Ouse Washes

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The Ouse Washes are an area in the Fens of Cambridgeshire and Norfolk, England. They cover the area between two diversion channels of the River Great Ouse: the Old Bedford River and the New Bedford River (also known as the Hundred Foot Drain).



In 1630, King Charles I granted a drainage charter to the 4th Earl of Bedford who engaged the Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden to construct the two Bedford rivers. The purpose of the new rivers was to facilitate drainage of the Great Ouse between Earith and Downham Market. The area between the rivers is 20 miles (32 km) long and almost a mile wide and acts as washland, i.e. a floodplain during the winter and, increasingly, also in summer. When they are flooded this causes a 30-mile (48 km) detour for local residents.

Environmental importance

The Washes are now of international importance and are designated a Special Protection Area for their wildfowl; there are nature reserves at WWT Welney and RSPB Ouse Washes. The washes are the largest area of frequently flooded (for an average of 22 days per year) grazing marsh in Britain. It is a Ramsar site, a Special Protection Area (SPA) and a Special Area of Conservation (SAC), as well as the Ouse Washes SSSI - a Site of Special Scientific Interest. With the advent of global warming, the washes now experience summer flooding also, and many birds are prevented from breeding in the area.[1]

It is of national importance for Bewick's Swan and Whooper Swan. It also attracts wintering birds of prey, including Hen Harrier, Merlin, Peregrine Falcon and Short-eared Owl. Redshanks, Lapwings and Snipe breed on the Washes in spring.

There are ten birdwatching hides (six RSPB and four wildlife trusts) one of which is wheelchair accessible.

RSPB Ouse Washes is a nature reserve, managed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds at Welches Dam. It is signposted from Manea village which is 6 miles (9.7 km) east of Chatteris on the A142/A141 between Ely and March. The visitor centre is open 9am to 5pm daily except Christmas Day and Boxing Day.

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