Today, 25th April, is World Malaria Day. This international observance day, led by the World Health Organisation, is an opportunity to recognise the global commitment to uniting around the common goal of a world free of malaria.
The overwhelming burden of malaria is felt in sub-Saharan Africa, which reports over 90% of annual malaria cases. The issue is particularly acute in this region because the tropical climate allows malaria-carrying mosquitoes to survive and transmit the disease throughout the year; there is very little, if any, respite from the ongoing cycle of transmission. Scientists, public health teams and communities are working hard to beat malaria here, and elsewhere in the tropics.
However, temperate Europe was also once affected by malaria. In the UK, malaria was a fact of life for people living in areas of brackish or tidal wetlands until as recently as the early 1900s. Such habitats were suited to the British mosquito species Anopheles atroparvus, which was able to carry the disease from person to person. Ague, or marsh fever, as malaria was more commonly known, was associated with fits of shivering and chills, followed by fever and sweating. Although it is thought that the species of malaria parasite that circulated in Europe was a less lethal strain than that found in much of Africa, there was an undeniable toll on the communities at risk, including fatalities.
Malaria was gradually eradicated from the UK as housing and healthcare improved. But the impact of malaria can still be found, if you know where to look. As part of wetlandLIFE, Research Fellow Dr Frances Hawkes and project artists Helmut Lemke, Dr Kerry Morrison and Victoria Leslie visited the North Kent Marshes last week, to experience first-hand a landscape where malaria used to be commonplace.
The team found a poignant reminder of the suffering caused by malaria at St James' Church in Cooling on the Hoo Peninsula. In the graveyard of this 13th century church lie thirteen small gravestones, each belonging to an infant who died of suspected ague between 1771 and 1854. The church and the atmospheric marshlands leading down to the estuary of the River Thames were made famous by Charles Dickens in his 1861 novel Great Expectations. The churchyard is the location where young Pip meets the convict Magwitch, with Dickens’ describing the graves as “little stone lozenges each about a foot and a half long, which were arranged in a neat row beside their [parents'] graves”. Hence, they have become known as Pip’s Graves.
"In literature, wetlands are often conceived as negative, perilous places, partly due to their associations with disease”, says writer Victoria. “There is certainly something very other-worldly about these environments that reinforce these representations, but I was also surprised to find wetlands around the Hoo Peninsula so open and welcoming and rich in biodiversity, with much to inspire creative engagement."
Things have changed a great deal across the marshes over the years, not least the final elimination of locally transmitted malaria. Much of the land is still grazed by hardy cattle who can tolerate the wet ground underfoot, as has been the practice for many generations. “But there is an additional focus on creating wetland habitats that are beneficial for both people and wildlife now”, says Frances. Cattle grazing not only produces meat, but the resulting short wet grassland creates the perfect habitat for bird species, including lapwing, which the team spotted from the hide at RSPB Northward Hill, one of the project’s ecological study sites, during their visit. The remaining resident mosquito populations are now important food stocks for the thousands of birds that make these marshes home.
A first visit - there is always so much to take in. So many things to see, hear and smell, and so many questions.
It’s new territory for the first-time visitor. Literally, with so much ground to cover in a short period of time, it was amazing to be spared the time to be driven around by Danny, locally known as the park ranger.
We met with volunteers clearing the far away parts of the area, one of them has stories to tell of a time when there were still chimneys and cooling towers where now wildlife flourishes and dogwalkers enjoy the green.
We visited the research sites and saw the mosquito traps. Bright red and looking alien in the landscape; these traps are gathering mosquitos- attracted by the odour of propane and hoovered up into the trap where they dry out and die. Ready for dissection.
We visited areas well used by the public as well as conservation area out of public bounds. We were told about the species of bats, birds and fish recorded, many dependent on mosquitos as a food source.
We discovered that this wetland park was reclaimed. Formerly an industrial site and thirty years on, a thriving nature habitat. A huge green space in an urban landscape, not free from threat of development or funding cuts.
The value of this nature is a constant concern if it is to be sustained.
We are excited to have started work in Bedford, our in-depth study area for urban wetlands. We will be focusing on Bedford's Priory Country Park and the adjacent Fenlake Meadows Local Nature Reserve, which are managed by Bedford Borough Council. These wetland sites will form part of the Bedford River Valley Park, a planned regeneration and wetland expansion project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, which will span 868 hectares to form a natural link between Bedford and the wider countryside.
Priory Country Park and the Fenlake Meadows and are located on the south-eastern edge of the town, adjacent to the River Great Ouse, and just a short walk from the town centre – it truly is an urban wetland. Priory Country Park was opened in 1986, on the site of former gravel pits. The park is managed for recreation, wildlife conservation, environmental education and community participation, as well as cultural and heritage value. Priory Lake, the main lake in the park, is primarily used for water sports and fishing, but is also a balancing lake to help manage flooding in the town. A second lake, Fingers Lake, includes reedbed habitat and is the prime conservation area in the park. Otters, bats, and various species of birds, insects and aquatic life, are supported across the park - it’s a very popular place for bird watching.
Fenlake Meadows sits adjacent to Priory Country Park on the western side of the River Great Ouse. It is an area of floodplain grazing marsh, of around 19ha, and was declared a Local Nature Reserve in 1992. Set in the river valley, it is often waterlogged and, unlike Priory Country Park, which actively encourages recreation, access within the site is limited, although walking paths run adjacent. The Marston Vale Trust has been working in partnership with Bedford Borough Council and the Environment Agency to restore this wetland area, which has been suffering from invasion of trees and shrubs.
Members of the WetlandLIFE team have made several visits to Bedford to visit these sites over the summer. Ecological sampling has already started at both Fenlake Meadows and Priory Country Park, and our social researchers have been meeting park users to discuss involvement in the Community Voice film, talking to dog walkers, bird watchers, water sports representatives and park volunteers.
Two of our researchers, Adriana Ford from Greenwich and Joe Morris from Cranfield, were lucky enough to join rangers Danny Fellman and Nicky Monsey, who are also licenced bat workers, to check the bat boxes at Priory Country Park. They were even luckier to see the rare Nathusius' pipistrelle, demonstrating the importance of the park for species conservation.
Danny Fellman and Nicky Monsey say of WetlandLIFE, “We’re very excited to be part of the WetlandLife project and really pleased have the park showcased in this way. We are looking forward to seeing what the artists produce and really happy with the level of enthusiasm shown by our volunteers and park users engaging with the project.” Two of our new artists on the project, Kerry Morrison and Helmut Lemke, also had a scoping visit to Priory Country Park, describing the visit as ‘inspiring’. We are all looking forward to more visits to Bedford as we continue our work there.
We are delighted to announce that we will be working across the Somerset Levels as one of our three in-depth case study sites. Our focus will be the neighbouring sites of Shapwick Heath and Westhay Moor, which together with a number of surrounding wetlands form the Avalon Marshes, and are managed by Natural England and Somerset Wildlife Trust, respectively.
The sites are examples of arable reversion wetlands, as both are former peat harvesting areas. The main habitats are peatlands, reedbeds, open water, and in the case of Westhay Moor, lowland acid mire (raised bog). The area is rich in wildlife, particularly birds. Of note are the starling murmurations at Shapwick Heath, and the ‘big three’ bird species: Marsh Harrier, Great White Egret and Bittern. Birdwatching is understandably popular at the sites, with both having several hides. The area also have a long and rich history. Of particular note is the Neolithic Sweet Track at Shapwick. Built in 3,806 BC, this was a series of raised walkways used by the local populations to cross the reedbeds.
Our work across the Avalon Marshes is already underway. Since May, we have been sampling invertebrate communities and describing the various habitats found across the area. The socio-cultural and economic work for WetlandLIFE will be focused on communities nearby to Shapwick Heath and Westhay Moor as well as, potentially, visitors from further afield. Understanding the values and issues associated with these wetlands will require an appreciation of their context within both Avalon Marshes and more broadly the Somerset Levels. The environmental history work will take this wider outlook, although with additional attention given to the two specific sites. Our environmental historians on the project have already got underway with exploring the archives at the Somerset Heritage Centre near Taunton.
In August, several members of the WetlandLIFE project team made their way to Somerset to meet members of the management team and explore the sites. We were able to discuss our work in detail with Steve Mewes, Policy and Campaigns Manager for Somerset Wildlife Trust, who says “This is an exciting new project and Somerset Wildlife Trust is looking forward to being a part. Anything that helps people engage with our precious nature in new and innovating ways is a good thing. When we learn more we develop our love nature, all of its benefits and how to protect it”. Following this meeting, we are excited to be able to contribute to their Humans of the Levels initiative, which aims to highlight different people in the Levels and their connection with the landscape and nature.
Mark Blake, Senior Reserves Managemer from Somerset Wildlife Trust, also gave us an extremely knowledgeable guided tour of Westhay Moor, allowing us to have a deeper understanding of the different habitats, the management and the recreational use of the wetland. We left Somerset enthused, and very much looking forward to continuing our work in this region.
Link: Avalon Marshes Centre