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PETER FROST braves the winter floods in Cambridgeshire in search of exotic visitors.

Most of the articles in Canals Rivers and Boats are about using our water ways for boating and other leisure pursuits. But our British rivers and canals have another fundamental purpose – flood control.

This important task has been much in the news in recent months.

Nowhere is flood control more evident and indeed spectacular than on the Ouse Washes deep in the heart of the Fens in winter. Around Welney controlled flooding creates a huge temporary inland sea. The acres of water floods fields, cuts of villages and hamlets and even closes roads.

Each winter huge tracts of land between the various strangely named courses of the Bedford Ouse here are deliberately flooded to save other more vulnerable parts of the river’s catchment from inundation.

One river can have many names. The Old and New Bedford Rivers, The Bedford Ouse, The Tidal River and The Hundred foot drain are all aliases for basically different courses of the same waterway.

Other place names here read like some primitive pagan chant. Lodes and Droves aplenty, the sixty foot, the thirty foot, the sixteen foot, Black Bank Engine Bank, Three Holes, Salters Lode the poetic list goes on.

We drove down Ten Mile Bank ignoring the ‘Road closed’ signs but checking the permanent roadside depth gauges as we carefully picked splashly if safe, and fairly dry, route across the fens.

This watery landscape is all part of a much bigger complicated network of rivers, drains and canals that control the rich landscape of Fenland – the most watery corner of England.

These waterways drain the Eastern Counties of England into the wide waters of the Wash.

For nature lovers this Fenland winter flooding had an amazing birdy bonus.

At Welney on these Cambridgeshire Fens huge flocks of migrant swans arrive from Scandinavia and Russia each winter to enjoy this seasonal inland sea.

They may look a lot like out native mute swan but as a keen birder put it “you can tell the Russians – they have the stiff necks.”

This year a warmer than usual Russian winter has reduced visitor numbers but there were still more than five thousand Whooper and Berwick swans on the fens when I visited the flooded washes just after New Year.

Bird migration is an amazing thing. As the winter gets really cold in Northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia swans and geese head south and many of them end their annual journey in the British Isles.

We might think our winters can be cold but they are positively balmy compared to the habitats occupied by these hardy feathered northerners.

Thousands of these Whooper and Berwick swans make a spectacular sight as huge flying flocks darken the winter sky over the flooded Cambridgeshire countryside.

Special early morning events are organised to see the truly breathtaking dawn flights when thousands of swans take off to search for winter food.

Groups of then can be spotted later on in the day feeding on sugar beet tops, winter wheat field and the large open fields of stubble.

Some ploughing had exposed the rich black soil of the fens – like a freshly split grow-bags. Ploughed fields however have nothing for the swans to graze.

Local fen towns still celebrate Plough Monday (Jan 6) with Molly Dancing, Straw Bears and other strange but fascinating customs.

                                                                                                           The reserves at Welney are the best place to see the miracle of so many swans. Parts of the reserve are floodlit as dawn and dusk are the best times to see the huge powerful birds flying.

It isn’t just swans. There are hundreds of other bird species of rare visitors, some in huge numbers, that make the Ouse Washes their winter home.

The twin Welney reserves are run by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and the RSPB. Contact www.wwt.org.uk or www.rspb.org.uk for more information including special swan events.

This article first published in Canals, Rivers and Boats.

Ouse pic 1

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