well as wetland plants and waders.

In addition to work on the ditches, we hope to make the ground surface in Great Meadow wetter by abstracting water from an old well. The Rangers have done some exploratory work in the well to establish whether we may be able to pump water from here. This is the start of a feasibility study for a wind pump that could be used to lift the water to the surface, as is used on Old Hall Marshes RSPB Reserve in Essex.

Backlit highland cow
By Sophie Baker

Grazing was introduced to the area in 2006 for the first time in many decades and we now host a variety of livestock as managers of our grassland habitats.