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Just north of the tiny village of Fen Drayton in Cambridgeshire, East Anglia, a series of small ponds called the Fen Drayton Lakes anchors the Fen Drayton Lakes Reserve. Located within a stone's throw of the River Great Ouse, the ponds are former gravel and sand pits dug into the underlying peat bog. Located only about 20 feet above sea level, the wetlands formed around these small ponds create excellent bird and waterfowl habitat and have even been known to host the occasional seal.
Moore Lake, Elney Lake, Oxholme Lake and Holywell Lake are deemed protected Reserve lakes, and no fishing is allowed. Ferry Lagoon, Ferry Pond, Springhill Lagoon, Far Fen Lake, Swavesey Lake and Scout Pond have somewhat different access rules, and a few fishing permits are issued each year. More shallow scrapes than pits, these former excavations are shallow and hold many tiny islands with their irregular surfaces resembling a drowned maze-perfect for nesting waterfowl and birds. Often called the Swavesey Lakes for another small village to the east, the new Reserve is the perfect spot for picnics, walking, bird-watching and school biology excursions.
Encompassing 267 acres, the Fen Drayton Lakes Reserve includes several miles of walking paths, bird-watching blinds, old country roads, a bridle path and beautiful views of wildlife enjoying the serene landscape. The new Reserve, under the supervision of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, joins the Hanson-RSPB Wetland Project at Needingworth Quarry to the north and the nearby Ouse Washes wetlands to form nearly 5600 acres of protected and restored wetland along the River Great Ouse. Breeding warblers, hedgerow and wetland birds can be seen here from spring through fall, with ducks, geese and wildfowl overwintering here in huge flocks. Goldeneye, gadwall, pintail, coot, wigeon and bitterns are commonly seen. Estimates show that about 2% of the nation's bitterns and 4% of the cold weather smew (species of duck) population inhabit the area. Hobbies, terns and large numbers of dragonflies are seen during the summer, and habitat improvements are being made to encourage black-headed gulls, common terns and kingfishers to nest here as well on the tiny islands. Seldom seen, otters are already present at the lakes regularly, and a variety of native small mammals have taken up residence in the hedgerows and wet meadows.
Management plans call for removing scrub brush and invasive willows from much of the area to duplicate the natural wet meadows and verges that existed before humans altered the landscape. More ponds and ditches will be dug and handicap-accessible birding blinds will be developed to allow access for all visitors. Nearby Hanson-RSPB Wetland Project is busy constructing the largest reed bed in the area. Wildlife won't be able to resist stopping here, preferably to breed and raise their young. Human youngsters find Fen Drayton Lakes Reserve irresistible, and school outings regularly arrive to study such things as the prolific dragonflies, fungi and insects. Anglers lucky enough to score a fishing permit enjoy catching dace, chub, roach, perch and bream, although the real prize catch is always the occasional 30+-pound carp, one of the United Kingdom's favorite sport fish.
After years of delays and cost over-runs, the Cambridgeshire Guided Busway now runs through the Fen Drayton Lakes Reserve. Although many protested that the busway would disrupt nesting, the completed section from Cambridge to Huntingdon and St. Ives uses an abandoned railroad right-of-way, including a stop at Fen Drayton Lakes. A gravel bridle path/cycling route allows those with non-motorized aspirations to enjoy a route that has not been seen since the former railway closed in the 1870s.
The busway has only been in operation a couple of years, so it is still too early to tell if it will bring hoards of new visitors or disturb the bird life. Cyclists have certainly enjoyed the new access to the scenic views over the ponds and the quiet countryside. As National Cycle Route 51 comes through Swavesey, cycling in the area is now even more popular. Route 51 is an east-to-west 77-mile long distance cycling route that connects Colchester and Oxford via Cambridge and the many quaint, historic villages in between.
Ideal for a nature holiday, the Fen Drayton Lakes area is conveniently supplied with several bed-and-breakfasts, guest cottages, hotels and inns near historic St. Ives to the west. Parts of the River Great Ouse are popular recreational boating destinations. Although improved for drainage purposes since the 1670s, boating took a background role in waterway management for many years, during which time diversion canals and flood meadows were constructed to provide dry land for farming. It wasn't until the 1950s that efforts were made to build new boat locks and dredge shallow portions to make boating an easy and pleasant experience. The newly-accessible waterway skirts the Ouse Washes Wetlands; these wetlands are intentionally-engineered floodplains created to divert heavy rainfall and high tides into channeled wet meadows to prevent flooded towns and fields. Similar to flood mitigation drainage in the Netherlands, the 'washes' were constructed in the 1600s and are still being used and improved today.
Other nature-based attractions near Fen Drayton Lakes include the Raptor Foundation, where visitors can view these magnificent birds of prey and learn about them. Hands-on activities are regularly scheduled to teach small groups about the flight patterns and habits of the majestic hunters. Also at the Raptor Foundation location, 'Animal Experience' teaches about other animals, particularly reptiles and meerkats. Animal Experience specializes in providing learning exhibitions at schools and children's events but are also open daily to visitors. Those with children in tow will find plenty here to keep their interest.
Whether boating the River Great Ouse or bird watching on the thousands of acres of protected wetlands, visitors will find plenty to see and experience in the Cambridgeshire area. Many local inns, restaurants and pubs will keep the body fed while serene nature scenes quiet the mind. One visit may convince you that this is the perfect area for a holiday cottage or retirement apartment. Some real estate is still available. So why not gather up the family and make the trek to Fen Drayton Lakes; you won't find a more pleasant and unhurried venue than the Cambridgeshire countryside.
*Few statistics are available for these lakes.
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