HomeMembershipDiary & eventsNewsContactsHistoryOuse WashesFloodlineCharity fund raisingGalleryLinks

The Ouse washes

This map shows the location of The Ouse Washes (in red).
The washes are approximately 20 miles long and run from Earith sluice in Cambridgeshire to Welmore Sluice in Norfolk.
The blue line shows the course of the river Great Ouse which empties into The Wash north of Kings Lynn.

The Ouse Washes are an area in the Fens of Cambridgeshire and Norfolk, England. They cover the area between two diversion channels of the River Great Ouse: the Old Bedford River and the New Bedford River (also known as the Hundred Foot Drain).

In 1630, King Charles I granted a drainage charter to the 4th Earl of Bedford who engaged the Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden to construct the two Bedford rivers. The purpose of the new rivers was to facilitate drainage of the Great Ouse between Earith and Downham Market. The area between the rivers is 20 miles (32 km) long and almost a mile wide and acts as washland, i.e. a floodplain during the winter and, increasingly, also in summer. When they are flooded this causes a 30-mile (48 km) detour for local residents.

The Washes are now of international importance and are designated a Special Protection Area for their wildfowl; there are nature reserves at WWT Welney and RSPB Ouse Washes. The washes are the largest area of frequently flooded (for an average of 22 days per year) grazing marsh in Britain. It is a Ramsar site, a Special Protection Area (SPA) and a Special Area of Conservation (SAC), as well as the Ouse Washes SSSI - a Site of Special Scientific Interest. With the advent of global warming,[citation needed] the washes now experience summer flooding also, and many birds are prevented from breeding in the area.[1]

It is of national importance for Bewick's Swan and Whooper Swan. It also attracts wintering birds of prey, including Hen Harrier, Merlin, Peregrine Falcon and Short-eared Owl. Redshanks, Lapwings and Snipe breed on the Washes in spring.