Of Wet and Wildness

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and wildness? Let them be left

Gerald Manley-Hopkins

We rightly deplore the loss of natural forests around the world and bemoan the impact this is having on wildlife and the climate. Yet curiously we hear very little about the loss of wetlands which is taking place at an even greater rate and with possibly even more impact on the environment. Wetland habitats such as marshes, wet grassland, peatlands and salt marshes support an extraordinary variety of wildlife and store vast amounts of carbon as well as providing essential services such as clean water and flood prevention.

For centuries we have waged war on our wetlands and until quite recently draining them was seen as a universal benefit. It is hard to appreciate in our tamed landscape how much of the countryside was once wetland, with huge areas impassable in winter and too wet to grow crops. Since the war, improved drainage technology promoted by generous grants have meant that in the lowlands almost everywhere is now well drained and under intensive agriculture.

This is very much the case in East Lothian and the few surviving wetland areas are very precious. One such is the marsh on the north side of North Berwick Law which is owned by East Lothian Council. This has been slowly drying up as large plants such as reedmace take over and it was agreed in 2018 that a trial should be carried out to see if this process could be reversed and areas of open water created to benefit the wildlife. Open water is important, not just for birds but for aquatic plants, amphibians and invertebrates such as dragonflies. It also makes it possible to see more of the wildlife!

After carrying out local consultation, a drop board sluice was installed at the main outflow to the marsh to allow water levels to be raised and controlled – see photo. The project has been running now for over four years and has proved very successful. Water levels are maintained about 60 cm higher than previously across the three hectares of the marsh – creating more open water and linking up some pools which were dug by machine. The birds have responded remarkably well with mute swans, greylag geese, teal and mallard spending much of the winter using the marsh while new breeding species include herons, mute swans, greylag geese, little grebe and tufted duck.

It is pleasing that many local people now appreciate the marsh and enjoy the wildlife. Some help as volunteers carrying out regular monitoring of water levels and birds as well as working hard cutting back the invasive plant reedmace during the autumn. The project has shown that wetlands can be restored relatively easily and quickly, and it is hoped that it may encourage others to bring back some more wet and wildness to our countryside.

John Hunt 16/04/23