A road deeply rutted by tractors and trucks winds its way across the Fens in Cambridgeshire, a flat, expansive landscape where trees are the exception, not the rule, and ditches rather than hedges divide the fields. This is England’s breadbasket, a huge food-producing region where the rich, dark soil nurtures potatoes, carrots, sugar beet and wheat.

In among these intensively farmed fields are a handful of bare, black strips of land which are part of a unique trial to introduce paludiculture, or wet farming, to the UK. The Water Works project is testing new crops that could suit a future UK climate, when weather events are expected to be more extreme and rain arrives in a deluge. Using plants that thrive in saturated soil, it is setting out to show the commercial benefits of re-wetting these peatlands, a process that will also lock carbon into the ground.

The trial site covers just five hectares (12 acres) and a grant from the People’s Postcode Lottery has made the project possible.

Lorna Parker, restoration manager for the Great Fen project, plants common reed.

Lorna Parker, the restoration manager for the wider Great Fen project, a 100-year plan to re-wet 3,700 hectares of peat across Cambridgeshire and one of the largest restoration projects of its kind in Europe, hopes the Water Works trial will prove inspirational to local farmers and food producers. “What we are doing here is trying to showcase potential crops that could tolerate high water tables,” she says.

The 10 bunds that make up the site have been sunk about 2ft down, and half a dozen volunteers from Natural England and the Wildlife Trust for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, and Northamptonshire (WTBCN) are undertaking the back-breaking work of planting more than 200,000 plugs. Once each bund is finished, water that is rich in sediments and nutrients is allowed to flood back in from a holding pool.

The first two plots contain bulrush, a hardy, native plant, which can be used for animal fodder, fuel and building materials, such as fibre board and cavity wall insulation. Next comes common reed, which already grows in abundance along the field’s margins. It is another fuel crop that is also good for packaging, while its sap can be turned into a snack with a taste similar to popcorn.

The volunteers work quickly. Helen Bailey, from the WTCBN, says they have developed a slick method, taking it in turns to collect the plugs of spindly plants and lay them out on top of the harrowed soil, before a colleague plants them.

Sweet manna grass – a western equivalent of wild rice – takes up the next two plots. It was harvested in the wild across continental Europe until the middle of the last century, although it has never been developed as a commercial crop. Milled, it can be used for porridge.

These new crops will also filter the water until it reaches the final two bunds, planted with the prize crop, sphagnum moss. Famed for its medicinal qualities and absorbency – it was used as a wound dressing in the first world war – today it is being touted as a natural lining for nappies, although companies have been unable to take the idea forward as harvesting sphagnum from the wild is impractical and in many cases illegal.

Sphagnum moss is famed for its medicinal properties and absorbency and is one of the crops being grown as part of the project.

Now, working with what Parker calls “sphagnum gurus”, this could change. “By changing the water level you change the whole microclimate of the area,” she explains. Every morning a mist called occult precipitation hangs over the bunds, changing the temperature of the soil and allowing the sphagnum moss to thrive.

The moss is also loved by orchid fanciers, who use it to pot their plants. It is currently imported from China and New Zealand and comes with thousands of air miles, making a commercial domestic crop all the more desirable.

There are also two beds for novel crops, wetland species such as water mint, which can be used for wrapping cheese, and meadowsweet, once a popular flavouring for gin. “You can grow a niche product with a really high-value end use,” says Parker. Wild celery and cranberries are also set to be trialled.

The trial brings together the Wildlife Trust BCN, wet farming experts from the University of East London, and the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, which is studying the effects of high water levels on carbon sequestration.

The trial site is divided into 10 bunds, which are being planted to showcase crops that can tolerate high water tables.

The site sits in what is dubbed “the bathtub of Britain”, with the surrounding farmland lying as much as 4m below sea level. This was once Whittlesea Mere, the largest lake in lowland England. Although just a few feet deep in parts, at one point it stretched six miles across and regularly staged sailing regattas and ice-skating races. The waters were rich in fish and wildfowl, and locals harvested the marshy shore for sedge and reed. But with a growing demand for farmland, by 1850 the mere had been deemed a nuisance, and despite protests was pumped dry over the following 18 months.

Even though today this is one of the driest parts of the UK, the pumps are still running. Under the fields is a network of pipes that regularly draw water from the land and takes it out into the sea near King’s Lynn. In a wet year, as much as 160bn litres of water is sucked out, both to stop flooding and to make the land suitable for crops such as wheat and barley. But these cereals have been adopted from drier, more arid countries, explains Parker, and the extraction leaves the land vulnerable. The Fens lose 4.5 million cubic metres of peat a year to soil erosion and in 50 years at best, she says, there will be no soil left to farm.

“Either it blows away when it’s dry, or it oxidises and releases the CO2 that it’s been holding for centuries into the atmosphere,” she adds.

But turning off the pumps, and planting crops that can thrive in boggy ground, could help reverse this trend, while maintaining a water table that sits 10cm below the surface will stop carbon from escaping.

Raising the water level also means that existing pockets of wetlands will be less isolated, boosting biodiversity. Within days of re-wetting the site, snipe were spotted, while other waders, as well as Chinese water deer, have also been seen.

The project organisers are already talking to local farmers about growing crops in these conditions. Hannah Darby manages an arable farm a few miles away at Sawtry Fen. Like Parker, she is passionate about saving the Fens, and already farms using techniques such as no-till, which helps to keep carbon in the soil.

Allowing the water level to rise and planting appropriate crops could help prevent soil erosion and reduce carbon emissions.

She is excited about paludiculture and has already visited the site, but she is also realistic. “We have to make sure we are viable,” she says. More work needs to be done on the end market for these crops, as well as how to store water.

“Paludiculture could be one way of mitigating climate change,” she agrees. “But this is actually one of the driest parts of the country. We don’t have much rainfall here. When we do, it’s quite extreme … heavy bursts, then we’ll have six weeks of dry weather.

“We need more infrastructure to store the water in terms of reservoirs when it’s dry – it’s not quite as simple as just turning the pumps off.”

“We’re not pretending we’re farmers, this is just a shop window, a conversation starter,” says Parker. And while in a few years’ time this small corner of Cambridgeshire may look lush and beautiful, she acknowledges that their efforts will probably have been overtaken. “People will be doing things differently, and probably better,” she says.

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