Deepings Heritage – Fenland Farming, Water and Wildlife

Nicholas Watts who farms at Deeping St Nicholas is the speaker at our next meeting on Friday, 13th January. He is the fourth generation of his family at Vine House Farm and was awarded an MBE for services to farming and conservation in Lincolnshire.

As well as growing conventional fenland crops like potatoes and cereals, his passion for wild birds has led to the cultivation of sunflowers, millet and other plants which produce seeds to feed different species. He has created wildlife habitats on the farm to encourage many nesting birds, including warblers, moorhens and ducks beside North Drove drain.

A unique feature of farming in the fens in the constant need to control water levels, and Mr Watts is a member of the Welland & Deeping Internal Drainage Board, which is responsible for 80,000 acres of land (126 square miles). As well as using pumping stations, the Board maintains many miles of dykes to prevent flooding. These require regular dredging and mowing of dyke banks – a process undertaken by fen men for generations.

To finance the work, farmers have traditionally paid an annual drainage tax. The receipt dated January 1918 shows a total charge of five shillings per acre for land in Deeping Fen, collected by local solicitors, Sharpe, Wade & Whittome.

Whenever new houses and roads are constructed in the Drainage Board’s area, a charge is levied to cover the cost of widening or extending dykes, to ensure excess water can still be taken away.

Soon after the First World War, local councils bought land to provide small holdings for ex-servicemen to rent. One such development was at Stowgate Farm, in the fen near Deeping St James. In June 1920, tenders were invited to adapt existing buildings and create four detached cottages, seven pairs of semi-detached houses and fourteen sets of farm buildings. Each small holding was around forty acres. At the time of the 1921 census, a number of Deeping tradesmen were employed on the site as carpenters, bricklayers and builder’s labourers.

In 1928 the vicar of Deeping St Nicholas remarked in his parish magazine “The minds of those who live in the fens are undoubtedly affected by the dull, monotonous character of the country. Small wonder if the mind of the fen dweller tends to become dull and unimaginative!”

Nicholas Watts’s enthusiasm and deep understanding of the fenland environment is more likely to prove inspiring. His talk starts at 7.30 pm in the main hall of the Community Centre in Market Deeping. Admission £3 for non-members

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