by John Morgan
Today is world wetlands day. On 2 February 1971, 170 countries signed the Ramsar International Convention on Wetlands, dedicated to the ‘conservation and wise use of all wetlands’. The anniversary has become a global day of celebration and awareness raising, drawing attention to the vital role wetlands play in the health of our planet and its ecosystems. Wetlands are some of the most intricate and diverse land- (or rather water-) scapes on Earth.
Nestling between the aquatic and the terrestrial, wetlands bring together diverse webs of life and provide habitats for countless species, they store large amounts of carbon in the form of peat, they act as natural filters for fresh waters and hold back great quantities of river and rainwater in times of flood. But what has history got to do with any of this?
Last semester I took a dozen students on my early modern environmental history course to the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust site at Martin Mere. WWT Martin Mere is an internationally important wetland site for waders and migratory birds. It sits inside a much larger, flatter, and drier area that was once England’s largest lake. Martin Mere, Lancashire’s ‘lost lake’, was some thirty kilometers in circumference before it was drained in two phases in the 1690s and 1770s. The WWT have carefully re-flooded a small part of this drained landscape, re-creating a range of different habitats for a host of species, many of which have returned to the region only since the WWT began their work.
For our environmental history class, visiting WWT Martin Mere was in part a form of historical enactment. The large reedbeds, marshes and pools that cover the site give a sense of the how landscape might have been before it was drained. It is one of only a handful of sites in the UK to have a resident population of Common Cranes, a species only returned to the UK in the late 1970s after it died out here in the seventeenth century.
Before going to Martin Mere, we had learned about the great wave of drainage that swept England in the seventeenth century, and had considered some of the ecological and social consequences of this by reading contemporary pamphlets, speeches and songs. But we did all this indoors, and dry. At WWT Martin Mere we found that there is something that hearing the Cranes shriek, the reedbeds whisper and the soil underfoot squelch that documents can’t teach us.
We also learned valuable lessons about sustainability. Among the quacking of mallards and whooping of swans we heard the rather more incessant call of the chainsaw. The wetland is carefully managed by expert landscapers informed by modern ecological principles. Mowing, cutting and coppicing help keep vegetation in check, which is crucial, as the spread of trees can cause the eventual drying out of wet land. The management techniques we saw on our field trip were very different from those we had read about in the early modern period. Then, almost every product of the fen – from fish and fowl to wood, reeds, and peat – was used by the local populace and their livestock.
Very little active environmentally-conscious management was undertaken because of the nature of how people made their living from the landscape. The taking of these wetland products was regulated, but not for the sake of wetlands themselves – rather, for the sake of ensuring community harmony. Wetlands lay at the heart of communities who fiercely guarded their rights to wetland products, and who had a vested interest in their longevity.
With the drainage of so many of the UK’s wetlands over the last 400 years, there are few people whose lives are so deeply immersed as our early modern forebears. However, we might take a few leaves from their book this world wetlands day. Living and working around water has enormous benefits for our health and wellbeing. Wetlands promote biodiversity and provide many so-called ‘ecosystem services’ (such as flood prevention and carbon sequestration) that benefit our modern lives. And as we found out at WWT Martin Mere, they are places with rich histories that might show us the way to a more sustainable future.