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Welcome to the website for the New Life on the Old West project, funded through the National Lottery Heritage Fund. It was originally supposed to commence in April 2020 but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the start was delayed until October 2020. We intend kicking off our activities more fully in early 2021.

The New Life on the Old West project will deliver 88 wildlife habitat enhancements to the green spaces and surrounding countryside in areas around the Old West river, focusing on 9 parishes: Cottenham, Haddenham, Little Thetford, Over, Rampton, Stretham, Wicken, Willingham and Wilburton. This project will improve the lives and opportunities of people living in these communities by increasing their access to local nature, and helping a wide range of children and adults to develop new skills and learn about their unique fenland wildlife and natural heritage.

If you need more information and can’t find what you wanted then please call or email us for a chat.

Also, do have a look (or like/follow) us on our project social media accounts on Twitter (@NewLifeOldWest) and Facebook (@newlifeontheoldwest) .

The Old West River, at Earith's Hermitage Lock. Image Cambridgeshire ACRE

The Old West River, at Earith’s Hermitage Lock. Image Cambridgeshire ACRE

The New Life on the Old West Project is supported by:

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Springtime wildlife in the fens

Out among the fields of swelling beans, potatoes and wheat, often hidden away in deep, green, plant packed ditches, or patches of thorny scrub, there’s been some wonderful fenland wildlife to see this spring. A very early morning visit to Cam Washes, a wild place just north of Waterbeach, revealed a hotspot of waders, warblers and waterfowl. Gadwall, shelduck and redshank foraging among the wet grassland, pools and scrapes, while serenaded by melodic choirs of greater whitethroat, willow warbler and blackcaps, buzzed by 50 plus sand martins and swallows. A vibrant kingfisher darted back and fore along the river, and canary bright yellow wagtails bounced through overhead. But perhaps the highlight… a glossy ibis, an unusual vagrant more usually seen in north Africa and the Mediterranean.

Glossy ibis

A visit to a wild patch of Great Ouse washlands near Aldreth resounded to the call of 3 cuckoos echoing from different directions; rather like being stuck in a Swiss clockmaker’s workshop. Here the tall vegetation fringing the river was alive with the guttural scrambled song of sedge warblers, occasionally to be seen with their distinctive pale eye stripe, or supercilium, climbing to the top of their chosen perches.

Broad-bodied chaser dragonflies & myriad common blue damselflies provided colour, beautiful orange tip butterflies flitted through an adjoining area of woodland. The males have eponymous orange tips to their wings; females are less showy and less often seen, with a beautiful patchwork pattern to the underside of their wings. Later the same day, a short walk along the river outside Ely revealed the distinctive calls of cetti and grasshopper warblers from the river banks, all a mere 10mins walk or so from the train station.

Broad-bodied chaser dragonfly

There’ll be lots of opportunities to pick up some new wildlife identification skills through the project – our new website will be going live soon, and there we will share details of guided walks and training covering birds, dragonflies, ditch dwelling beetles, otters and water voles among others. Keep an eye here and on our twitter account @NewLifeOldWest for updates – and do message us, as we’d love to hear about any of your sightings.  

Some useful wildlife websites to help identify what you see:

https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/

https://british-dragonflies.org.uk/

https://butterfly-conservation.org/

https://www.wildlifebcn.org/wildlife

And absolutely brilliant for bird songs – check out https://www.xeno-canto.org/

Enhancing biodiversity along Engine Drain (and the learning from this)

This Spring, Ely IDB (Internal Drainage Board) contracted Waterbeach/Old West IDB to install just under 1 km of pre-planted coir rolls along the eastern bank of the Engine Drain in Willow Grange Farm, Chittering.

Installing the first coir rolls

This work was funded by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development via the Environment Agency and Cambridgeshire ACRE.

The plants in the coir rolls will help to prevent soil run off, improve water quality, increase bank stability and improve biodiversity.

The rolls were ordered Autumn 20, planted up February 21, and the first delivery was late March 21 with installation taking place in April 21.

Sharing the lessons learnt:

  1. The pre-planted coir rolls need to be ordered the summer before installation to give the plants a chance to grow and for their roots to bed into the coir. We were unable to do this and lost a lot of plants in transit as they were not well established enough to be moved. The suppliers (WLMS Solutions) came and replaced the missing plants in situ.
  2. Stakes: need to be strong and at least half width to withstand the force and volume of the water in the drain and be able to take the force needed to hammer them into ballast/gravel. It was decided to use 4 stakes/roll rather than the usual 3 stakes for added safety. This also meant using more wire to secure them. The wire was fastened to the stakes using staples.
  3. It is important to get the installation equipment delivered before the rolls so that everything is in place and there will be no delays to installation due to a lack of supplies.
  4. The rolls need to be taken out of their nursery beds at the suppliers about 4 days before transporting so they can dry out and be light enough to transport, sudden changes to delivery dates are not possible.
  5. Well established plants in rolls can wait happily for a few days before being installed, smaller plants needed watering ( a scoop of water from the drain using a digger bucket)
  6. Once installed into the drain the plants started growth rapidly – this was helped by warm sunny mid-April.
Looking towards Engine Drain Pumping Station
Coir rolls and plants close up

This experience will be used again, next Spring when we will plant more rolls in another drain and there will be a landowner/farmers event in September 21 to look at the roll once they have grown and talk to the IDB, suppliers and farmer ( for more details about this event contact rachael.brown@cambsacre.org.uk.

A big thanks to Fiona Dunne – farmer Willow Grange Farm and Jeremy Saddler, Waterbeach/Old West IDB. )

New Life… now up and running!

It’s exciting times for our New Life on the Old West project… as we’re off and running! I joined the project at the start of January, and have been busy putting a talented project team together, applying for consents and permissions for the work we plan to do, and getting to know our local communities, our project partners and stakeholders. I’ve previously worked for nature and conservation bodies, such as National Trust and South & West Wales Wildlife Trust, and recently worked on a major National Lottery supported orchard survey, restoration and creation project in the East of England… and I’m very excited to use what I’ve learned for New Life!

Thanks to the National Lottery Heritage Fund’s kind support, and National Lottery players, we will spend the next 3 years delivering 92 planned habitat enhancements for our threatened Fenland wildlife, at 34 different sites across 9 rural and varied parishes – Cottenham, Willingham, Wicken, Haddenham, Over, Little Thetford, Stretham, Wilburton, Rampton.

We’ll help make around 3.9km of drainage ditches (the famous watery hedges of the Fens) more wildlife friendly – by adding berms to create long strips of shallow water within the ditches; shallow water with up to 10cm depth is the most important freshwater habitat for wildlife. These berms will help many different animals, such as the water vole, toads, eels and grass snakes, as well as rare ditch dwelling plants and beetles. We’ll dig 25 new ponds and scrapes, all of differing sizes and depths – helping provide homes and feeding opportunities for waterfowl and wading birds, thirsty turtle doves, amphibians and fish. Expect to see more dragon and damselflies spinning overhead at these sites, perhaps hunted by an acrobatic hobby.

Drainage ditch with a berm cut into its side – this creates shallow water for wildlife

We’ll create about 82ha of wildflower rich areas – wildflower hay meadows on farms and community green spaces, plus planting flower plugs tolerant of mowing on more heavily managed green space. We’ll translocate 2 incredibly rare fen-relic species, the greater water parsnip, and the frankly weird and wonderful looking eyed longhorn beetle, from nearby locations – we hope to widen their range and make their futures more secure in our landscape. We’ll also plant orchards, rare black poplar trees and species rich hedges, install bat boxes and bug hotels… and much more!

This work will create multiple habitat stepping-stones along the course of the Old West River, between its confluence with the River Cam, to where it meets the Ouse Washes at Earith Junction – linking the two large internationally known nature reserves at National Trust’s Wicken Fen and RPSB’s Ouse Fen and Ouse Washes. Our Fenland wildlife should be able to move more readily though the landscape, travelling from and between these two highly nature rich areas.

Eyed longhorn beetle – or an Egyptian Pharoah’s brooch?

We can’t do all this alone! Many of our busy farmers, local parish councils, the Internal Drainage Boards and around 50 other partners and community bodies have promised to help! And, most importantly, we’re recruiting (we hope loads) of volunteers to help – with habitat creation work parties, wildlife surveys and monitoring, and we also want to explore and celebrate the unique history and culture of the Fens, so need volunteers to come along and enjoy archaeological digs, share their photographs of the area, record stories and memories from those who have lived a long time in the Fens.

We’re going to run events showing people how they can recognize and record the wild things around them, how to create and manage small wetland sites and wildflower meadows, open farm days for kids, guided walks and species identification courses, and a lot more. Some talks and events will be online and, when it is again possible to do so, we’ll be back outdoors, making sure everything is Covid secure and everyone kept safe. With my fingers very firmly crossed indeed, I hope we’ll be able to hold a celebratory socially distanced launch event later in summer. Look out for us across the Old West communities, follow us on twitter @NewLifeOldWest and Facebook & keep an eye on this website… we’re revamping it so we can more easily share our volunteers stories, new of our progress, wildlife sightings, upcoming events and more. We’re up and running, there’s going to be loads to do, enjoy and share, and it should all be very good fun!  

Howard Jones, New Life on the Old West Project Manager                                                                             

New Life on the Old West is very kindly supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and National Lottery players.