Ely Wildspace has written to all councillors regarding the proposed sale of the Environment Agency Roswell Pit (The one with the iconic view of Ely Cathedral)
Below is a copy of the letter sent. For those of you who are not aware of the history of the area around Roswell Pits, some background information is also included.
Ely Wildspace is writing to all the councillors of East Cambridgeshire District Council (ECDC) to express our concern that land that is at the heart of ECDC’s Country Park will soon be sold, and unless action is taken by the Council the use of the land may be compromised. Some Council members (in particular those newly elected) may be unaware of the current status of the various components of the Country Park.
Ely Country Park is described on ECDC’s website as ‘a fantastic place to enjoy and explore the great outdoors’. The website also states that ‘the majority of the Country Park is fully accessible to the public, but there is some privately owned land which is only accessible to visitors via the network of Public Rights of Way.’ In practice, as ECDC’s own plan of the park shows (see the ‘Background Information’ following), only a small part of the park is fully accessible to the public.
A significant part of the park is owned by the Environment Agency (EA). Some of this EA land is at present up for sale. Over the last year the Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire Wildlife Trust (WT) has been negotiating the purchase of the pit west of the Sailing Club Pit and surrounding land, plus the Cuckoo Bridge reedbed, which until a year ago the WT had leased from the EA. However, the value has been set at unrealistically high level by the District Valuer, given the nature of the land, which includes potential liabilities over safety issues of the pit, and the restrictions on use placed by being within a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). The WT has been forced as a consequence to set aside its aspirations to purchase the EA land.
The land is likely to be offered for sale on the open market. This means that it could be bought by individuals or organisations that have ambitions for the land that may not be compatible with its being part of a country park; such as denying access to the public, or introducing land-use regimes that are inappropriate and unsympathetic for a country park.
We have already seen the consequences of such an outcome, when Jalsea Marine Services bought the Sailing Club pit, the surrounding land and a part of Ely Common. It took several years of campaigning and legal intervention by Ely Wildspace and ECDC to overcome the main threats brought about by this sale; however the problems over free access continue to this day on part of Ely Common, as described in the Background Information following.
ECDC now has a unique opportunity to bring this land fully into the Country Park. The WT continues to show interest in the EA land, and if a revised valuation can reflect the true value of the land, WT may be able purchase it. If not, ECDC should take the opportunity and purchase the land for the benefit of the residents of East Cambridgeshire.
There are other opportunities to bring more land nominally in the Country Park under ECDC control. Firstly, the woodland and meadow north of the Sailing Club is owned by the Thomas Parsons Charity, and is not accessible to the public. Our understanding is that this land is on offer to lease. As well as being a desirable addition for public access within the Park, the land would form part of an important corridor to the future North Ely Park. Leasing this land Ely Wildspace feels is an opportunity that should not be missed.
Secondly, the western part of Ely Common adjacent to the Sailing Club is currently owned by Jalsea Marine Services. It has not been maintained for several years and has in part become overgrown with scrub. See the Background Information following for the recent history of clearing and disposing of the scrub. Unfortunately, the recent success is only temporary as the scrub will re-encroach onto the meadow and the problem will repeat itself. Ely Wildspace requests that this land is leased from Jalsea Marine Services on a long lease, in the same manner that the rest of Ely Common is leased from the Thomas Parsons Charity. If the land is offered for sale, ECDC should consider purchasing it.
At present the Country Park boundary is to some degree a somewhat nominal pink line on ECDC’s map. There is now a unique opportunity for ECDC to take full advantage of the current situation and bring the areas of land discussed above fully into the Country Park.
Ely Wildspace is in a position to provide support and expertise, as demonstrated in the Background Information that follows. Working in partnership with ECDC, the WT and other community organisations we can together achieve a long-term solution in securing the full extent of the Country Park for sustainable recreation and conservation. Ely Wildspace is also well placed to assist in fundraising should this be required, having access to funding sources not available to a local authority.
We will be pleased to meet with Council members and officers to discuss the proposals further.
You can contact us by email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Environment Agency land to be sold
- For well over a year now the Environment Agency (EA) has been attempting to sell three lots of land, all of which are in Ely Country Park (see map of the Country Park below). These lots consist of the meadow adjoining Lisle Lane and Springhead Lane; the pit west of the Sailing Club pit together with land to the north and south; and the reed bed adjacent to Cuckoo Bridge.
- Until March 2018 the pit and surrounding land, and the reedbed were leased to the Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire Wildlife Trust (the WT), which managed the land for the benefit of wildlife and enjoyment by the public. For the last several years however, the land on the north side of the pit has been closed to the public by the EA owing to safety concerns regarding the steep banks to the pit. The reedbed is also in practice unavailable to the public because of the difficult terrain and location of the site.
- In March 2018 the EA did not renew the lease because of the impending sale of the land, but entered negotiations with the WT to for the purchase of the land previously leased.
- The EA obtained a valuation by the District Valuer, who valued the pit and surrounds based on a commercial fishery, and the reedbed as a shooting washland. Neither of these deemed uses are realistic, both because of the nature of the land (which include potential liabilities over the safety issues of the pit) and the restrictions on use placed by the SSSI. Not surprisingly the valuation was excessive, and despite a revaluation at the request of the WT (who have experience of sales for similar land) the valuation remained unrealistically high.
- The WT remain interested in purchasing the two lots, if a valuation is obtained that reflects the true nature of the land and its potential use. Should the WT purchase the land, as far as is practicable, public access would be restored.
- Ely Country Park – ownership and access
- Ely Country Park was established by ECDC around 10 years ago following a study by consultant Sheils Flynn and public consultation. The extent of the park (taken from the entrance signboard) is shown here.
- A relatively small proportion of the park is in the control of ECDC (indicated by the hatched area in the map): Cresswells Play Area and car park (owned), and around 75% of Ely Common (leased from the Thomas Parsons Charity). This is the only land area in the park where ECDC can direct its resources.
- Full access is provided via the Public Rights of Way (PRoW) as shown on the map; on the 25% of Ely Common (owned by Jalsea Marine Services) next to the Sailing Club, by virtue of its Town Green status granted in 2012; on the riverside meadows (owned by local farmers); and the pit west of the Sailing Club pit with the woodland on its south side up to Springhead Lane. This land is currently owned by the EA, but is likely to be sold this year (see above). .
- The remaining land within the Country Park is not accessible to the public: the land north and west of the small pit bordering Lisle Lane and Ely Common West, and the Cuckoo Bridge reedbed (all owned by the EA and in the process of being sold); the woodland and meadow north of the Sailing Club (owned by the Thomas Parsons Charity); the woodland east of the Sailing Club Pit adjacent to the railway (land owned by Ely Wildspace but with no access); and the industrial workshops by the river.
- Ely Common – ownership and access
- Ely Common extends from the Prickwillow Road/Lisle Lane roundabout along Prickwillow Road up to the Sailing Club. It was never registered as a Common, and did not receive full protection until 2012 when it was declared a Town Green, as a result of the application to Cambridgeshire County Council by Ely Wildspace followed by a Public Inquiry.
- Approximately 75% of the Common is owned by the Thomas Parsons Charity, namely the West Common and around half of the East Common. This land is currently on a 25 year lease to ECDC, and forms a large part of the land controlled by ECDC and fully accessible to the public.
- The remaining approximately 25% of the Common, the north-eastern part, is owned by Jalsea Marine Services. Since the declaration of a Town Green in 2012 this part of the Common has not been maintained. Consequently over the following years the blackthorn scrub has extended by up to 8 m into the grassland, obliterating casual paths used by walkers and runners, thus interfering with the established use of the Common by the public.
- Ely Wildspace contacted ECDC and asked that its maintenance team clear the scrub to re-establish public access. ECDC was unable to do so however as it is not permitted to use its resources on land not under its control, even for this important part of the Country Park. ECDC staff were however very helpful in arranging in early 2016 for the Community Payback Team to clear and burn the scrub on part of the land.
- Obtaining the consent of Jalsea Marine Services to clear the remaining part of the scrub proved problematic, but which ECDC councillors achieved through persistence, over a 4 month period in 2017/2018. Again ECDC obtained the services of the Payback Team to cut the scrub. Despite the efforts of Ely Wildspace volunteers, the cut scrub proved too difficult to dispose of, until in early 2019 Ely Wildspace obtained the free services of a commercial company to cut the scrub regrowth (now two years old) and shred all the previously cut scrub.
- Thus after over two years of effort, the Common was made fully accessible again. This episode demonstrates the difficulty of maintaining public access within the Country Park when ECDC has no control over the land. Had it not been for the efforts of Ely Wildspace volunteers and individual council members and officers, this part of the Country Park would still be covered in scrub, denying its use to the public. And with no further action the scrub will again encroach within a few years.
- Ely Pits and Meadows Site of Special Scientific Interest
- Roswell Pits Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) was notified in 1984 because of its geological special interest, namely the best fossil reptile locality in the northern outcrop of the Kimmeridge Clay. Ely Pits and Meadows SSSI was notifed in 2008, enlarging the notified area to include Roswell Pits SSSI and additional areas with features of biological special interest: nationally important numbers of bitterns in both the breeding and wintering seasons; and the assemblage of breeding birds of lowland open waters and their margins.
- Most of Ely Country Park lies within the Ely Pits and Meadows SSSI (the notable exception is the Cresswells Play and Picnic Area), which places obligations on owners and occupiers of the land regarding use and management.
- Ely Wildspace participation in the enhancement of the Country Park
- Ely Wildspace (as LCPRE) began in 2006 as a campaigning organisation to counter the threat of the conversion of the Sailing Club pit and the surrounding land for the purposes of a narrow boat marina, which would have drastically reduced the value of this area both for wildlife and for amenity use by the local community.
- Public opinion was mobilised, Ely Wildspace promoting awareness of the threat to a much-loved part of Ely and recruiting almost 1200 paid-up members. We worked with the local community to resist the development proposals.
- We provided support to Natural England in the establishment of the Ely Pits and Meadows SSSI, and were able to raise £10, 000 to pay for the legal costs of the public inquiry into the declaration of Ely Common, as well as obtaining a number of statements regarding the long-term use of the Common. Both these outcomes were milestones in the protection of what is now the majority of the Country Park.
- A generous donor provided funding to allow Ely Wildspace to purchase 1.5 ha of woodland bordering the Sailing Cub pit and the railway. This land is within the Country Park but has no direct access and so for the moment is not open to the public. It is however managed by Ely Wildspace mainly to encourage bats and nesting birds, including the nightingale, which is breeds in the Country Park in some years.
- Since 2011 we have been working with ECDC to promote sustainable recreation for the local community and to enhance biodiversity within the Country Park:
- The meadow between the riverside footpath and the railway is an important area for breeding and feeding waders and waterfowl, but had suffered from disturbance by dogs being walked by their owners. To protect the site, in 2011 Ely Wildspace volunteers with support from ECDC officers and in co-operation with Natural England and the farmer replanted and restored the hedge between the meadow and the riverside public footpath, and erected a fence to guard the newly planted hedge from grazing cattle. Signs were placed asking the public to stay on the footpath side of the fence and to keep their dogs off the meadow.
- In 2012 and again in 2018 in co-operation with ECDC officers and the WT we have supported the extension the area of the wildflower meadow over the whole of ECDC’s leased part of Ely Common. Our volunteers collected seed from the WT’s nature reserve and prepared the ground for seeding. The 2012 extension has been extremely successful in augmenting the numbers of wildflowers in the meadow, much to the appreciation of walkers on the Common. Each summer a floral survey is carried out by local experts and Ely Wildspace volunteers to monitor the numbers of species.
- In 2012 Ely Wildspace proposed to ECDC officers that the pillbox situated on the west side of Ely Common be converted into a winter roost for hibernating bats. The Country Park provides excellent habitat for bats, and surveys have confirmed the presence of at least six species. With advice from the Cambridgeshire Bat Group, the pill box was secured by adding a lockable steel door, kindly built by volunteers at W.A. Cooke on Kiln Lane, and bricked up some of the openings. Ely Wildspace volunteers created hibernation features inside the pillbox. In December 2017, a brown long-eared bat became the first bat to occupy the roost, and another bat took up winter occupation in early 2019.
- In 2015 Ely Wildspace obtained funding for two rafts as nesting platforms for common terns, which had been recorded annually at Roswell Pits but which had never bred owing to a lack of suitable nesting sites. The rafts were duly procured and installed by our volunteers, and in 2015 the first terns nested on the rafts and raised young. Up to last year at least 18 terns have fledged from the rafts, including eight last year. Each spring volunteers clean the rafts and replenish the gravel (donated by the Environment Agency) to make them attractive as nest sites.
- In 2016 County Highways as part of its PRoW maintenance obligations cleared undergrowth and cut back a large number of shrubs and trees along Springhead Lane. This work was regarded by many users as being excessive, exceeding what was necessary to maintain the path. As a result, meetings were set up between ECDC and Cambridgeshire CC officers and members, Natural England and Ely Wildspace. These meetings resulted in a process to establish a management plan led by ECDC officers. Ely Wildspace has since played an active role in the management of Springhead Lane, planting and maintaining native trees and shrubs, including the enhancement of 70 m of hedgerow, in co-operation with ECDC officers.
- Ely Wildspace has since 2016 been instrumental in the efforts to clear the encroached scrub on the part of Ely Common owned by Jalsea Marine Services, as described above. Had it not been for the services organised by Ely Wildspace and provided by Camps Highways Ltd as a part of their service to the community, the scrub would still be in place, despite the importance of this area for public use. A permanent solution has not been found however, and the cleared scrub is at this moment regenerating.
- Kingfishers have been nesting in and around Roswell pits for some years, and Ely Wildspace is this year embarking on a programme to create more nesting sites to encourage breeding. In co-operation with the EA, we have obtained the services of an expert to provide advice on drilling tunnels in sheet piling for nesting kingfishers. Discussions with the EA are ongoing. We have been provided with funding by the generosity of the family of a member of the Sailing Club who died tragically earlier this year and who wished to provide financial support for the programme.
- Ely Wildspace holds litter picks across the Country Park area twice a year. The last was held in March this year when our volunteers collected 18 bags of rubbish. ECDC officers provide the bags and equipment and arrange for collection from Kiln Lane and the Sailing Club, who always kindly make the clubhouse available to our volunteers for refreshments.
- Ely Wildspace organises events in the Country Park for public participation. In each of 2015 and 2016 we held a Bioblitz, based in the Cresswells Play and Picnic Area. Several hundred of the local community participated on each occasion in wildlife walks, demonstrations and surveys across the Country Park, seeing and learning about some of wildlife that occurs there. Throughout the year we hold wildlife walks that are open to all.
- We have arranged a number of visits to the Country Park by groups of children from Ely primary schools, under a scheme run under the Higher Level Stewardship programme with Natural England (made possible by our ownership of land at Roswell Pits).