Catfield landowner’s plea to save wildlife haven

Tim and Geli Harris who own Catfield Fen - one of the top wildlife sites in country - battling to stop over-water abstraction that is drying out fen.

Picture: James Bass Tim and Geli Harris who own Catfield Fen - one of the top wildlife sites in country - battling to stop over-water abstraction that is drying out fen. Picture: James Bass

Saturday, May 17, 2014
8:00 AM

Landowner Tim Harris made an impassioned plea to the Broads Authority (BA) “to act like Winston Churchill not Neville Chamberlain” and help him to save a wildlife site of European importance.

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He warned members that world experts agreed time was running out to prevent Catfield Fen drying out to the point where it could no longer support such iconic species as fen orchid and swallowtail butterfly.

And he cited the recent case of Mrs Myhill’s Marsh, another fen site near Hickling Broad, where he claimed

the solution to it drying out was “fudged” and abstraction allowed to continue.

The BA is a statutory consultee concerning a decision by the Environment Agency (EA) on whether two abstraction licences in the area of Catfield Fen to supply water to a local farmer should be renewed.

Senior ecologist Andrea Kelly told the meeting that a report by a top hydrologist, commissioned by the BA, pointed to the EA’s computer modelling approach used in determining decisions on abstraction being unreliable for a Broads environment. And she said Natural England - the government body responsible for protecting landscapes and the other consultee - had stated that the reports supplied by the EA were insufficient to rule out the risk of environmental harm from further abstraction.

On the strength of this evidence, Mr Harris, who manages a large part of the fen on his Catfield Hall estate, had hoped the BA would call for a halt to abstraction.

He said: “At Catfield, the international fenland expert Professor Barendregt has warned we are close to a tipping point to irreversible damage, if not already over it.”

According to the precautionary principle that must prevail on sites protected by international conservation legislation there was only one course, a moratorium on abstraction, he added.

However, BA chairman Stephen Johnson said they had to strive for a balanced view concerning the interests of conservation and farming. While doubt had been cast on the EA’s modelling approach there was “no cast iron evidence yet” that the problems at Catfield Fen were down to water abstraction.

Mr Johnson said the decision was the EA’s to take but they expected it to pay due regard to the precautionary principle.

Members noted Ms Kelly’s report, the basis of the BA’s response to the EA, and supported a research seminar into fen hydrology and ecology in the autumn; they also backed continuing engagement with the EA.

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