Willow Tree Fen through the ages

A Wash with the Romans - 2000 years back in time

If you were stood at at Willow Tree Fen approximately 2000 years ago, you would have been next to a tidal creek. Archaeological surveys carried out prior to wetland restoration revealed a Romano-British salt making site.

Salt making sites, such as the one discovered at Willow Tree Fen, were of great importance. The Romans had found a way of preserving meat and fish. They could now, for the first time, store their game over the long winter months. These communities would have been wealthy, trading salt for goods such as pottery as found in the archaeological dig.

Hearths or ovens were constructed in which brine was heated in clay containers, evaporating the water to leave pure salt. Peat in the area would have been used as material to fire the ovens. The availability of the essential materials - salt water, clay and peat -made Willow Tree Fen an ideal salt making site.

Clay-lined pits formed the ovens. Trough-like pans stood on clay pedestals, clipped together for stability. Salt water was added to the pan furthest from the stoking hole and transferred to the next one along. Brine in the pans increased in concentration nearer to the stoking hole.

Recent archaeological surveys along the fen edge have revealed an active and well preserved Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Age landscape with tracks, burial mounds and field boundaries.

Roman remains such as roads, canals, settlement foundations, coins and pottery have been regularly discovered along the fen edge settlements at Baston and Bourne.

From wetland to wheat - 400 years back in time

The Fens were a haven for wildfowl, fish and eels which provided a staple diet and a source of income for its population.

There had always been small scale attempts to drain the Fens from Roman times but the early 17th Century saw a step change in drainage activity. Armed with a Royal Charter from Charles I to make the land ‘fit for tillage and pasture’, engineers set about reclaiming huge areas from the sea. This process continued into the late 20th Century with increasing efficiency as advances in technology meant hand digging made way for wind pumps, then steam pumps and later diesel pumps.

Large copper butterfly

Over the centuries this continuous drainage has significantly changed the fenland landscape and shrinkage of the drying peat has meant that much of the fenland now lies below high tide level. Its rich flora and fauna has also suffered; bird species, such as bittern and ruff, and swallowtail and large copper butterflies no longer breed locally.

From wheat to wetland - a vision for the future

Willow Tree Fen lies on the southern edge of the Lincolnshire Fens. Once a wilderness landscape, the fens are now more famous for their silt and peatland soils which, combined with years of drainage, have produced some of the most productive farmland in the country.

Very little of Lincolnshire’s original wild fenlands remain due to centuries of drainage. Occupying an area of approximately 150 acres, the most significant of these remnants are Baston Fen and Thurlby Fen Nature Reserves. Whilst these two reserves are important for the protection of rare and threatened species of wetland flora and fauna, they are too small to support some of the larger fenland birds and animals, and possibly too small to cope with a changing climate.

Purchased by the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust in 2009, Willow Tree Fen is part of an on-going conservation management programme to restore once reclaimed arable land, growing beans and cereal, back to its original status, and so increase Lincolnshire’s wild fenland by 200%. Significantly, the nearby River Glen and Counter Drain provide wildlife corridors between Willow Tree Fen and Baston and Thurlby Fens.


Illustrations by Sam Wilson