A thriving future for the Fens

The Fens is a unique landscape that also punches well above its weight when it comes to producing food.

Although it covers less than 4% of England’s farmland, the Fens produces more than 7% of England’s total agricultural production, worth a staggering £1.23 billion.

Alongside food and horticultural production, farmers in the Fens also play a vital role in managing, protecting and enhancing its unique and fragile environment. A recent biodiversity audit identified more than 13,000 different species, including 1,932 priority species.

So the Fens is a food and farming success story but, as a new NFU report identifies, it also has several challenges to overcome to ensure it can continue to deliver for food and the environment.

Much of its highly-productive and prized soil is below sea level and therefore at risk from coastal and fluvial flooding, with climate change increasing that threat.

Growers of crops including potatoes, vegetables, flowers and fruit must continue to access water to sustain an irrigated crops sector worth £750 million per year. However, they are now entering a second consecutive year of agricultural drought that is increasing the pressure on water availability.

And the use of peatland for improved pasture, arable land and horticultural production has led to losses of this valuable peat resource, from an area that forms the largest contiguous section of lowland peat in the UK.

The NFU report – ‘Delivering for Britain: Food and Farming in the Fens’- addresses these issues and makes strong calls for action to ensure the Fens is protected for the future. It was launched at a high profile event on a farm near Peterborough in May, hosted by prominent Fenland farmer Michael Sly.

Among the 100 attendees were national and local decision-makers from Defra and the Environment Agency, local politicians and representatives from groups including the Association of Drainage Authorities, Natural England and the RSPB.

NFU Vice President Stuart Roberts, who officially launched the document, said he hoped it would become ‘the bible’ when it came to developing policy that affects food and farming businesses within the Fens.

Mr Roberts said: “This document is hugely important. It highlights how the Fens delivers for Britain, both for food and the environment. It will also act as a one-stop shop for key decision makers to inform policy in the years ahead and secure a successful and sustainable future for this unique landscape.”

Statistics in the report include:

£3.1 billion – the value of the Fens’ food chain

500,000 people live in the Fens

  80,000 workers are employed from farm to fork in the Fens

More than a fifth of all UK flowers and bulbs – and a third of our fresh veg – are grown in the Fens

428,000 homes can be powered by Fens-generated renewable energy.

The report points out that well-maintained flood defences are essential to protect the people, businesses and the 1,500 square miles of the Fens. Internal Drainage Boards maintain 3,800 miles of watercourses and 286 pumping stations, with a combined capacity to pump the equivalent of 16,700 Olympic-sized swimming pools in 24 hours.

Stafford Proctor is one of the farmers featured as a case study within the report. His family has been farming in Long Sutton, Sutton Bridge and Wisbech since the 1840s and Mr Proctor is involved in the Wash Frontages Group, which promotes and encourages improvements to coastal and river flood defences around the Wash.

Speaking at the launch, he outlined how the group had been involved in a major project to raise the sea banks at Wrangle, the first major improvement to sea defences in more than 30 years. After the defences were damaged and breached in the storm surge of December 2013, four miles of sea banks were strengthened and raised to a height of seven metres.

Mr Proctor said: “The amount of people and infrastructure we are protecting in the Fens is considerable. There are 500,000 people, their homes, rural communities, villages and towns, businesses and road and rail infrastructure.

“There’s considerable renewable energy generation that is within the Internal Drainage Board district, too.”

Third-generation farmer Charles Shropshire, from Cambridgeshire-based G’s, highlighted how the business was taking a whole-farm approach, looking at how to farm more productively while also managing soils and the environment.

The business employs a full-time sustainability manager and works closely with conservation groups such as the RSPB and research organisations including NIAB. It is using drones and other new technology to help it understand the varying soil structures around the Fens, which can include peat, silt, sand and clay. Soil tests for macro and micro nutrients are undertaken and an in-depth soil management plan is being produced for each field.

Trickle irrigation has been introduced for celery, potatoes and lettuce production and this has produced up to 50% savings in water usage.

Mr Shropshire said: “Our primary job is to produce crops and progressive farm management will be at the forefront of what we do. Our main aim is to become less dependent on agrochemicals and fertiliser.”

Alongside this excellent work already under way on farms, research centres based in the Fens are leading the way by delving into new resilient crop varieties and techniques that will produce more food, with fewer resources, in the face of extreme weather.

They include NIAB at Cambridge, which provides world class research, information and advice to support the sustainable intensification of crop production. Part of its research is focussed on improving the genetic diversity of modern wheat to ultimately increase yields.

Technical director Bill Clark said: “There have been drastic improvements and breakthroughs in yields in the past but we are ready for the next step change. Some of the highest yielding wheat in the world can be found in the Fens. The land has enormous potential.”

The full report is available at
or you can request a copy by emailing

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