The River Great Ouse forms the eastern boundary

The River Great Ouse forms the eastern boundary of Paxton Pits, providing an important link in the Ouse Valley Way long distance footpath. For many years, the Moorings were the only part of the nature reserve that was connected to the river, but since October 2001, Huntingdonshire District Council has owned and managed the former arable land to the south and a small area of fen next to The Friends’ River Viewpoint.

Dodder Fen

Dodder Fen is a low-lying area, of about two hectares, which runs alongside the River Great Ouse. It is occasionally flooded and has a mixture of hills and hollows within it. The nationally rare plant great dodder can be found here in varying amounts from year to year. Little is known about the requirements of this plant, so each year the plant’s abundance and distribution are monitored in order to gather further information. It is a parasitic plant with no chlorophyll or root system and uses other plants for support. It is thought that stinging nettle is its main host plant, but it has been also seen growing on marsh woundwort.

There are 10 metre-square trial plots in Dodder Fen near to areas of great dodder which are managed by cutting and raking off the vegetation and disturbing the soil to expose seeds. This is to encourage more variety of wildflowers and invertebrates to these areas, and to see how the dodder responds. In addition, each year in rotation 15% of Dodder Fen is cut and raked off.

Old ferry backwater

Thanks to work by the Environment Agency in 2006, the Reserve has new habitat in the form of a backwater to the River Great Ouse. The project is part of a wide-ranging plan to ‘reconnect the River with its floodplain’, and is aimed at enhancing the biodiversity of the river and providing areas for fish to breed.

Throughout the last 50 years, strenuous efforts have been made to ‘tame’ the River and make it navigable. Today, the much-reduced frequency of flooding and steady stream of pleasure craft attests to the success of these efforts. The downside to these ‘advances’ has been a loss in the conservation value of the River. The biodiversity of riverside meadows, which are no longer flooded every winter, has been reduced and most of the River’s small backwaters have dried up or been filled-in.

In an effort to get the water off the land and out to sea as quickly as possible, the River has been made something of a ‘canal’ – deep, steep-sided and without shallows and backwaters. Restricted to the strong flow of the main channel, several species of fish find it difficult to breed. Shallows and quiet backwaters are what they need for spawning and as a nursery for young fish, and this is what the Environment Agency hopes to create all along the River Great Ouse. You have only to watch the hundreds of small fish using Southoe Brook (where it is crossed by the Heron Trail) to realise the importance of backwaters.

Fortunately, the Agency identified a silted-up inlet just north of The Friend’s’ River Viewpoint as a potential site for re-excavating a backwater. Closer inspection with the Rangers and volunteers identified the inlet as the mooring site for the ferryboat that once linked Great Paxton with Little Paxton. There was also evidence from maps, and the vegetation, that the inlet had been very much larger.

A preliminary invertebrate study of the silted-up backwater showed it to be of “fairly high conservation value, based largely on the presence of species of restricted distribution”. To conserve this value, only limited dredging of the existing inlet was undertaken and a new larger arm of the backwater was created immediately to the north.

The work, funded entirely by the EA and carried out in July 2006, unearthed the remains of a flat-bottomed boat. We know very little about the ferry other than that there was a “Ferry Cottage” close-by. Was ferrying a full time job? Over what period did it operate? We’d love to hear from anybody with some information.

The Friends was pleased to contribute to the project by funding some tree surgery on a leaning willow prior to start of excavations, and the Mid-week Volunteers erected the fencing for safety, and to secure the new backwater for wildlife.

Ferry Backwater can be easily viewed from the southeast corner of Moorings Meadow. It already looks a picture; a quiet expanse of clear water, flanked by magnificent old willows and with varied waterside vegetation regenerating naturally. Fish populations and the biodiversity of the Reserve will be well served by this excellent project.