Catfield Fen: EA minded to refuse abstraction licences

18th November 2014

Yesterday the Environment Agency announced that it is minded to refuse two water abstraction license applications that are threatening rare wildlife found on two sites of European significance found in the Norfolk Broads.

Butterfly Conservation‘s Catfield Fen nature reserve and the RSPB’s Sutton Fen nature reserve are nationally recognised for their special wildlife.  The sites are found within the Ant Broads and Marshes Site of Special Scientific Interest and form part of The Broads Special Area of Conservation.

The applicant has applied to abstract up to 68 million litres per year from a borehole close to Catfield Fen, and up to 22 million litres from a second borehole located between Catfield and Sutton Fen.

Catfield Fen is exceptionally rich in wildlife, and is the most important UK site for water beetles and wetland plants.  The site is a stronghold for UK species such as one-grooved diving beetle Bidessus unistriatus, and the rare fen orchid Liparis loeselii, that have now disappeared from the majority of the UK.

Together, Catfield and Sutton Fen support over 90 per cent of UK fen orchid populations, and are home to large populations of swallowtail butterflies, water voles and Norfolk hawker dragonflies.  The sites are also used by rare UK species including cranes, bitterns, marsh harriers and otters.

Water has been abstracted adjacent to Catfield since 1986 to irrigate arable crops and recent evidence indicates that the site has become more acidic, and drier, and this is threatening some of the country’s rarest species.

Phil Pearson, RSPB Senior Conservation Officer, said: “We are delighted that the Environment Agency has taken action to protect crucial wildlife habitats and wholeheartedly support their decision”

“Catfield Fen and Sutton Fen are considered by conservationists to be the ‘best of the best’ within one of Europe’s most important wetland sites.

“The UK’s wetland environments have undergone a dramatic decline in the last 100 years, which is having a devastating effect on the wildlife that relies on this habitat (note 3). It is unacceptable to allow the condition of wetland sites of this quality to continue to deteriorate and risk the loss of even more species, some of which are only found at these two sites in the whole of the UK.”

Phil added: “Nationally and internationally renowned ecological and hydrological experts have expressed concern that the changes in site condition are likely to be due to water abstraction. The Environment Agency’s decision illustrates their commitment to protecting the natural environment from deterioration and damage caused by taking water from the environment.

“We are not advocating no agriculture within the Catfield Fen area. However, we are advocating the need for water to be managed responsibly. These sites are the last refuge for some of our most threatened species, and whilst this decision is a fantastic outcome, it is by no means the last challenge faced by these precious sites.

“The RSPB will continue to fight to ensure the right decisions are made to protect these sites for the future.  We are committed to working with individuals and organisations in the area to balance the needs of agriculture, water companies, councils and local residents, whilst protecting nationally important wildlife.

“We would urge people to encourage the Environment Agency to continue to support important sites such as Catfield and Sutton Fens by voicing their support for the Environment Agency’s decision.”

The Environment Agency has launched its ‘minded to’ public consultation.  From now until 15th December you can read about why the Agency is minded to refuse the renewal of the abstraction licences and can submit any related comments or new evidence that may have come to light. You can comment on how the Environment Agency has made this draft decision and whether there is anything that has not been included that may be important in making the decision.

You have until midnight on Monday 15th December to provide any relevant comments to the Environment Agency via email to or by post to National Permitting Service – Water Resources, Iceni House, Cobham Road, Ipswich, Suffolk, IP3 9JD.  After 15th December the Environment Agency says it will consider any relevant comments received and make its final decision.

No sure what to say?  Mark Avery has a suggestion.