Mud, glorious mud: restored ditches bring birds flocking back to Norfolk wetlands

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From the driver’s seat of his pickup truck, Jake Fiennes points to the dark green strips of grass that betray the location of a dried-out saltwater creek system on the Holkham estate in Norfolk. If the early autumn rains allow, a rotary ditcher dragged by a tractor will soon score shallow channels in the sandy soil to excavate many of the old waterways. Fiennes, the estate’s conservation director, and his wardens, Andy and Paul, will then fill them with standing water from the site’s chalk aquifers, part of a plan to transform dozens of fields into grazing wetlands on the 10,000-hectare (25,000-acre) farm and nature reserve.

Fiennes is certain that next spring will see yet more lapwings, avocets and other rare wetland birds thriving in the mud on the edges of the channels – known as field drains – in the habitat they share with a herd of about 800 cattle.

“It’s all about wet mud,” Fiennes says from his office before heading out into the fields, using his finger to trace the labyrinth of old creeks he wants the machinery to uncover on a Google Earth map. “I’m known for edges and hedges but it’s as much about the length of water adjacent to mud. All those little black flies: that’s chick food.”

Fiennes, whose five siblings include actors Ralph and Joseph, is a maverick well-suited to British farming’s post-Brexit environmental reformation. With slicked-back white hair interrupted in places by alopecia, he speaks in monologues about the potential for change in agriculture, scanning for the impact of his words with piercing cerulean eyes.

He took charge at Holkham almost three years ago, after more than two decades running Raveningham estate in south Norfolk, maintaining yields on the 2,200-hectare farm while dedicating large areas to nature. Early in his career, he worked on the Knepp estate made famous by Isabella Tree’s book Wilding.

We’ve had a record breeding season for spoonbills. We’re smashing it out of the park

Jake Fiennes

At Holkham, Fiennes wants to show his approach is available to everyone, as farmers wait for what follows the EU’s common agricultural policy, which could see them paid for their stewardship of biodiversity. He is a bridge between farming and conservation: a regional National Farmers’ Union environment representative and a member of the RSPB’s England advisory committee. Last year, he was the subject of a profile in the New Yorker, where, commenting on the 51-year-old’s uniqueness, former journalist Julian Glover, who led a review of England’s national parks system, said “there’s an element of Jake which looks like he could have taken up farming or heroin”.

Contrary to the warnings of many, Fiennes insists the natural world in Britain is “not as fucked as everyone says”. He unapologetically farms wildlife in the nooks and crannies of unproductive land and adapts incumbent methods. In just three years, Holkham’s lapwing population has returned to numbers last seen at the beginning of the millennium. In 2020, western cattle egrets successfully bred in Norfolk for the first time on the estate.

This year, Fiennes imposed new rules for hundreds of thousands of dog walkers on Holkham beach – one of Britain’s most beautiful – which is visited by nearly a million people every year (“800,000 people in 500,000 cars with 300,000 dogs”), to counteract the fall in numbers of breeding shorebirds.

Lapwing - Winter Flock in FlightVenellus venellus Welney, Ouse Washes Norfolk, UK BI006981 2F44KP8 Lapwing - Winter Flock in FlightVenellus venellus Welney, Ouse Washes Norfolk, UK BI006981
Holkham’s lapwing population has returned to numbers last seen at the beginning of the millennium. Photograph: Bill Coster/Alamy

“We’ve just had a record breeding season for spoonbills. It’s the largest colony in the UK,” he beams as we tour the fields. “We’re smashing it out of the park.”

Fiennes has invited me to north Norfolk to see the rotary ditcher in action, the only one in the country, as it works its way along a 50km stretch of coastline at eight sites from Cley next the Sea to the 1,600-hectare Ken Hill rewilding project. It spews mud high into the sky as it is dragged along by a tractor, carving out channels in the earth.

Despite the cost of hiring specialist machinery at £25,000 for 100 hours of work – paid for by a grant from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for farming in protected landscapes – it digs the channels at an impressive rate. The new footdrains, once a feature of wetland management on farms, are a perfect breeding habitat for lapwings, redshanks and their chicks, which feed on invertebrates in the mud, according to RSPB research. The expanded wetland habitat across the sites will help more wetland birds successfully breed across the north Norfolk coast, Fiennes hopes.

“Low-lying ground is not very farmable. You’re better off trying to put it into these kinds of schemes and getting more for nature and wildlife,” says Martin Fox, the operator of the rotary ditcher, before taking instruction from Fiennes about where to go next. “We take out [from nature] all the time but we’ve got to put something back in.”

The machinery has been used on high-profile schemes such as Wallasea Island in Essex, Europe’s largest coastal habitat restoration project, where an expanse of salt marshes, lagoons and mudflats was created using more than 3m tonnes of London clay excavated from the Crossrail tunnel.

Related: One in five of Europe’s bird species slipping towards extinction

Typical of his approach to choosing areas of farmland to leave for nature, Fiennes uses signs in the landscape to show him where to put the channels. “See that strip of deeper green,” he says, pointing to an adjacent field as we drive back to his office. “That is telling me that’s where the water wants to go. That’s where you want your foot drain to go.”

Later that day, Fiennes has meetings scheduled about beaver reintroductions, chalk stream restoration and improving hybrid jobs in ecology and agriculture. He tells me I have picked a bad time of year to visit, despite the recent arrival of up to 60,000 pink-footed geese from Greenland.

“Come back in May” to see the results of the rotary ditcher, he says, insisting once again that it will be another great year for lapwings, spoonbills and Holkham’s wetland birds.

Find more age of extinction coverage here, and follow biodiversity reporters Phoebe Weston and Patrick Greenfield on Twitter for all the latest news and features

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