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Welney's Birds

Explore the Summer Walk at Welney Wetland Centre (paid entry required).

Distance 4.2 miles (6.8km)

Minimum time 1hr 30min (allow time for birdwatching)

Ascent/gradient Negligible

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Boardwalks and grass paths with benches

Landscape Reedy wetlands, lagoons and fen

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 228 March & Ely

Start/finish TL 545944

Dog friendliness Dogs not permitted

Parking WWT Welney car park, signposted off A1101

Public toilets At visitor centre near car park

Notes Pay at visitor centre to enter the reserve. The path is closed during the nesting season, and because of winter flooding it is usually only open between June and September. Contact Welney Wetland Centre (01353 860711; www.wwt.org.uk) to check route is open

1 Begin at the car park and walk up the ramp to cross the bridge. Go down the steps and turn left. This is called the Screenbank Walk and wooden boards shield the Washes to the north from any sudden movements, although there are gaps that allow you to view the wildlife. Soon signs will direct you to the right to the Reedbed Boardwalk. This is a taste of what comes later.

2 When you finish the boardwalk, turn right along the Screenbank Walk until you see a sign to your right for the Summer Walk. Follow the waymarkers in a figure-of-eight configuration through reeds and marsh. The route is clearly marked, and easy to follow. Information boards at regular intervals tell you exactly what birds to look for. After completing its loops, the Summer Walk leads back to the Screenbank Walk. Turn left, and retrace your steps to the footbridge.

3 ahead, along the northern part of the Screenbank Walk. Eventually you reach Buxton Hide, Lyle Hide, Allport Hide and Friends' Hide, all on your left. This part of the walk is linear, but you will see so many different birds that it won't feel like it. At Friends' Hide, retrace your steps back to the footbridge, cross it, and return to the car park.

The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) reserve at Welney Washes is tucked away in the south east corner of Norfolk, on the border with Cambridgeshire. It covers 850 acres (344ha) of freshwater grazing marshland that floods regularly - the largest such area remaining in Britain. This unique habitat was formed when two massive drainage channels were created, leaving a strip of land between them that is about mile (800m) wide. This area is known as the Ouse Washes.

The Ouse Washes were not created with the intention of providing breeding areas for birds. Instead, they were designed to act as a reservoir to hold excess water when the main drainage system is unable to cope. Several attempts were made to drain the Fens - by the Romans and by medieval engineers - but it was not until the 17th century that this wilderness of sedge, reed and bog was finally vanquished. The wealthy Duke of Bedford owned a large expanse of fenland, and wanted to do more with it than graze sheep in the summer and watch it flood all winter. He employed a talented Dutch engineer called Cornelius Vermuyden to design a new river system that would allow flood water to be channelled more directly out to sea, rather than flowing into the meandering River Great Ouse.

The cut between Earith in Cambridgeshire and Denver in Norfolk, was named the Old Bedford River and was completed in 1637. Although it vastly improved the duke's summer grazing grounds, his land still flooded in winter. A second cut was made, running parallel to the first, and called the New Bedford River. The banks on both rivers were raised, so that the area between them could take surplus water during times of flood - the Ouse Washes. When you visit you will see information boards telling you how each river bank has been built up to allow controlled flooding, but to prevent overflowing into the surrounding low-lying land.

Today, the area between the two channels is much as it always was: grazed or cut for hay during the summer and flooded during the winter. Because of this, and because parts are closed during the bird breeding season, this walk is only open for part of the summer - usually July and August - but it's well worth the wait.

This walk takes you through some of the most spectacular birdwatching territories in the country. As visitors are asked not to make a noise or sudden movements that might startle the birds, many species seem totally unaware that they are under scrutiny. A visit to Welney is magical at any time of year, even when the footpath is closed and walkers are restricted to the Screenbank Walk that takes you between hides. Try coming in November, when thousands of swans crowd into the flooded washes to rest for the night. The noise is spellbinding and white necks poke up like periscopes as far as the eye can see.

While you're there

Visit the Fenland Worlds exhibition in the visitor centre, which explores the history and ecology of the Fens. There are displays on fenland traditions, including wildfowling and ice-skating, and the floods which regularly devastate the area.

What to look for

Don't miss a spell in the WWT's observatory looking over the main lagoon. Twenty wildfowl species have been recorded here, but most impressive are the sheer numbers of birds that arrive in winter. Counts have included 3,000 Bewick's swans, 1,000 whooper swans and an impressive 30,000 wigeon.

Where to eat and drink

The Wigeon Cafe in the visitor centre serves hot meals, sandwiches, cakes and drinks, and has a pleasant terrace overlooking the 200 acres (81ha) of the created wetland, Lady Fen.

Norfolk

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