Working Lives

The eight-year saga of Catfield Fen (2008-2016)

Location: Catfield

Tim and Geli Harris live at Catfield Hall and are in a continuing battle to preserve the unique wildlife of Catfield Fen, which has been described in its official conservation designation as ‘the finest valley fen in Western Europe’. 

I met my wife Geli when we were both 17 and we’re now approaching 70, having been married for 48 years. My early years were in Norfolk and I was then brought up in Lincolnshire so I’m a country boy although I’ve made my money or worked in the City and abroad in America and in France. Geli is from the Palatinate region of Germany, which is rich in forests, so she’s the green one of the family. We both wanted to live in the country which is why we came to Catfield, where we’ve been lucky enough to live for almost 25 years.

Catfield Hall is built in two parts. The earliest part is from 1680 which is in red brick. In about 1800 a new front was put on by the Cubitt family who are well-known in this area. They were responsible for the south front and that’s in white to yellowish brick. Also significant are the large barns thatched with Norfolk reed built in about 1680 as well which are very typical for this part of the area. So you have an estate with an old core. There was a building here before the Georgian building in which we now live. We found Tudor beams when we were renovating the house so this is a site going back into medieval times.

Catfield Hall

Barn on the Catfield Estate

The Catfield Estate has been associated with conservation for almost 100 years. In about 1930 Lord William Percy who was the youngest son of the Northumberland family came here and bought the estate because he was very interested in birds. He wrote two classic studies on birds in his time here, one on the water rail and another on the bittern. In 1945 he sold the estate to the McDougall family who also had a strong interest in conservation.

The fen which the estate owns a large part of has been described in its official conservation designation as ‘the finest valley fen in Western Europe’. It is a calcareous fen which is very unusual and for that reason very highly rated. It has many interesting species which are associated with this type of fen, including the swallowtail butterfly and the bittern. It is particularly rich in beetles.

Geli and I have always felt that ownership brings with it a great responsibility. You may think you own the freehold, but really it’s more as if we have a leasehold to look after this place for future generations just as our predecessors did. Both Lord William Percy and the McDougall were conservationists who did their very best to protect the estate and the wonderful wildlife that goes with it. When we moved here we sought advice from the conservation bodies who told us that the key to the marshes is the water supply and that one of the best things you can do if you’re interested in protecting it is to put all of the arable land down to grass. Indeed, that’s exactly what we did. Our estate at the moment’s about 450 acres. We put all of it down to grass and that has done a good job and I think this is recognised in terms of protecting the quality of the water going into the fen by acting as a buffer. We then had to find a natural way of cutting all this grass and that’s why we introduced White Park cattle and Norfolk Horn sheep. These are both rare breeds. We started off with four ewes and now have well over 150 sheep in the flock. We also re-introduced hedgerows and in certain places we planted some more woods to try and improve the environment.



White Park Cattle and Norfolk Horn Sheep at Catfield

Because our fen is so rare and rich in all species associated with calcareous fens it is such an interesting place for naturalists. The Norfolk and Norwich Naturalists’ Society, a wildlife body, approached us in the early 2000s and said they would like to do an in-depth study of our marshes for posterity. They said it would be very helpful to do a complete study of what was on the fen, taking in all of the different species: the beetles, the fungi and particularly the plants. Although these are amateurs, they’re very talented and well-informed people. This project was led by a very fine man called Alec Bull. He is the co-author of A Flora of Norfolk and, as a result of their work on the fen, the Naturalists’ Society produced a book as a one-off monograph called A Natural History of the Catfield Hall Estate which was produced in 2008.

In 2008 Alec came to see my wife and I and he said, ‘I have a strong concern in that I believe the fen is deteriorating. You should pay attention. I think it’s drying out. The water supply here is not as good as it was and I have noticed that there is a lot of irrigation abstraction going on round you and it occurs to me that you should consider whether the irrigation for farming is causing damage to the fen by reducing its water supply’. And that’s how the whole saga of Catfield and water which lasted another eight years started.

We then thought the best thing to do was to seek advice from the appropriate people. We approached the Environment Agency and Natural England. The Environment Agency came here at the end of 2008 and we had a nice cup of coffee with them. They then went away again and we heard nothing from either them or Natural England for a year.

When the local irrigation licences at the end of 2009 were coming up for renewal, we asked what was being done about our concerns. Natural England said, ‘It’s our belief that Catfield Fen is protected by a layer of clay. There’s a clay layer under it so effectively you can take as much water out of the aquifer underneath as you like and it won’t damage your fen. It is rainwater dependent’. The Environment Agency just said, ‘It’s not our policy to talk to people; we only talk to bodies’.

We weren’t satisfied by these responses and felt we would have to take independent advice. We began to study what had happened before on the site and two things were clear. One was that when the licences were originally granted in the 1980s there had been some concern expressed about the potential effect. Secondly, Professor David Gilvear who at the time was the professor of Water Studies at Stirling University had been at the fen in the 1980s looking at whether the fen was susceptible to the effects of water abstraction pointed out that actually if you read the work that he’d done all those years ago it was clear that there were what were then labelled as ‘holes in the clay’ so it was not correct to say that a clay layer was protecting the fen and that there was a theoretical way in which the fen could be damaged. After this, Natural England then began to pay us more attention and question their previous statement. Their local representative Clive Dawkes came out in 2010 and he looked at the surface of the fen and he said, ‘I see what you mean. I think there is a risk here. In my view there is a deterioration in the fen which needs looking at’.

Natural England try and monitor fens by a system called condition assessment reporting which is basically designed to stop people like me ploughing up the fen or putting a housing estate on it. In my opinion and something subsequently admitted by Natural England themselves, this assessment was not designed or adequate for cases like ours which involved monitoring and assessing the effects of water abstraction which has occurred insidiously over a long period of time. Clive made the point and he actually wrote and said, ‘By the time the condition assessment would pick up the damage, it’s probably too late to do anything about it’.

We put this in evidence to the Environment Agency. So Natural England, with Clive Dawkes, supported the case that Alec Bull and then us we had been making and he then wrote to the Environment Agency in about 2010. We still didn’t feel that the Environment Agency were doing enough and decided that we would have to bring in lawyers if we wanted them to talk to. We also began to use the Freedom of Information Act to try and find out what the position was. It became clear from the Freedom of Information Act that the Environment Agency was almost completely reliant on a hydrological model. In terms of Catfield, their assessment of whether Catfield was at risk or not was based on this model. The more we looked at it and the more we had Professor Gilvear look at it, the more we realised there were limitations, as there was with Natural England’s condition assessment monitoring system.

Around this time it was agreed that there should be another study done to respond to our concern because together with Natural England, we produced a joint study saying that there was a problem with the marsh. The Environment Agency, faced with this joint Natural England-Harris-Gilvear approach then commissioned a Dr Geoff Mason to do a study of it. Dr Mason did a report of the potential causes of the deterioration and he couldn’t conclude what they were, but he concluded that water abstraction was potentially one of them. There were some others, including the management of the fen. That was a fair comment as a lot of the problems with fens and Broadlands are down to poor management and this is widely accepted. We would accept that and it is one that needs to be looked at.

We found out much later through Freedom of Information that the local farmers had jumped on this management comment and immediately wrote to the Environment Agency and Natural England saying that the people responsible for the problems with Catfield Fen were the Harrises and the reason was that our management was poor, we didn’t know what we were doing and implied that we were doing very little while taking the subsidies under the higher level scheme and allowing the fen to go to pot. Quite rightly Natural England then did an in-depth audit of our management. This must have been around 2012. They came back, they did a proper one, went back to scratch, looked at everything we did and came back and said that our management was exemplary and they’ve been kind enough to stick with this position ever since under quite considerable pressure. They said, ‘There may be many causes, but that the Harrises’ management is proper conservation management of the fen. This is what we recommend. They’re entirely in compliance with their agreement with us’. The farmers slightly changed their tack on that and said that, ‘Okay, then it’s conservation management that’s to blame because clearly there’s a change here between the old form of cutting reeds for commercial development and conservation management’ which they then began to spread. This is one of the things that was looked at very carefully in the public inquiry later.

The Environment Agency were reluctant to withdraw any licences from farmers, especially as there was no definite proof that abstraction was the cause of the fen’s deterioration. In my view, it’s the case that the farmers have a very strong lobby and the National Farmers Union and the Environment Agency meet regularly. They have a national official, Paul Hammett, who’s no doubt a very professional person, but he works full-time on irrigation and most of irrigation’s in East Anglia. At the beginning of 2013 the Environment Agency said to Natural England, something along the lines of, ‘You do realise this is a very serious issue? If we take away the licences from the farmers, you’d better be right’. This is a very important point. ‘And what we are concerned about is whether your science is solid enough for us to take this step.’ We had been trying to get Natural England to bring in their fen specialist for four years which they had refused to do and had relied on Clive Dawkes who had been by this time transferred out into some other department. We found the situation extremely frustrating because we had experts on our side and yet Natural England said, ‘We can’t comment on the science and you can’t see our experts’.

I think it was May 2013 when we were asked if we would grant access to the fen for Natural England’s experts for the first time. We’d never met them before and they brought with them a Dr Brian Wheeler who had worked on the Broads in the 1980s and 1990s. He was a fen botanist and he had a good reputation. He tended to specialise in succession management: how fens naturally mature. He was one of the authorities whom Natural England had referred to before saying that there was a layer of clay which protected the fen. He came in a private capacity because he’d retired and he made it very clear he wouldn’t report officially, but would just give his opinion to Natural England. At the eleventh hour they also introduced the fen specialist Dr Wanda Fojt. They came and spent a morning on the fen. Wheeler gave his opinion which was, ‘What you’re seeing on the fen is natural succession. This is what happens naturally in fens. They become more acidic and that’s what happens. There’s nothing new here. These are turbaries. This is natural succession’. We were concerned, as was Professor Gilvear who said, ‘You don’t seem to be looking at my comments about the holes in the clay’. What Gilvear pointed out was the catchment area for water for Catfield Fen was only a maximum of two and a half times the size of the fen itself and therefore  if you took water out of something which is two and a half times the fen, potentially there’s a real risk to the fen. The licences in question are over 90,000 cubic litres per year and this of course is taken out when the fen is at its maximum stress.

However, Natural England chose to listen to Dr Wheeler, who had made his findings very public. It was then clear that Natural England were no longer of the same position as ourselves. We could see that it was full steam ahead to grant the licences. We realised that our struggle which had gone on at this point time for five years was going to result in defeat. It was clear that what we had said had not got any traction because Natural England had recanted.

Professor Gilvear had an old colleague of his from the University of Birmingham who still worked there, another leading hydrologist called Dr Chris Bradley. We sat down with him and we all agreed that unless we did something it was over. Geli asked, ‘Who are the best authorities in the world on this? We have Dr Wheeler who has said this, but who is really the top?’ And Chris Bradley said, ‘The best are the Dutch and the best university in the world for Water Studies is the University of Utrecht. I have contacts with them and I will approach them to see if we can get them to help us’. World-leading hydrologist Dr Aat Barendregt very kindly agreed to come across.

We realised that the weakness in our case was that we were unable to provide a timeline to demonstrate that the deterioration was progressing. Peter Riches, our land agent who had previously worked for Natural England, pointed out that there was a timeline potentially in that a very well-regarded local ecologist Dr Jo Parmenter had actually worked on the fen before and she had recorded the plants on the fen. I would say she is the best ecologist in Norfolk in fens and I haven’t heard anybody disagree with that. She came out again at our request. The first thing she did is she tested to see whether this clay layer was there. We did transects right across the whole property and it was quite clear that in many cases in our fen there was no clay layer at all and the peat lay directly on top of the crag so there was nothing blocking the calcareous from the crag coming directly up into the peat. The crag underneath is effectively chalk-like, but is a mixture of things. Basically, rainwater comes down through, but by the time it’s been sieved through the crag it becomes calcareous and that’s what creates the particularly interesting nature of our fen. She pointed out that it was in direct contact and – this became a critical point – that in a large part of our land, as opposed to other parts of the land in which Dr Wheeler referred to, there were no turbaries. Turbaries are Victorian peat workings where the Victorians and earlier people had dug out the peat and it had then filled up with water and other things. Turbaries have a different form of life cycle to peat and – this is where Dr Wheeler was correct – they do have a maturing nature and they do transit towards an acidic thing, but a large part of our land were not turbaries.  Dr Parmenter demonstrated that the peat was laying directly on the crag and there were no turbaries. Middle Marsh, where there were no turbaries, was where Alec Bull had said we were suffering the most deterioration in terms of a very rapid increase in sphagnum moss.  Jo also had done time-sequenced segments several years apart and which she compared and  then for us went through and looked at the vegetation again – something she did much more thoroughly than the Natural England’s condition assessment reporting – and she demonstrated a trend towards more acidic conditions. Although in scientific terms it was there, it wasn’t in levels of confidence that you could demonstrate, prove that this had happened, but it was indicative towards a trend towards more acidic conditions so we did have some form of timeline.

The other strand of what we did at this point was on the back of the visit of Dr Barendregt, which was even more critical. He went down on the marsh and he came back at lunchtime on the first day and he said – which has been born out ever since – ‘I can tell you what’s happening here. I’ve seen this in Holland. Your marsh is suffering from acidification and the reason for the acidification, I would suggest, is because you have a reduction in calcareous ground water with high PH and because there’s a reduction of water coming from the crag underneath the rainwater which is acidic is becoming more dominant. And that then leads to acidification and unfortunately if you have acidification it encourages the growth of this sphagnum moss which creates its own acid and then you have a vicious circle and that’s my view of what’s happening here’. He went away and he wrote a paper saying exactly that which was immediately passed on to the Environment Agency and to Natural England. It still felt as if they weren’t listening though. The Environment Agency didn’t want to meet Dr Barendregt. Natural England originally showed reluctance, but they said in essence, ‘British fens are different. Dutch fens may be like that, but ours are different.’ I sent this across to Barendregt who wrote back – and he’s a very mild-mannered man – saying, again in essence, ‘I have looked at fens all the way from the Broads where I have worked all the way to Siberia and I can tell you that British fens are not different. You know, the laws of nature are the same the world over and British fens are no different to other fens in how they behave’.

What to do? I again talked to Dr Bradley and he suggested that Dr Owen Mountford of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology – could review Dr Barendregt’s work so we could get over what we regarded as a political hurdle. He wrote saying that really Dr Barendregt does know what he’s talking about and I think this should be an immediate moratorium – i.e. that the licenses should be stopped as soon as possible.

Natural England began to ask questions which the Environment Agency found difficult to answer. For example, they said, ‘This rapid growth of sphagnum. It’s growing on pure peat. This transitional thing doesn’t seem to work there. We can’t understand it. Why is this happening?’ There were a whole series of unanswerable questions like this.

We’d been to see the Broads Authority and we had presented the case to them and their conservation officer Andrea Kelly had paid attention and she commissioned the leading expert in the hydrological modelling – the expert wrote the textbook – to have a look at the Environment Agency’s modelling. He said that it didn’t work and it was far too big-scale. This corroborated what Dr Bradley was telling us in that the model was okay in certain respects for setting a wider view, but when it came to looking at a particular marsh was completely out of its depth. In particular, it didn’t look at what was happening in the surface layers. All it predicted was how water rises and falls. It didn’t know where the surface was anywhere so it couldn’t predict the effect on the surface. It could just say the effect was plus or minus a metre. It’s used basically for modelling rivers and both he and the professor employed by the Broads Authority agreed that it didn’t work for wetlands.

Catfield was clearly becoming a test case for not only the management of wetlands, but also for abstraction which was clearly becoming an issue. Dr Barendregt on the ecological side and Gilvear and Bradley on the hydrology side were making a more and more professional case about what was actually causing the problem. Natural England were still asking those awkward questions. The other thing that changed at this time is that our neighbours the RSPB who were managing the next marsh to us listened to what Barendregt said. Richard Mason had lunch with Berendregt and us and went away and he began to look on his own marsh for what Barendregt was saying. He was a botanist and he showed real interest in it. He demonstrated that not only had the neighbouring land got the largest colony of one of Britain’s rarest plants, the fen orchid, but that it was rapidly consumed by the growth of sphagnum moss. The RSPB, like the NFU, has a massive lobbying power and, unlike us, when it wants to talk to Natural England or the Environment Agency it can talk at the highest level .

This went on until late 2014. The Environment Agency just wouldn’t make a decision on the licences. In all this process the two parties which have been supportive in our battle for trying to see proper process are Norman Lamb, our local MP, and the local newspaper the Eastern Daily Press. Neither took sides, but both made clear that the issues were out in the open and gave publicity to the event.

We then, through our lawyers, gave them a seven day notice to take action or we would call a judicial review. I think this was the end of 2014. On the seventh day they then announced they were ‘minded to not grant the licences’, but it wasn’t on the basis of the evidence that we’d presented, but of evidence put it in by the Broads Authority for a small marsh to the south of us called Snipe Marsh. They basically said, ‘Our model shows potentially there’s a problem there. The Broads Authority say there’s a problem there. Therefore, on the basis of this, we’re minded to turn down the renewal of the licences’. And that’s where it was left and then all hell broke loose afterwards.

We then went away and we produced some more work which demonstrated changes in the PH. Dr Barendregt had one of his senior students came across for a month and worked on the fen and demonstrated there was a link between a growth in the sphagnum moss and the acidification. She did a comprehensive study and this went in and was new evidence. The RSPB did further research which demonstrated two things. One was that the sphagnum moss was Pacman-like eating the fen orchid. Secondly, they’d done some work on PH itself and they showed evidence that the PH at depth on their land had actually lowered – i.e. it’d become more acidic – and significantly so. All this evidence was presented to the authorities involved.

When the final result came out we were told because of the instance of the election it had to be postponed because this was in purdah. We couldn’t believe it. It came out on the day of the election result in 2015 – on the very day – and they turned it down. They turned down the licences, both because of Snipe Marsh, but also for Catfield Fen alone for the current licences alone and on conjunction basis for all other abstraction.

But under the law irrigation can continue until the appeals process is complete so in all this time no turning off the taps, nothing. At the end of the appeal period the NFU then appealed on behalf of the local farmers saying, ‘We think because of the significance of it it should go to a public inquiry’. A public inquiry is a very expensive exercise, but it was agreed. I think the Environment Agency and us all agreed that it was sense given the important nature of the issues that it would be better that they had a public airing.

Now from our point of view – my wife and I – this was an extremely expensive exercise because we decided that we should make sure that the proper evidence was heard and therefore we would hire our own counsel. Justine Thornton, Ed Miliband’s wife, was available. I think Labour had just lost the election actually and therefore maybe she was available when she wouldn’t otherwise have been! Because technically the Environment Agency had by this time agreed that the licences wouldn’t be renewed there was very considerable debate about whether we would be allowed to participate in the inquiry at all because we were viewed as being on the same side as them. We took the counsel’s advice and applied to be what is known as a Rule 6 participant. It was a gamble from our point of view because the counsel said that the planning inspectorate could still decide to take no evidence from us at all and just say public statements from people like Barendregt.

Setting a date was another difficulty and while this was debated the abstraction was continuing. A year after the original decision the inquiry was scheduled in Norwich to last a month. It’s supposed to have taken place in six months, but it didn’t, but we’ve learnt that all of these things are very flexible when it comes to it, particularly when you’re on the other side. We gambled. It cost us a great deal of money to actually get a full legal team together to prepare the witnesses.

The case was in mid 2016. It was in Norwich and there was a room set aside in the King’s Centre. It was just like a court case. There were big teams. We had a team of about ten. The Environment Agency brought in all their experts. And the NFU also had a full team of experts. They’d been round our site. They had their own hydrologist, they had their own ecologist, they had their own economist. Similarly with the Environment Agency and they used the RSPB as their witnesses. Natural England came in. Dr Fojt was there throughout the process and also their modellers, the lot. It was like a criminal trial. Our witnesses were exposed to an aggressive attack from the other side.

We went for two reasons. One was to get the Catfield decision to be the correct one. The second was because it had taken eight years to get there we thought there should be lessons learned in this about the process. We appealed to the EU to protect us in this which they had taken up. They had a good look at it and said, ‘The process appears to us prima facie to be deficient’. We had requested that the lesson should be learned, most particularly that the Environment Agency’s hydrological model was not fit for purpose in wetlands and how they were applying it was not scientific and similarly that the condition assessment which was the prime tool of Natural England needed reform because it wasn’t working. If you had the finest unpolluted valley fen in Western Europe being destroyed before people’s eyes and no one being able to even notice it or do anything about it didn’t suggest that the rest of the wetlands in the UK, most of which are in East Anglia and the Broads were being cared for. The inspector chose to limit her investigation purely to the Catfield case. She said, ‘It’s beyond my remit to talk about these other issues. You may or may not be right, but I’m not going to talk about it’.

A week before the inquiry the Environment Agency was compelled to withdraw Snipe Marsh because the Broads Authority was unable to demonstrate whether the prime features of the site had ever been present. There was no evidence to show they had been. So the whole case on Snipe Marsh put forward by the Environment Agency and by Natural England and the Broads Authority collapsed. I would have thought that fiasco should’ve been very embarrassing for all of the bodies because in essence what it meant was the case was now being tried on our evidence, ours and the RSPB’s.

So the case put forward by the bodies – ‘the family’ as they describe themselves – didn’t exist. The case put forward by, if you like, ‘the rebels’ – the people who are not part of the family – was the one it was tried on. And as our counsel said at the beginning after this very disagreeable and brutal, very, very antipathetic first day said, ‘You may not like the British adversarial system, but the one thing that I can tell you is by the end of this all of the evidence will be on the table’.

It took just under six months again for the planning inspector to come out, but she obviously paid good attention and if you read her summary it’s a pretty good assessment of the facts. So she did a professional job. She came – she was very game; she walked all over all the site which is quite a challenge for anybody – and she did a good job. Overwhelmingly she decided in favour of rejecting the licences on the basis of the evidence presented by ourselves and the RSPB, supported by Natural England, by Dr Fojt, by our professional witnesses and what Richard Mason of the RSPB said.

My understanding is that the farmers were surprised to have lost, but again, if I may say, one of the things I’ve learned from this, is they shouldn’t have been surprised. It was very unwise of the NFU, in my view, to have taken on the Catfield case with international experts against you, when you’re defending one of the finest unpolluted valley fens in Western Europe is a battlefield: a test case. Really, it’s difficult to understand why they would have chosen that one. Anyway, they did and that was where it rests at the moment.

Of course we were happy with the result, but we’re still not overly optimistic about the situation and others like it. We had a party for the professional witnesses and the lawyers here in January of this year. The first draft of the invitation we put ‘Catfield Fen saved’, but we changed that to ‘reprieved’ because it isn’t over yet. The adversaries are formidable and they won’t go away. The pressures on the water supply in this part of the world are inexorable. They want to build a lot of houses. No one has even decided or even contemplated where the water comes from. There is interest in conservation now, but the conservation bodies are far weaker in terms of lobbying capacity. No one knows whether the damage to our fen is irreversible or not. What all the experts agree is it’s a very fragile ecosystem and once damaged it can be damaged for good. So no one knows and you have to give it a long period to see. There are sites in Norfolk where fens have been destroyed. East Ruston: completely destroyed, no recovery. South Lopham fen: arguably destroyed for good. So we’re not crying wolf; there are wolves around.

Mural in Catfield Hall

Tim and Geli Harris (b. 1947) talking to WISEArchive at Catfield Hall on 7th April 2017.

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