Future fens: using palaeoecology to inform restoration and conservation of the Lincolnshire Fenlands

Lead Research Organisation: University of Sheffield
Department Name: Archaeology


The fenlands of eastern England represent a unique landscape, shaped by 500,000 years of natural and anthropogenic processes. The area's low relief has resulted in a sensitivity to episodes of marine and freshwater inundation, producing a diverse and species rich landscape (Brew et al. 2015).

Much of this ecologically rich fenland has been lost. Artificial drainage in association with agricultural intensification has transformed wetland areas into arable land, leaving only 1000 fragmented hectares of undrained fenland (Morris et al. 2000). Continuing intensive cultivation and hydrological imbalance has caused desiccation and wastage of peat soils via oxidation and wind erosion. Many parts of the fenland continue to fall below current sea level, reducing its biodiversity capacity and subsequently decreasing the agricultural resource base.

Immediate palaeoecological investigation of the remaining fenland is imperative for aiding conservation and informing the land management potential of the fenland, particularly when faced with additional challenges associated with climate change and accelerated sea-level rise.

The overall aim of the project is to undertake a palaeoecologically informed conservation study of the Lincolnshire Fenlands (e.g. Mccarroll et al. 2017). The specific objectives are to:
- Establish a landscape change record, including vegetation, hydrological and anthropogenically induced landscape changes of a selection of geographically diverse sites across the Lincolnshire Fenlands throughout the Holocene.
- Use the land-use record to determine how the ecological conditions of the landscape have altered according to long term environmental and anthropogenic influences.
- Utilise the palaeoenvironmental data generated to inform current and future conservation and regeneration of both wetland fens areas and agricultural land.

Little palaeoenvironmental research has been undertaken on past landscape and sea-level changes in the Lincolnshire Fenlands, particularly the siltlands which have been overlooked due to the lack of overlying peat deposits. Climate-induced changes (e.g. storm surges, flooding, erosion) are projected to increase in future years and add to the vulnerability of the region, making the need for scientific studies in the area ever more pressing.

CASE partner
The Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust own and manage the last vestiges of surviving fenland in Lincolnshire including the Baston and Thurlby Fen SSSI and a new fen restoration project at Willow Tree Fen. The major question being posed and the one this PhD will help to address is: 'what are we trying to restore the fens back to?' This meets the Trust's strategic aim of 'restoring and creating habitats that contribute to healthy functioning ecosystems and an environment more resilient to climate change and other challenges'.

The Trust will give the student access to seven nature reserves in the region, allowing the Lincolnshire Fenlands to be used as a living laboratory. They will host the student at Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust, training them in field techniques and accompanying them into the field. They will train the student in conservation and policy orientated aspects of the work ensuring the research was transferable and applied. The office, workshop and welfare facility at Willow Tree Fen will provide a field base for the PhD student.

Brew, D et al. (2000) Holocene sedimentary evolution and palaeocoastlines of the Fenland embayment, eastern England. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 166, 253-273.

McCarroll, J. et al. (2017) Application of palaeoecology for peatland conservation at Mossdale Moor. Quaternary International 432, 39-4.

Morris, J et al. (2000) Reconciling agricultural economic and environmental objectives: the case of recreating wetlands in the Fenland area of eastern England. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 79, 245-25.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
NE/S00713X/1 01/10/2019 30/09/2027
2461735 Studentship NE/S00713X/1 26/10/2020 25/04/2024 Sally Derrett