Catfield Fen

Tagged with: Casework status: Open Casework type: Water Site designations: Ramsar site Site designations: SAC Site designations: SPA Site designations: SSSI
Swallowtail butterfly caterpillar Papilio machaon, perched on fennel, RSPB Strumpshaw Fen, Norfolk


June 23rd 2021 Update - RSPB Position on the Environment Agency’s statement describing changes to abstraction licences in the Ant Valley

The RSPB fully supports the Environment Agency’s proposal to review, reduce and cease water abstraction close to the Ant Broads and Marshes SSSI. This is a welcome step being taken towards responsible and sustainable water management for both farming and the natural environment.

Allowing continued abstraction at previous levels would have undoubtedly meant the end for many species which call the Broads their home, including many which are found in only a handful of sites throughout the UK.

The Ant Valley is not only an internationally important site for rare wildlife, the fen habitat itself also works to store and capture carbon emissions, an essential part of the fight against climate change.

The RSPB also recognises this announcement will have implications for farm businesses and we want to continue to work with and support the NFU and farmers to find solutions which seek to provide a sustainable source of water for their needs.

It is equally important to realise that we all have a role to play in safeguarding our water resource from home, to farm, to nature reserve. Water is such a critical resource and we need to respect it and follow initiatives such as Anglian Water’s ‘Love Every Drop.’

There is an urgent need to bring stakeholders together and ensure the transition to revised abstraction is managed effectively to ensure no further delays and ensure deterioration of SSSI’s is properly arrested. Effective monitoring of how groundwater and vegetation respond to these licence changes will enable all to show a meaningful improvement in the hydrology of the relevant SSSI’s.

The Ant Broads and Marshes Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) has been described as the best example of unpolluted valley fen in western Europe. It forms part of The Broads Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and lies in the north-eastern part of the Broads close to the town of Stalham. The RSPB’s Sutton Fen reserve and Butterfly Conservation's Catfield Fen reserve both sit within this SSSI.

The Broads SAC is one of the UK and Europe's most important wetland areas, supporting over a quarter of the UK's rarest species. Catfield and Sutton Fens are exceptional sites for wildlife and are nestled within the wider landscape where both the surface water and groundwater resources are a scarce commodity and need careful management and apportionment.

In 2015 the Environment Agency refused to grant two agricultural abstraction licences due to the potential harm they may be causing Catfield Fen. The landowner holding the licences appealed the decision but in September 2016 following a Public Inquiry the inspector upheld the decision. In 2018 the Environment Agency made it known that a further 41 time-limited abstraction licences adjacent to the Ant Broads and Marshes SSSI were being reviewed.

Water continues to be abstracted adjacent to the Ant Valley to irrigate arable crops. Starting in 2012, RSPB staff conducted surveys of the plants, animals, water and soil and the results indicated the site has become more acidic and drier. Since 2012 these changes have become more pronounced and pose a real threat to some of the country's rarest species, including c40% of the UK's fen orchid population.

Our interpretation of the evidence – which is that changes in site condition could be due to water abstraction - is supported by ecologists and hydrologists, including nationally and internationally renowned experts.

It is also supported by real and tangible evidence. In 2016 when the inspector upheld the decision not to grant 2 abstraction licences Catfield Fen held c50% of the UK population of the fen variety of fen orchid. In 2019 this number had dropped to 40%. It is important to note that many species are being adversely affected in addition to fen orchid and the very nature and makeup of the fen itself is changing.


Why is it worth fighting for?

The UK’s wetland environments have undergone a dramatic decline in the last 100 years, and it is unacceptable to allow the condition of wetland sites of this quality to deteriorate for any reason.

They are protected by the EU Habitats Directive for their rare fenland wildlife and are the last refuge for some of our most threatened species.

  • More than 2,500 species have been recorded at Catfield Fen
  • Catfield and Sutton Fens are two of only four UK sites supporting the fen variety of fen orchid. Catfield Fen alone holds c40% of the UK population, and together they hold around 90 per cent
  • Catfield Fen is the most important UK site for water beetles, with 22 Red Data book species; many of these species also occur at Sutton Fen
  • Catfield Fen is one of the most important UK sites for wetland plants with 18 Red Data book species; many of these species also occur at Sutton Fen
  • Catfield fen holds nationally important numbers of the critically endangered Crested Buckler Fern
  • Catfield Fen is one of only three UK sites of the one-grooved diving beetle
  • Catfield Fen is one of only two UK sites of the wasp Trogus lapidator

The importance of Catfield Fen

In both a UK and European context, Catfield Fen and Sutton Fen are important for the vegetation communities they support, as well as a range of rare and sensitive plant and invertebrate species. Together the sites support more than 90 per cent of the UK population of the fen subspecies of fen orchid placing a huge responsibility on the RSPB and Butterfly Conservation to manage these reserves.

We need to ensure activities in the wider area do not threaten these important wetlands and water is used responsibly.

A large proportion of the fen and reedbed in the Broads are found on peat soils, which have an important role in capturing carbon and mitigating for climate change. If peat soils dry out the surface layer oxidises, shrinks and becomes more acidic thereby reducing the ability and capacity to store carbon.

Take action for local wildlife

A view of the loch at Abernethy

You might not realise it, but you have the power to influence local decisions to protect the wildlife around you. We’ve produced a Wildlife Action Pack full of information to help you make a difference.

Swallowtail butterfly on lilac

Our position

Regular reviews of abstraction licences are the mechanism by which the Environment Agency is required to protect the natural environment and other water users from deterioration and damage caused by taking groundwater.

Any licence posing a potential risk to our finest wildlife sites should be subject to intense scrutiny using the best available science. Where the risk of abstraction causing environmental deterioration has been identified then the RSPB considers that the Environment Agency should take a precautionary approach and abstraction licences should not be renewed.

Water abstraction licence renewals in the Catfield area

The concerns regarding impacts from water abstraction on Catfield Fen have long been debated and the RSPB continues to collect and collate ecological evidence.

Our interpretation of the evidence is that the site continues to become drier and more acidic. This is of serious concern as many of the rarer species cannot exist in conditions of increased acidity and reduced water availability. The RSPB also has concerns that similar changes could impact Sutton Fen in the future.

The Environment Agency has continued to interrogate its groundwater model to look at drawdown scenarios within the Ant valley and the degree of adverse impact (or otherwise) resulting from abstraction within the valley. This approach has expanded beyond Catfield Fen to consider an additional 41 time-bound abstraction licences. The results of these deliberations will be made public later in 2020.

As important components of The Broads Special Area of Conservation (SAC), the evidence gathered by the Environment Agency (EA) to date has not been able to demonstrate that water abstraction is not causing a damaging effect on Catfield Fen. Indeed, Natural England (NE) have highlighted that key features of the Ant Broads and Marshes Site of Special Scientific Interest are vulnerable from water abstraction in the wider area.

In the Catfield area, some effort to improve water storage and reduce reliance on water abstraction has taken place, but more is needed to ensure adverse effects to The Broads SAC and Ant Broads and Marshes SSSI are avoided. There needs to be a greater push towards water storage when water is more available along with considering the appropriateness of crops grown nearby (those which have greater water requirements risk having a greater adverse impact on sensitive fen communities).

In making this comment, it is important to recognise that very small changes in water level or water chemistry within the root zone of fen plants can result in significant effects to the vegetation communities and plant species the fen supports. The natural, unrestricted upwelling of groundwater through springs are critically important in maintaining water levels and the chemical nature of the water and the fen. Any changes affecting this water source may not be noticed immediately and may manifest themselves many years after the change has been made. Equally reversing the damage is extremely challenging, expensive, may take decades and involve extensive land management operations and, in some cases, may be impossible.

Based on the potential harm to protected habitats and species in the Ant valley resulting from groundwater abstraction Anglian Water announced in October 2019 that they would cease abstraction from their borehole in Ludham. They announced plans for a £6.5m programme of works to install pipes to carry water from Norwich to Ludham.

What next?

The objective now must be to avoid any further deterioration and to reverse any damage which has been set in motion.

The issue being debated is complex, but the process that should be followed is straightforward and we need to find answers to the following questions:

  • Is there a likely significant effect from water abstraction on Catfield Fen which needs more detailed assessment? The Environment Agency, Natural England and Broads Authority have all agreed this is the case.
  • Can an adverse effect on The Broads SAC be ruled out? The Environment Agency evidence has not been able to demonstrate that it can safely be concluded that an adverse effect on the integrity of the site can be avoided. This is the position of Natural England and Broads Authority, and the RSPB strongly supports this position based on the currently available evidence.
  • Where an adverse effect on The Broads SAC site integrity cannot be ruled out, the specific activity should not be permitted. The RSPB recognises there is a lot of information that has been collected to date and collection of this information is still ongoing. However, the available evidence remains uncertain. Independent experts have highlighted several serious limitations in the EA’s groundwater model, which mean that it is not sensitive enough to be used to determine individual abstraction licences in special cases like Catfield. The ecological evidence indicates Catfield Fen is being adversely affected and it is not possible to exclude water abstraction as a cause of the change. In these circumstances, the Precautionary Principle must be adopted.

While the RSPB is seriously concerned by the impact of groundwater abstraction, we are not advocating that agriculture ceases adjacent to Catfield Fen. However, we are advocating the need for water to be managed responsibly in the future to ensure that features of The Broads SAC and Ant Broads and Marshes SSSI are protected into the future (and enhanced where possible). We would be happy to investigate options that would enable maintenance of the internationally important wetlands and appropriate agriculture in the adjacent area. Working together it seems we can achieve this outcome, but this will require positive partnership work in the future. Anglian Water’s ‘Water Resources East’ is a great example of stakeholders working together to find ways to better manage our water resource making responsible decisions about the future of Catfield Fen and Sutton Fen.

RSPB were successful in a bid for funds from the Environment Agency’s Water Environment Grant in 2019. The proposal included setting up and analysing samples from hydrological monitoring points coupled with repeat monitoring of vegetation next to these points, reinstating overgrown ditches, selective removal of invading Sphagnum. RSPB hopes to gain valuable, additional hydrological information to help us understand how changes in groundwater is linked to vegetation change, to slow the spread of Sphagnum and hopefully start the process of restoring the fen.

RSPB Sutton Fen nature reserve, Norfolk


  • July 2020
    Work due to start at Catfield as part of WEG project to restore fen habitat.

  • January 2020
    Natural England produce a report describing species losses and extinctions in the Ant valley, attributing these losses to increased abstraction and changes in farming.

  • December 2019
    The Environment Agency produces project timelines for review of time limited abstraction licences in the Ant Valley.

  • 17 October 2019
    Anglian Water announce plans for a £6.5m scheme to bring water from Norwich to Ludham, allowing them to cease abstraction from their borehole at Ludham, which is within 2km of Catfield Fen.

  • Summer 2019
    Contractors complete analysis of vegetation to educate best locations to install dipwell transects to generate evidence of groundwater levels, flows and chemistry.

  • October 2018
    RSPB in partnership with the Broads Authority and Norfolk Wildlife Trust submitted a proposal the Environment Agency’s Water Environment Grant to carry out habitat restoration work and hydrological studies in the Ant valley. Our proposal was successful.
  • 16 September 2016
    The Planning Inspector has dismissed the appeals. The Environment Agency's decision to refuse to renew the water abstraction licences is upheld.

  • April 2016
    Public Inquiry starts in Norwich.
  • June 2015
    The landowner has appealed the Environment Agency's decision to refuse to renew the water abstraction licence.
  • May 2015
    Environment Agency have refused to grant the water abstraction licences given the potential harm they may be having on Catfield Fen.
  • 31 March 2015
    EA have now delayed their decision until mid-May

  • December 2014 - February 2015
    EA consider public consultation comments before making final decision, anticipated to be March 2015.
  • 15 December 2014
    Public consultation ends
  • 17 November 2014
    EA release their 'minded to' decision to refuse the abstraction licences and launch a 28-day public consultation

  • October 2014
    EA due to make their final decision
  • September 2014
    EA to make 'minded-to' decision and allow public comment through its website for 28 days

  • May 2014
    NE submit formal response to EA ‘Appropriate Assessment’ requesting greater information be presented by the EA to clarify the ecological implications of water abstraction on Catfield Fen. Broads Authority submits formal response to EA 'Appropriate Assessment', raising many serious concerns
  • Jan to Jul 2014
    RSPB and Catfield Hall Estate continue to collect data demonstrating change at Catfield Fen, now showing loss of important habitats and species and strongly suggesting a damaging change of water chemistry that needs to be reversed
  • March 2014
    EA release ‘Groundwater summary report’ using data from their hydrological model. Widely criticised by ecologists, hydrologists, Natural England and Broads Authority
  • December 2013
    RSPB sends second formal objection letter to EA
  • 2012-2013
    RSPB and Catfield Hall Estate carry out independent ecological surveys which confirm change of vegetation to drier more acidic communities, away from the more neutral to alkaline conditions favoured by the current vegetation communities and rarer plant species. Both sent separate and various comment to NE and EA

  • December 2012
    EA release 'conceptual model' of local hydrology and abstractions. Widely criticised by ecologists and hydrologist as being inadequate. RSPB send formal objection letter to EA
  • September 2012
    RSPB invited to Catfield Hall Estate and made aware of the abstraction renewals for the first time
  • 2012
    Two local water abstraction renewals expire, but are temporarily renewed for two years to allowed the EA to gather additional evidence to make their final decision
  • 2011
    Natural England informs EA that there is evidence of long-term drying at Catfield and it is not possible to rule out abstraction as the cause
  • 2010
    EA Review of Consents concludes no abstractions are considered to be having an adverse effect on the Ant valley SSSI. RSPB first raises concerns about falling water levels at Sutton Fen (adjacent to Catfield)
  • 2008
    Owners of Catfield Hall estate (adjacent fen site with same water system) first raise concerns about falling water levels